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GARNETS IN A GLASS

The first time I saw a glass of iced rosella tea I was reminded of rich, red garnets.  The contents of the glass glowed a vibrant scarlet and had a tart, refreshing flavour that reminded me of cranberries.  Such a beautiful drink just had to be good for you. 

Rosella (Roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, Red Sorrell, Karkade, Kazerum and many other vernacular names) is the waxy flower of a bush probably originating in Africa.  It is now grown in hot, dry climates around the world.  Thanks to a project of  Futures for Children, Bali is becoming a significant producer of chemical-free Rosella tea.

Scientific research and traditional wisdom both confirm that a daily glass or three of Rosella tea brims with health benefits.  Rosella contains a flavanoid, essential amino acids, calcium, riboflavin, iron, magnesium, the anti-oxidant beta-carotene and Omega-3. The flower is rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, and D and contains 9 times as much vitamin C as an orange.

Rosella tea also has an enzyme inhibitor which blocks the production of amylase, an enzyme that breaks down complex sugars and starches. So drinking a cup of Rosella tea after meals reduces the absorption of dietary carbohydrates which may assist in weight loss. Other reputed benefits of regularly drinking Rosella tea include immune enhancement,  normalization of blood sugar, regulation of the metabolism and the prevention of constipation. It also regulates excess uric acid (which causes the painful symptoms of gout) and the amount of keratin in the body, improving the condition of the skin.

Several studies have shown that regular consumption of Rosella tea is beneficial in reducing blood pressure and may also reduce cholesterol. According to a study performed by Shan Medical University’s Institute of Biochemistry in Taiwan, the extract from Hibiscus sabdariffa lowers both LDL cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. These results were published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture. Dr. Chau-Jong Wang (who led the research) and his colleagues suspect that the high antioxidant content contained in the hibiscus extract contributes to the lowered LDL levels noted in the experiment.  He said, “Experiments have shown that compounds extracted from red wine and tea reduce cholesterol and lipid build-up in the arteries of rats. This is the first study showing that Rosella extract has the same effect.” He said the data strongly suggest that it could be useful in the prevention and even treatment of a number of cardiovascular diseases in which cholesterol plays a major role.

Preclinical trials conducted by Yun-Ching Chang, a researcher from the same university in Taiwan, found that the natural pigment from dried Rosella petals proved effective in inhibiting cancer cells HL-60 (blood cancer or leukemia). These pigments also played a role in the process of apoptosis (suicide) of cancer cells.

Another trial in 2009 on 60 diabetic patients with mild hypertension found that Hibiscus sabdariffa infusion had positive effects on blood pressure in type II diabetic patients with mild hypertension.  In 1967, both the aqueous extract and the coloring matter of the flowers were found to be effective against Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Folk medicine has always held Rosella in high esteem.   In East Africa the infusion is called Sudan tea.  It is taken to relieve coughs and when mixed with salt, pepper, aesafetida and molasses is taken as a remedy for biliousness. In Sudan itself, Rosella is called Karkadeh and served as the national drink. In India, Rosella seeds are used to treat skin diseases (in humans and camels), anemia and lethargy. In Thailand, it is drunk as a tea and believed to reduce cholesterol. Hibiscus flower extract has been used in many folk remedies for liver disorders and high blood pressure. In India, Africa and Mexico, all the above-ground parts of the Rosella plant are valued in native medicine. Traditional healers in Senegal recommend Rosella extract for lowering blood pressure.  Rosella tea is widely used in the Caribbean, where it was probably introduced by slaves smuggling seeds from West Africa. In Australia, Rosella jam has been made since Colonial times and is still sold regularly at community fetes and charity stalls.  In the Indian subcontinent (especially in the Ganges Delta region), Rosella is cultivated for vegetable fibres used for textiles and jute sacks.

China and Thailand are the largest producers of Rosella and control much of the world supply, with Thailand’s production being of superior quality.  The world’s best Rosella comes from the Sudan, but the quantity is low and poor processing hampers quality. Mexico, Egypt, Senegal, Tanzania, Mali and Jamaica are also important suppliers, but production is mostly used domestically.

Futures for Children, a Swiss-based NGO established to provide water and sustainable livelihoods for the poor villagers of Muntigunung, started the Rosella cultivation project on the dry mountain slopes in 2009.  Millions of seeds were distributed to the villagers for free.  Rosella literally grows like a weed even in poor soils and re-seeds itself easily, requiring little or no care.  The villagers have embraced this new crop with enthusiasm.  Now the whole mountainside glows scarlet at harvest time -- a colour that brings prosperity to hundreds of people who previously relied on begging for income.

Antosianin, the natural pigment that gives Rosella petals their vibrant red colour, is an antioxidant. The more intense the red colour of the petals, the higher the antioxidant content. Antioxidants levels are reduced when the flowers are dried by direct heating.  The Muntigunung project dries the flowers slowly in solar ovens to maintain the highest levels of antioxidant, and packages the dried flowers in foil pouches to exclude light. The dry climate of Muntigunung ensures a high concentration of vitamins and nutrients. Its Rosella crop has been tested and found to be of the highest quality.

“In the second year of the project, 60 tons of flowers were harvested,” says Daniel Elber, founder of Futures for Children and hands-on overseer of its projects.  “The farmers were paid for the flowers and people were employed to wash them, cut out the heart, solar-dry and pack the flowers at our production centre.  Other villagers produced our new products -- Rosella sweets and Rosella flowers in syrup. 

“Last year’s Rosella crop employed a total of 84 people working in two shifts for 20 hours a day -- we have to act fast while the flowers are at their prime -- during the three months of harvest.  About 270 farmers in 27 villages sell Rosella to us.  These people made about Rp 100,000 month before the project, by sending their women to Ubud to beg in the streets.  During the Rosella harvest we  purchased the flowers from farmers and paid wages, which created a substantial income improvement for the farmers.   These families no longer have to beg.  The Rosella crop has had a huge impact.”  Many families on the mountain now earn Rp 900,000 a month from Rosella and other projects, which has vastly enhanced the local economy.  Health has improved, children are attending school and vendors now come to the villages with products for sale.

Daniel, once a Swiss banker who now dedicates his time to the people of Muntigunung, has brought together experts from many walks of life to ensure the project is successful.  The goal of  Futures for Children  was to provide water for the 5500 people who live in 35 villages in Muntigunung, Bali’s driest area.  Raising funds in Switzerland and through the Rotary Club, the Foundation has built huge rainwater catchment tanks in 11 villages that now provide 25 litres of water a day each to about 1850 people. Now that the women do not have to walk for hours every day to collect water, they have time to work on the income-generating projects managed by their  local partner, NGO Dian Desa.

The project’s latest activity was to obtain an Indonesian food license and to develop the brand. Muntigunung Community Social Enterprise is now a registered company with a food license.  Branding and design is standard for all products.

“The focus is now on income-generating activities, which are primarily agricultural,” Daniel explains.  “We add value to traditional products they are already growing here like cashews and lontar palm sugar, or introduce crops that are easy to grow like Rosella and gourds.”  The project not only improves the quality of the products and processes and packages them to international standards, but ensures a market for the entire crop.  It is now producing an additional 50,000 cashew trees and  15,000 lontar palms to ensure sustainability, by starting seedlings and distributing them to the villagers.

“We have taken giant steps in professionalizing our products and packaging in 2010 with the help of the Bali Hotels Association (BHA), and they are now of export quality,” Daniel points out.  “The main market for the products is the BHA, which has supported the project from the beginning.  We produced 40,000 boxes of Rosella tea in 2010, 4,000 boxes of sweets and 1,000 bottles of Rosella in syrup and most of these are purchased by over 30 of Bali’s largest hotels.”

The village women who once wove hats from locally grown lontar are now making standard-size lontar packaging for other products.  The product range of cashews and Rosella tea and sweets now includes wholesale packaged products like dried cashews and Rosella tea for the hotels, and specially packaged products for  the hotel mini-bars and shops. Revenues from product sales are all re-invested in increasing production. 

The Four Seasons has been especially supportive of the project and its products.  Its chefs have been creating new products with Rosella including sweet tarts, savoury dishes, iced teas and even cocktails.  The Rosella sweets (sweetened, dried flowers) have a very similar texture and flavour to dried cranberries and offer exciting new culinary opportunities to locavore cooks on Bali.  They are particularly effective with duck and pork dishes.

“Providing a permanent source of water and a production centre for traditional and new agricultural products are both important steps,” stressed Daniel.  “But ensuring market access is what gives the project long-term sustainability.  We’re very grateful to the Bali Hotels  Association for their ongoing support and its commitment to helping some of Bali’s poorest people find dignity and prosperity.”

Muntigunung’s Rosella tea is sold through Bali Buddha outlets and can also be ordered from Gillian at 082 145 710 084 or Candra at 081 227 916 750.

A collection of Ibu Kat’s stories, previously published as ‘Dragons in the Bath’, is now in its third printing under the title ‘Bali Daze -- Freefall off the Tourist Trail’.  Availble from Ganesha Books in Ubud and Seminyak or directly from Kat at bali_cat 7@yahoo.com

E-mail:  bali_cat7@yahoo.com

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