Red Sorghum Rising

In parts of West Africa people grow a form of sorghum that is inedible (and may even be poisonous). The plant provides a windbreak around huts and along the edges of fields, but more importantly it provides masses of leaf sheaths. These rusty-colored, parchment-like wrappings, which surround the leaf stems, provide pigments that are traditionally used to color leather goods. Millions of suitcases, shoes, hats, baskets, book covers, and other products get their brilliant red hues this way. The scarlet flame of the famous "Moroccan leather" and of the fez have their origins in this particular sorghum plant (race caudatum).

Traditionally, bundles of leaf sheaths were extracted in a difficult and laborious cottage-industry process. Now, however, this time-consuming and uncertain technique is being updated. In Burkina Faso, Mouhoussine Nacro, head of the Organic Chemistry Laboratory at Ouagadougou University, has been developing a new and more versatile version since 1989. Indeed, he is opening up the potential for producing sorghum dyes on a massive scale.

Nacro's dye-extraction process uses simple techniques but modern materials. Basically, he and his colleagues crush the sorghum sheaths, add a solvent, separate the liquid emulsion, and centrifuge the result. This produces the pure pigment as a burgundy-red powder that is ready for use and can be safely stored.

The pigment, Professor Nacro has discovered, is a mixture of anthocyanins. The main component, apigenin, is the same natural coloring used by food industries in many parts of the world. Moreover, it is increasingly sought these days because synthetic food dyes are suspected of causing harm.

Red-sorghum leaf sheaths contain over 20 percent of the apigenin and are said to be the only known source of such large concentrations. They contain more than four times the amount in the skin of the red grape, currently the most common source.

Burkina Faso's new process can easily be reproduced on an industrial scale, and commercial production of dyes could result in a new and valuable use for sorghum—one that has widespread application throughout the developing world, but especially in West Africa.

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