Portuguese explorers brought the cashew tree, Anacardium occidentale, from its native Brazil to India, Africa, and Asia beginning in 1558. It has been cultivated for food and medicine for 400 years, and during World War II, became highly prized as the source of a valuable oil drawn from the shell.

In the lands where cashews grow, the nut is only one of the products enjoyed by the local populations. The cashew "apple" or false fruit is an edible food rich in vitamin C. It can dried, canned as a preserve, or eaten fresh from the tree. It can also be squeezed for fresh juice, which can then be fermented into cashew wine -- a very popular drink in West Africa.

Cashews have served nutritional, medicinal, and wartime needs, and more recently have been used in the manufacture of adhesives, resins, and natural insecticides. The cashew is a hardy perennial tree, resistant to drought, unexacting as to soil (though it prefers deep, sandy soil, and capable of living 50 or 60 years. After producing clusters of flowers, cashews produce the edible apple, and also a nut encased in a heavy shell, which is the true cashew fruit.

The nut is high in protein, mineral salt, iron and fiber; while the tart apple provides vitamin C, calcium and iron. The root has been used as a purgative, and the leaves are used to strengthen fishing lines and nets, and as folk remedies for calcium deficiency and intestinal colic, as well as a vitamin supplement. The water-resistant wood is used for boats and ferries; while the resin, in addition to having industrial uses, is used as an expectorant, cough remedy, and insect repellent.

Today, about 96 percent of cashew nuts come from Brazil, Africa and India, but most are processed in either India or Brazil. Major buyers are countries with high incomes, where cashew nuts are regarded as a luxury food and quality is the prime determinant of price. Cottage-industry cashew processing is an excellent alternative to large-scale, capital-intensive processing -- it permits closer attention quality and color, producing more unbroken kernels than machines can, and it permits the processors more independence in how they operate their home-based businesses.

TIPS has worked with local women's and producers' associations to introduce hand processing technology to West Africa at the Quinhamel Training Center. Over 400 individuals have already learned how to process these valuable nuts for higher value sales on the local and international markets.

Produced by Steele Communications