THE MIRACLE MORINGA PLANT
BY STEVE MBOGO
With a few-days-old baby on her laps crying for mother’s milk that did not flow, Elizabeth Mbogo was getting to a near desperation stage when her husband decided to bring home grounded leaves of moringa tree that he had been told helps increase milk supply for nursing mothers.
She dissolved the powder in warm water and took it as directed. The next few days, cries for milk were no more as the mother had adequate milk supply. A communicator by profession, Mrs Mbogo instantly took interest into this nutritional marvel and three years down the line, she has abandoned her media work, trained as a nutritionist and is working with more than 500 farmers to grow, process and sell food supplement and beauty products derived from moringa.
On her own, she owns five acres of moringa trees. She is negotiating for financing to expand it to 100 acres in due course. “The opportunity is big and this is an alternative cash crop for farmers in drier areas where this tree does well,” she said.
Early February 2012, President Mwai Kibaki took keen interest in her products when he visited her stand at a youth businesses exhibition event in Nairobi. The president took her business card and before he left the event, formed a committee to probe how the growing of moringa can be up scaled across the country.
Moringa is a tree farmers, especially those in semi-arid and often underutilized lands should know of. Its benefits stretch from its potential to reforest the land, fighting malnutrition, to driving industrialization in rural areas hence curbing often destructive rural urban migration especially among the youth.
Mrs Mbogo runs her moringa enterprise from the Karen areas of Nairobi, with an outlet along Moi Avenue in Nairobi’s Central Business District. She also works with tens of suppliers across the country.
He business plan is to work directly with farmers, buying their seeds and leaves with minimal use of brokers that exploit the farmers.
“When we started going to the farmers encouraging them not to cut their trees and increase the acreage, they were skeptical because they were not aware that there could be a sustained market for moringa leaves and seeds,” she said in an interview.
The challenge of educating farmers and even consumers on the health and commercial benefits of moringa still exists. For Mrs Mbogo, it has been a long journey.
“I took it as a personal initiative to educate farmers and consumers after witnessing the efficacy of its leaves powder on my ability to produce milk,” she said. “I would attend any public forum to speak and I still do today. I embedded with the Ministry of Agriculture to attend their farmers’ education meetings would educate farmers about moringa. Even in matatu (public transport vehicle) I made sure that the person who sat next to me alighted knowing what moringa is,” she said.
Three years down the line, it’s working for her. At her shop along Moi Avenue, customers walk in regularly. Her outreach farmers in Meru, Embu, Kibwezi and Mbeere are also appreciating the value of the moringa more as income from the sales flow in regularly.
For farmers, the first beauty of moringa is that it only takes an average of eight months to mature, and will be harvested many years down the line, just like coffee may.
Then, the crop is drought tolerant. With the advent of climate change that will make most of East Africa drier that it currently is, such crops are what will ensure farmers continue to earn an income.
On the same phenomenon, moringa tree is forestation God-send. As it provides ingredients for food supplement, medicines and beauty products, it also acts as a forest cover, helping to slow down climate change and easing soil erosion as a wind breaker.
As evidence shows, poverty levels in predominant agro-economies of East Africa are highest in arid and semi-arid areas where land utilization is low because of lack of adequate rainfall and irrigation infrastructure.
Moringa-led economy in some of these areas could be a game changer as it assures them of regular income. Its high protein nut is able to defeat malnutrition that is often prevalent in high poverty areas.
A kilogram of moringa seeds is now retailing at Ksh50-Ksh70 at the farm gate level while a kilogram of leaves retails at Ksh20-Ksh30 depending on the location.
Successive studies indicate that moringa nuts can be used to purify water as its oils are a magnet to bacteria and impurities, serve as anti-malarial, are the highest protein nut provides oil used as antiseptic and has anti-aging cosmetic properties.
Its leaves are multivitamins providing vitamins B1, B2 and B3. They can be grounded to become organic fertilizers. Juice extract from the leaves is good for relaxation, detoxifies the body and is anti-cancer. Its oil extracts are high in calcium and magnesium while its roots are nitrogen fixers in the soils. Moringa products, processed and unprocessed have been used as food and medicines for many years by communities across the world.
At her shop along Moi Avenue, among the products popular with clients include the leave powder. It has 96 nutrients and 36 anti-inflammatory properties that makes it good for prevention or management of cancer.
The she packages the seeds. When chewed, the provide energy and relax the nerves. The seeds are now being processed into a sex performance enhancement supplement. They are also natural antibiotics.
Another product offered at the shop is the juice made from the leaves and fortified with other detoxifying herbal products. It has nerve calming property and streamlines the digestive system. It also conditions the reproductive system, making it popular with women who want to maintain hormonal balance in their system.
The other category of products offered is a range of beauty products including lotions and bathing soap.
Farmers like Raphael Mjoba, 33, have already seen the commercial benefits of moringa tree. His love affair with moringa tree started when he was barely in his teens. Growing up in Taita Taveta, his parents would send him to pluck the salty leaves from the tree, which would be transported to Nairobi’s Ngara market to be sold as vegetables.
Now married and with children moringa tree is still closer to Mjoba’s lifestyle. Since 2007, he makes regular journey to Nairobi, this time not with the leaves but with the seeds to sell to processors mostly who use them to make beauty products.
Wayne Bharat is the managing director of Earth Oil EPZ which is one of the main buyers of moringa seeds from farmers like Mjoba.
“By the time we set up come here in 2003, we used to import 90 per cent of our seeds needs from Uganda and Tanzania. We have now started seeing local supplies going up because of our partnership with the farmers,” Mr Bharat said in an earlier interview.
He said local farmers have a big opportunity to gain from the export market of the processed moringa seeds. “We are going for a gradual increase now that local farmers are keen to grow moringa.”
Before Earth Oil set up a factory in Kenya, Mjoba says farmers in Taita Taveta who already knew about the value of the seeds since 1997 used to export to Arusha, Tanzania.
“We grow individually but we have now formed a farmers group to help as exchange ideas and take care of our welfare. I have 236 trees but planted 250 more because of the increasing demand. My parents have 1120 trees. One acre can take about 400 trees. The tree farming has helped me to build a house, get married, educate my child and support my relatives,” said Mr Mjoba