Mighty Moringa in the Marketplace: Enormous Opportunity, Enormous Challenge

  • The Moringa tree is believed to be one of the most nutritious plants on earth (see bullet-points below).
  • It is a fast-growing, hardy tree that has multiple uses, including nutrition for humans and livestock (from leaves and stems), oil extraction (seeds), as a growth hormone for other crops, as a bio-fuel crop, for reforestation, and as green, all-natural fertilizer, among other uses.
  • Moringa stenopetala variety is native to southern Ethiopia.
  • What, if any, are the market opportunities for this tree – specifically as concerns nutrition?

A few weeks ago I was out in the garden here at SABG when Mr. Röschli introduced me to the Moringa tree. He said its leaves were among the most nutritious vegetables in the world, and that I should ‘just look it up on the internet, you’ll see.’

Well now, that’s quite a statement. Immediately I went to work to learn more about this obscure tree. Here’s some of what I’ve discovered thus far…

A report by Trees for Life Journal claims that, gram-for-gram, Moringa has:

–           7X the vitamin C of oranges

–          4X the vitamin A of carrots

–          4X the calcium of milk

–          3X the potassium of bananas

–          2X the protein of yogurt

Further, Lowell Fuglie of the Church World Service reports, ‘For a child aged 1-3, a 100 g serving of fresh cooked leaves would provide all his daily requirements of calcium, about 75% of his iron and half his protein needs, as well as important amounts of potassium, B vitamins, copper and all the essential amino acids. As little as 20 grams of leaves would provide a child with all the vitamins A and C he needs….For pregnant and breast-feeding women…[a] 100 g portion of leaves could provide a woman with over a third of her daily needs of calcium and give her important quantities of iron, protein, copper, sulfur and B-vitamins.’ [1]

Interestingly, this tropical, fast growing (3 – 5 meters/ year), drought resistant, and hardy tree (zones 9-10 on the USDA hardiness scale) thrives in the same areas of the globe where malnutrition is most prevalent. Seems it was put there to serve a specific purpose.

From what I’ve read, nutrition is only the beginning. A high quality, edible vegetable oil – supposedly comparable to Olive oil – can be extracted from the seeds of Moringa, which contain roughly 40% oil. Historically, Moringa oil was used in lubricating watches and was then referred to as Ben oil. The oil has also been used in ointments (because it retains delicate scents), as well as in making quality soap.

The leaves of Moringa can be pressed to obtain a juice that, when mixed with 32 parts water and sprayed on fruits and vegetables, acts as a growth hormone. Yield increases of between 25-30% have been reported by Nikolaus Foidl and others when using Moringa as a growth hormone.[2] Moringa shoots can also be plowed under and used as a natural fertilizer to prepare soils for other crops (because the tree is fast-growing, the seedlings can be plowed under after only 25 days). The seeds, and the presscake leftover after oil extraction, can be used to treat turbid water.[3] Finally (well, I’m sure there’s uses of this plant that I have left out, but these are the main highlights), the plant makes a strong fodder for livestock – especially meat and dairy cattle. A study by BIOMASA reported milk yields and weight increases of 30% when Moringa leaves constituted 40-50% of feed.

Naturally, the next question in my mind was what, if any, are the market opportunities for this plant? And, just as important, how do you increase its adoption among the rural community in Ethiopia to increase health, nutrition, land stewardship, and income generation?

As for the market opportunities, at this point Moringa appears to garner a small, but growing, niche in the health and nutrition supplement market. An online search yields a few companies, most from India, but one from the US, that offer varying products based in ground Moringa leaves and espoused for their nutritional benefits. As a naïve consumer without prior knowledge of Moringa, however, I would give little thought to ever purchasing any of these products. For one thing, the nutritional claims seem outrageous (even though, after brief research, there are at least plenty of others saying the same things, and the claims are not out-of-line with the statements I’ve made above). Additionally, the websites do not project trustworthy, upstanding, reputable companies with which you would want to do business or purchase from – especially if you’re purchasing an edible product. Just visiting the websites gave me a queasy feeling about Moringa, and the online marketplace for this incredible plant. Maybe it was the way the organizations projected themselves and their products. Nevertheless, they turned me off.

Many of the India based companies would not even provide a price – you had to specify a quantity, and request a quote via email (I hate giving out my email address to unknown organizations, even though I did, and after four days I am still waiting on the quote). The US based company doesn’t make me want to purchase their product any more than the India based companies do, and it seems they are trying to build sales through a pyramid model – providing commission for ‘distributors’ based on sales and recruiting other ‘distributors’. I generally detest the pyramid sales model, which to me comes across as pestering and not reputable – if you have a quality product that will really enhance people’s lives, word-of-mouth, customer service, integrity, and a well-branded product line should suffice.

When considering the market for Moringa leaves, my initial thought is that there are two main markets – one in the developed world and one in the developing world. In the developed world the potential market consists of the ‘health conscious, organic, fair-trade, pro small-holder famers’ demographic. In the developing world, the potential market is primarily the millions of people who live on $2/ day or less and that are in need of extremely affordable nutritional supplements. The developing world would also yield a more upscale, educated market similar to the developed world target market, though it is much smaller (but growing). Targeting the higher-end clientele in the developing world could increase adoption among those at the base of the pyramid by making the product appear more mainstream. I don’t know how else to describe the market I am envisioning, but hopefully that gives you an idea of the prospective demand I envision.

Obviously, this leads to two very different price points and marketing strategies, but I believe one enforces the other. I have often thought about the specialty coffee market when trying to develop my thoughts on what a real Moringa market and supply-line would look like. Though the specialty coffee industry has its flaws, some end operators in this market do it well (or at least appear to – check out 3 Cups in Chapel Hill, http://www.3cups.net). By doing it well, I mean they value their customers, the in-store and online customer experience, help build customer knowledge of the product(s), and promote the small-holder farmers from whom they take great pride in purchasing from at fair prices. Thus, they connect the customer, the product, and the farmer in a way that enhances the well-being of all.

Moreover, coffee is not only consumed by those in the developed world who frequent coffee shops such as 3 Cups. While 3 Cups sources many of its coffee lines from Ethiopia, the local people surrounding these production areas also consume coffee themselves. Granted, there is an export grade and a domestic grade coffee, but the difference is hardly noticeable. I believe there could be a similar demand for Moringa – an export grade powder, and a domestic grade powder. That way, you can vary the price point and ensure that those who may be most in need of the nutritional benefits can afford the Moringa powder. Further, the more popular the product becomes, hopefully the more people will plant it in their own home gardens to ensure their families’ health.

Challenges abound in creating an essentially new market. First of all, introducing a new food/ nutritional product, especially in the developed world, requires overcoming regulatory hurdles. Extensive testing would likely have to be done in order to be accepted by a regulatory agency such as the Food and Drug Administration. Though, finding at least one US based company selling Moringa powder based drinks leads me to believe that some of these hurdles have been overcome.

Beyond overcoming regulatory hurdles, there are challenges associated with sourcing sufficient quantity and quality from small-holder farmers. As has been the case in the specialty coffee industry, the market can and will drive this.

I believe, however, there would need to be extensive training conducted to improve organic land management, water management, and cultivation practices (specifically drip irrigation systems, composting, and ecologically diverse farms). This ensures a higher quality product, while simultaneously increasing environmental stewardship among small holder farmers – absolutely critical to any long-term plans. Likewise, this should be incorporated into the marketing strategy so as to inform consumers that their purchases are reinforcing agricultural practices that must be followed if the world hopes to ever feed its growing population in a manner that nourishes both humans and their environmental resources (as the former cannot long exist without the later).

On this note, some glowing reports have been written concerning the agro-forestry practices of the Konso people, who cultivate Moringa in southern Ethiopia.[4] Regardless, best practices for cultivation must be determined and the market should demand these practices be followed in producing the desired end-product. Reputable organic certification (likely an enormous challenge in and of itself), as well as fair trade certification may also need to accompany an organizational guarantee which defines the farming practices the organization deems acceptable when purchasing Moringa. These practices should be centered on an eco-agriculture approach to farming. Eco-agriculture works to simultaneously meet three goals: a) conserve a full complement of native biodiversity and ecosystem services, b) provide agricultural products and services on a sustainable basis, and c) support viable livelihoods for local people.[5]

The next challenge is meeting quality control standards for export, both in product and packaging. More information is also need on the difference between Moringa Stenopetala variety (native to Ethiopia) and the Moringa Oleifera variety (grows in Ethiopia, but not extensively, and is native to India). It is believed that both varieties are highly nutritious, but most testing has been conducted using the more well-known Moringa Oleifera variety. Additional information is also needed concerning Ethiopia’s regulations in the food and drug industry.

On Wednesday I will be travelling down to Arba Minch and then Konso on Thursday to see if I can purchase Moringa leaves as well as some seeds. I will try to dry the leaves and grind them into a fine powder (for personal consumption/ testing). This will at least give me an idea of the price point, and an opportunity to speak to locals who have long believed in the benefit of Moringa and have experience in cultivating it. I will keep you all up-to-speed via a post-trip debrief and pictures.

Awassa, Ethiopia

[1] ‘The Moringa Tree’ by Dr. Martin L. Price, 1985, revised by Kristin Davis, 2000.

[2] ‘The Potential of Moringa Oleifera for Agricultural and Industrial Uses’ by Foidl N., Makkar H.P.S, and Becker K; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, 2001.

[3] ‘The use of Moringa oleifera seed as a natural coagulant for water and wastewater treatment’ by Dr. Geoff Folkard and Dr. John Sutherland, 2001.

[4] ‘Konso agriculture and its plant genetic resources’ by J.M.M. Engels and E. Goettsch, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[5] ‘Understanding Ecoagriculture: A Framework for Measuring Landscape Performance,’ Louise E. Buck, Jeffrey C. Milder, Thomas A. Gavin, Ishani Mukherjee, 2006.