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Moringa Field Trip

Highlights:

  • 270 km road from Awassa to Arba Minch is in disrepair, but a new road is under construction, with portions already paved.
  • A household south of Konso sells Moringa seed pods, harvested from their 13 trees, for 20 birr/ kg, which constitutes an estimated 12.5% of annual household income.
  • The same household also mixes the leaves in their diet for nutrition.
  • Purchased a ‘bundle’ (approx. 40kg) of Moringa stenopetala leaves direct from a farmer in the Dherashe valley for 50 birr.
  • Moringa s. trees in Dherashe valley were green and lush (altitude = 1200m).
  • Moringa s. incorporated heavily into the local diet in Konso.
  • Seed pods not sold at market, nor harvested in Arba Minch, Dherashe or Konso.
  • Hand-sized bundles (approx. 1/4 kg) of Moringa s. leaves w/ stems sold for 2 birr each in Konso market.
  • Next steps: drying and then grinding the Moringa stenopetala.

The trip to Arba Minch and Konso was a 101 crash course in Moringa cultivation and use in Ethioipia. I love going anywhere I haven’t been, seeing new landscapes, meeting new people and observing local cultures and economies. While the trip was a blast, it was one bumpy ride. The road from Awassa to Arba Minch is in absolute disrepair. Fortunately, they are building a new road in place of the previous one. It’s quite a long distance (totally 270 kilometers from Awassa to Arba Minch), so the road could take a while to complete. I’m guessing it may be completed in 2 years, but depends on the rainy season – maybe I’ll call the Roads Authority to get an official completion date, for what it’s worth. A good sign, the asphalt plant was up and running and portions of the new road are being paved…the tar and asphalt was a sweet smell of nostalgia for a guy who grew up on a steam roller.

Any assessment of the viability of sourcing a cash crop must first begin with accessibility. If you cannot transport the goods in an efficient manner, likely nothing else will matter – you are finished before you start. That is why the state of the road is so important. Currently, transport trucks can and do make the journey to Arba Minch (Arba Minch produces nearly all of the bananas sold in Awassa and Addis), but a tarmac road will greatly increase efficiencies in transport. Mr. Röschli tells me that only six years ago the road was in good shape and that you could, ‘have breakfast in Addis and lunch in Arba Minch.’ That’s remarkable, considering it took us roughly 6 hours to travel from Awassa to Arba Minch (Awassa is 300km south of Addis Ababa, and Arba Minch is another 270km south of Awassa). I look forward to a completed road and efficient transport.

The first Moringa we noticed was just south of Sodo, which is 150km south of Awassa. A local household had surrounded their huts with a few Moringa stenopetala trees (unless otherwise specified, ‘Moringa’ in this article can be assumed to mean Moringa stenopetala, as it is the most common and native variety to Ethiopia).

The lady said that she mixes the leaves in her family’s diet, but does not sell them. She was aware of some of the nutritional qualities of the plant, mentioning that she believed it was good for blood pressure. Ironically, a lot of the local people mentioned Moringa’s ability to cure diabetes or help with blood pressure. Most of the studies I have read focused more on the high levels of protein, calcium, potassium, vitamin A and C, iron and omega 3,6, and 9 fatty acids – all of which may be good for treating diabetes (I have not a clue) – but reports did not emphasize that diabetes patients could be treated with Moringa.

Further, this lady said that she sells the seeds for 20 birr (about $1.75 USD) per kg (2.2 lbs.) to a man who has requested the seeds. She did not specify for what purpose the seeds were being bought. She said each of her trees yields 2 kg. of seeds per year. Her 13 trees thus generate an extra 520 birr per year.

While not certain, I would estimate her household income not to be more than 250-300 birr per month. Assuming household income is 300 birr per month, the Moringa seeds generate over 12.5% of her annual income while simultaneously providing shade for livestock and nutrition for both the family and livestock. Across the road, her neighbor had roughly 30 Moringa trees in a small orchard which bordered a field that is generally planted for corn and teff. This year, the field was left fallow because the rains failed. Both of these ladies’ husbands work as day laborers on the road construction crews.

As we approached Arba Minch, which is at a lower altitude and likely has had more rain, the Moringa trees were fuller, with larger, greener leaves. South of Arba Minch, in the Dherashe valley (altitude is 1200m), the trees were extremely lush. We lucked-out and found a farmer, her name was Kasawa, who was selling her Moringa to a passing mini-bus, which would then take it to market in Konso.

Kasawa agreed to sell us a ‘bundle’ for 50 birr, after some negotiations. Later, I discovered the local price to be closer to 40 birr for a bundle. All things considered, that’s not a bad ‘ferenge’ price (price for foreigners) and it at least gives me a starting point to base financial projections on. Kasawa tells me that five trees will yield a ‘bundle’ every week. If it rains, the trees yield twice as much per week. Kasawa owned 10 trees, which she picked once per week – 5 were picked for the Monday market in Konso, and 5 for the Thursday market.

The tough part is there’s no exact science to what constitutes a bundle. I’m guessing it is likely based on the amount that someone could carry on his or her head – the alternate method to using a mini-bus to get your Moringa to the Konso market is loading it on your head and putting one foot in front of the other. From where we bought our Moringa, that is about a 35km (21.7 miles) uphill hike with over 40kg (nearly 90 lbs.) on your head. No walk in the park, and time intensive.

We bought the Moringa from Kasawa at 8:30am, and it was picked fresh that morning. Later, in Awassa, I learned from Ato Girma, who once worked for over five years in the Arba Minch/ Dherashe/ Konso area, that the locals are extremely hard working and honest, though they prefer to work early in the morning and late in the evening to avoid the midday heat. I would guess the women started picking our Moringa around 4am that morning.

In the Dherashe valley, the Moringa was planted sporadically throughout fields that are currently planted in corn. In addition to selling the leaves, the locals also use the trees as a perch from which to sit and protect their corn from birds and other animals. Evidently, there is no demand for the seeds in this area, and no one was harvesting them or selling them at the Konso market.

Upon reaching Konso, we finally treated ourselves to a breakfast of eggs, beg tibs (cubes of sheep meat), and traditional coffee and then headed straight for the market. The market was what you would expect of any local market in Ethiopia – a little of this, a little of that but mainly in-season fruits, vegetables, grains and wheat with people mulling all about buying and selling. It was easy to spot the Moringa. It was piled in large green bundles in the shade. One hand-sized bundle sells for 2 birr (about $0.16 USD). According to the market ladies, that is enough for one family (ie, 7 people) for a day (two meals) – the Moringa leaves are mixed into the local dish called kurkufa.

After the market we were fortunate enough to run into Habtamu, a friend of Ben’s. Habtamu is from Konso, though he grew up in Arba Minch, and recently graduated from Awassa University with a degree in Environmental Health. He now lives and works in Konso. Habtamu was exceedingly gracious with his time and knowledge. He described how Moringa is incorporated into every meal in Konso.

“Without Moringa, kurkufa is not eaten in Konso,” is how Habtamu put it.

Habtamu then introduced me to his cousin, Kusse Gelebo, who farms Moringa, among other crops. Kusse told me he has 30 trees. The trees collectively yield two harvests per week, though a tree is only picked every other week. Kusse also farms sorghum, peas, teff, cotton and cassava.

Of note – I saw Moringa wood for sale in the Konso market. Branches were being sold for 15 birr per branch. The branches were intended to be used to make ladders. Likely not a bad business, considering how fast Moringa grows (3-5m per year).

Back in Arba Minch I looked-up Petros, at the Kale Heyewet Church, who is known for selling ground Moringa. To my knowledge, he is the only supplier of ground Moringa leaves in Ethiopia, though there very well may be others. Petros is extremely knowledgeable of Moringa and was a great help. I purchased 1kg of ground Moringa Oleifera from him for 85 birr.

Petros proceeded to tell me more about how he purchases Moringa and the demand for his product. He says that he was introduced to the benefits of Moringa, and Moringa Oleifera, by a German organization called Anamed. Petros rents 6 Moringa Oleifera trees for 800 birr per year. Additionally, he has 12 of his own and there are over 20 additional Moringa Oleifera trees at the Kale Heyewet Church compound.

Petros says that one of his Moringa Oleifera trees is harvested three times per year and that the yield per tree is generally between 1-2 bundles, depending on the rain.

In a good month, he generates about 500 birr per month selling ground Moringa (some of which is the stenopetala variety, but most of which is the oleifera variety).

I found it hard to believe that anyone would even know about his business, as the church was hard to find and on a bad road. Not to mention the benefits of Moringa are not all together that well known throughout Ethiopia.

Petros informed me that once, Ethiopia Television had done a special on him and that is how some people have come to purchase the Moringa from him. I can only imagine what he could do if he had the capital to invest in advertising. He informed me that most of his customers were from out-of-town, generally Addis Ababa, and that the locals in Arba Minch had little interest in Moringa. Petros, however, is evidently optimistic about the demand for Moringa. He has purchased land which he intends to use to grow Moringa seedlings.

After briefing Petros and purchasing a kilo of ground Moringa Oleifera from him, it was high time to make our way back to Awassa.

As is obvious, the trip was highly informative. It was encouraging to discover that it is very likely possible to purchase the leaves in decent quantities from smallholder farmers – who, by the way, are known for their environmentally friendly agricultural practices (a lot of the hillsides are terraced and the farmers grow a wide variety of crops). That is not to say they couldn’t benefit from additional training and collaborating in best practices as regards eco-agriculture, but it was apparent the farmers are cognizant of protecting the land which sustains them.

There appears to be at least a small percentage of the population that is aware of the nutritional benefits of Moringa and has incorporated the fresh leaves into their diet. With proper advertising, a quality product, and consistent supply it may very well be within the realm of imagination to believe sufficient demand could be derived from an adequate portion of the population in Ethiopia, and possibly abroad.

I hope to now experiment with drying and grinding the Moringa leaves we purchased in Dherashe. The next step is to see if I can find a lab and doctor/ specialist to test the nutritional properties of the ground Moringa to ensure it is as healthy as advertised. I would like to compare the qualities of Moringa Stenopetala with the advertised qualities of Moringa Oleifera. I’ve heard the nutritional benefit is essentially the same, but we’ll see. Further, I would like to ensure the ground product, as compared to fresh leaves, is sufficiently nutritious.

Kus beu kus, or bit by bit, as they say…

JTV
Awassa, Ethiopia

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Very informative

    November 28, 2009

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