Beyond Fair Trade: Behind the Scenes with True Moringa
Written by Emily Cunnigham, founder of True Moringa
Moringa is known as the ‘miracle tree’ because—well, there isn’t much it can’t do. Moringa leaves are incredibly nutritious (gram-for-gram, more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, and more protein than eggs), moringa seeds produce a moisturizing oil packed with antioxidants and cell-stimulating plant hormones for hair and skin care, and even the waste product from oil processing (pressmeal) can be used as a natural fertilizer, protein-rich animal feed, or flocculant to purify water.
When my co-founder Kwami and I were first introduced to this so-called miracle tree while working in a rural village in Ghana in 2012, we wondered why we had never heard of it before, and why it hadn’t reached a global audience. Attempting to answer this question has kept us quite busy for the past four years.
As it turns out, moringa trees had been spread across West Africa by NGOs hoping to prevent malnutrition. Moringa flourishes in arid climates, requiring little water, and producing seeds in eight months and leaves in two months (extremely fast for a tree!). It can be intercropped within existing crops to help those crops grow better, and replenishes the soil with essential nutrients. So for farmers, it’s a no-risk, high reward source of food security and income all rolled into one.
These NGOs promised rural families that the crop would be valuable, but in many cases grant money dried up, and they left without really developing a complete supply chain. Farmers grew tired of tending to these fast-growing trees, and without a market, cut them down or fed them to their animals.
We started working alongside farming families to develop technologies to make farming moringa worth their while. By 2013, we had started adding value to moringa seeds—producing cold-pressed oil on the first of many iterations of our moringa oil extraction system.
We soon learned from our farming partners that technology wasn’t enough to reach the global market – they made our work easy, letting us know exactly what had been missing in the global supply chain: training in agricultural best practices to cultivate high-yield/high quality trees, inputs like seeds, organic fertilizer, and organic pesticide on credit, and a guaranteed market for whatever they produced.
Today, we work with over 1,600 small farming families throughout Ghana—to cultivate over 250,000 moringa trees. We have an agricultural extension officer in each region, buying seeds directly from farming families at a fair price, and checking in with farmers to ensure they are following organic practices and implementing the latest permaculture techniques. Seeds are then transported to our processing center in Accra where we shell, cold-press, and filter oil right at the source. From there, our oil is packaged and shipped over to our workshop in Boston where we infuse our hair, body, and facial oils with essential oils and (spoiler alert!) create our soaps, butters, and toners.
Ultimately, we’re working to move as much of the production as possible to rural Ghana, and we’re really excited about the potential of our sister food brand—Minga Foods—to do just that. We launched Minga in Ghana last year to bring more income to farming families by buying their excess moringa leaves at a fair price and to introduce moringa as a superfood to the global—and particularly the African market. Too often, commodities are exported from the developing world at a low price, processed in the Western world, and even sold back to the same developing countries. We’ve had so much fun experimenting with moringa and all of the amazing crops Ghana has to offer (cashew, mango, and cocoa to name a few) and moringa to create delicious and nutritious teas, drinks, and snacks. We’re looking forward to building one of the first completely made-in-Africa global brands. We’re also in the midst of creating the largest organic certified moringa farm in Africa—planted by our very own customers—to bring even more jobs to rural Ghana.
It’s been an incredible journey, understanding the symbiotic relationship between quality and social impact. We’re thrilled that the beauty and wellness industries are moving more toward environmental sustainability and natural ingredients, and we hope it will continue to evolve to treat those at the beginning of the supply chain with dignity.
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