In the West, Moringa is regarded as a superfood. Some 20 years ago, Ugandans were called on to plant Moringa for export, with limited success. Now, a local organization is trying again, with a different target market.
For some time Moringa has been regarded as a "wonder plant" of sorts. The leaves and roots are edible and the seeds can be used to purify water. The tree also produces Behen oil which is used mostly in cosmetics and veterinary treatments. Moringa is also very nutritious — it's rich in vitamins and minerals. But although many cultures around the world use it to treat various illnesses, there is hardly any scientific research which supports Moringa's healing effects.
The superfood flying under the radar
The tree traces its roots to the Himalayas in India and is found in many tropical countries, including Uganda. It's been grown in the east African nation, primarily for export for, 20 years. But Ugandans have not been exposed to the healing effects of the tree. Local NGO, Teso Enterprise Consulting and Marketing Association (TECOMA), is on a mission to change that.
The NGO's work centers around Soroti. The city of 50,000 inhabitants in northeastern Uganda is the focal point of the Soroti district. The region's two dry seasons provide an annual headache for the locals: Food becomes scarce and fresh produce becomes harder to find. Edith Naser is the driving force behind the project "Moringa For All" and has been working here since 2013. She first came across Moringa after a chance encounter with the plant in her native Germany. "A friend of mine was reading up on Moringa and thought it would grow very well in Soroti, which is where I work," Naser told DW.
A plant with a negative image in Uganda
After intensive research, Naser discovered Moringa could be a cheap and healthy dietary supplement for the local population. When she returned to Soroti, Naser bought a piece of land and started cultivation and processing trials. Along the way she met forester George William Itamat, who runs TECOMA. He too was taken by the idea to cultivate the "wonder plant."
But Naser and Itamat ran into problems when they started talks with substinence farmers. It all came down to Moringa's history in Uganda: In 2000, the government encouraged farmers to plant Moringa extensively with the aim of exporting export the seeds.
"At that time, Moringa was advertized on a commercial platform," Itamat told DW. "That people should grow Moringa, that there was market for the seed. At a certain point it turned out this wasn't the case, and people became very negative towards Moringa."
But "Moringa For All" is not hoping to export the plant. Instead, the organization want local farmers to cultivate the health-promoting plant for their own needs.
Moringa in schools
To increase the use of Moringa among those who were poor or unwell, the project entered a partnership with local clinics. They made land available for Moringa cultivation and educated employees in groups on how the plant could help different kinds of people — from medical staff to HIV-infected people and nursing mothers. Soroti residents are now planting Moringa and using it in their meals. Hospital patients can also try the Moringa diet to see if it helps them.
"After one month, after I had consumed enough Moringa, I realized my immune system had improved so much that the health worker who checked me asked what I was eating," said Beatrice Apollo, who has been taking medication for HIV-Aids.
Moringa is also becoming more well-known in public schools. A typical lunch menu at most schools includes simply maizemeal and beans. This bland diet often leads to malnutrition. So children, teachers and parents have learnt how to plant Moringa in their school gardens. They cook and eat their yields together, to encourage families to pay more attention to the importance of a healthy diet.
"The students took it up very well," teacher Atim Mikal told DW. "Because after getting to know the benefits they said: 'For us, we have this tree at home. We have not been knowing the usefulness. We have just seen it as a tree growing. So now, we are going to begin using it'."
Moringa has been sold commercially for some time, but the products available from international companies are often beyond the means of rural Ugandans
The district health ministry also supports the initiative. Moringa is not just a healthy dietary supplement, but can also help with problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure or stomach issues, explains health official Ekodeo Emanuel. In addition, it's fare more affordable, compared to many other plant-based remedies marketed by international companies.