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Friday, February 05, 2010

Moringa Oleifera: Miracle Tree for the Rural Poor?

By Rishabh Kaul

Moringa Pods

A recurring theme in romantic novels and movies is that you travel all over the world to finally find what you were searching for, right where you began. Could it be that the answer to malnutrition and self sustaining communities be a plant which has been growing in their back yard for all this time? This might be the case with Moringa Oleifera, often dubbed as the Miracle Tree, often discussed as being a savior of vulnerable communities especially in Africa and South Asia.

The plant, which grows in dry soils in tropical lands, is known primarily for the exceptional nutritional value of its leaves. Lowell Fuglie who has been researching abut the uses of Moringa for over a decade (and used to work for the Church World Service) says "Gram for gram, Moringa leaves contain three times the iron of spinach, four times the vitamin A of carrots, seven times the Vitamin C of oranges, three times the potassium of bananas, and four times the calcium and twice the protein of milk" (a much larger list can be obtained here). "Nutritionally, you can't beat it." he adds.

But it doesn't end here; Moringa Oleifera is known to be a really good water purifier, plant growth enhancer, biofuel (abstract only), and has plenty of medicinal uses.  These address some of the most pressing issues faced at the BoP today: Enegry, water scarcity & agricultural yield and most importantly malnutrition. All this being said, one would expect entrepreneurs to jump at this opportunity and capitalize upon it. A Moringa-based idea submitted to the Ashoka's Nutrition Competition was even adjudged as an early winner. However, we don't see any major players trying to create an industry based on this wonder plant. Why so?

The opportunities and challenges in the commercialization of Moringa have been summed up well by in a paper written by J P Sutherland, who was involved with a biotech startup called Optima Environment SA based in Switzerland. He cites lack of extensive research, skepticism from the scientific community, barriers to entry in the form of government regulations as well as poor marketing as some of the factors which constraint the commercialization of Moringa products such as oil, water coagulants and packaged food. He emphasizes that if entrepreneurs can find a way to improve the extraction process, moringa oil has a potential to become a useful source of fuel (both industrial as well as domestic) in the years to come. However, it's also up to the venture capitalists in the agro-health sector to realize it's importance as a life saving plant and encourage investments in this domain. 

What's really fascinating about this plant is that it is locally available in areas that need it most. The tropical nations provide the temperature and soil requirements that is suitable for its growth.  Every part of the plant, be it the stems, the leaves, the pods are useful in one way or the other. Even if it takes time to commercialize it on a large scale, I can see this as a useful community run venture to meet the nutrient needs of villages that are struggling to meet their requirements.

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