The Vitamin Tree

Nutritious moringa leaves help fight hunger in Africa.

By Charlene Oldham

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Moringa oleifera or Vitamin TreeIftikhar Ahmad, Ph.D., wants to build a network of food-aid kitchens across the Horn of Africa, but he isn't starting with bricks, mortar, and bags of donated rice. Rather, he envisions oases of moringa trees that will provide refugees a plethora of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients naturally.

"The Horn of Africa is prone to drought, so people have to migrate from time to time, and they migrate toward anything that is green," says Ahmad, director of agriculture for the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, a nonprofit relief organization in Somalia. "So it occurred to me that something like moringa could be a natural field kitchen for them."

Moringa oleifera, possibly the best known of more than a dozen Moringa species, is native to India and can now be found in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The tree requires very little maintenance and can be grown from cuttings. It produces its nutrient-rich leaves even under dry conditions, making it ideal for areas where people often face food insecurity during droughts.

With some management, moringa trees can yield three or four leaf harvests a year. The leaves are packed with vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, potassium, and protein, which makes moringa a self-sustaining tool for fighting hunger in Africa. In fact, Church World Service and other agencies have used moringa to treat malnutrition among children and their mothers in Senegal for more than a decade.

Conflicts near the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation refugee camp and clinic have slowed his project's progress, but Ahmad hopes his team will soon be able to develop a plant nursery and distribute moringa cuttings free to visiting aid workers. He also hopes to begin clinical trials testing the tree's effectiveness for treating malnutrition and also begin developing recipes that incorporate moringa into traditional Somali cooking.

"So, there will be some cuisine development," says Ahmad, who admits he doesn't find powdered moringa leaves to be particularly palatable on their own. "That will be a small but very important part of education."

Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013

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