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February 14, 2011

More farmers turn to cultivation of moringa in Benin

by Toni Bacala

In the fields of Benin, a green revolution has placed local farmers at the forefront of the battle against malnutrition. With the establishment of Association Béninoise du Moringa (ABM), Beninese farmers have expanded the production and promotion of moringa to nourish the ailing West African nation.

Widely acclaimed as a "miracle tree," moringa is fast-growing and possesses multiple benefits, from nutritional leaves, flowers, and seeds, to drought-resistant roots and bark. Moringa leaves are usually consumed fresh in green salads, or sautéd. In health programs, leaves are dried and ground into powder, then sprinkled on any dish for instant nutritional boost.

It has been traditionally used in South and Central Asia, India, and the Middle East as livestock feed, biofuel, medicine, water purifying agent, and soil fertilizer, among many other uses.

In the mid-1990s, the US Peace Corps initiated moringa promotion in the country in keeping with nutritional campaigns all over West Africa.

Despite such assistance, however, Benin has long lagged behind in the region, as compared to Niger, which has been producing moringa as a cash crop, and Senegal, which integrated moringa into HIV/AIDS treatment in the late 1990s.

"The value of this plant cannot be downplayed as regards its possibility to address some of the Millennium Development Goals as well as to influence the ongoing debates on climate change," said Muriel Glasgow, founder of Moringa Partners, an interactive outfit of moringa growers, scientists, non-government organizations and other enthusiasts from all over the world.

Benin has had its hands full battling against malnutrition. According to UNICEF, one out of every three Beninese children below the age of five has experienced malnutrition. The country's health crisis is aggravated by recent floods that have displaced thousands of residents, devastated farms, and destroyed access to clean, potable water. Foreign agencies have stepped in with food assistance and nutrition programs, but for the people of Benin, a longer-term solution is needed.

In 2008, a pilot project in the town of Goumori drew closer attention to moringa. The first batch of moringa powder produced was sold out in one week, encouraging farmers to share their knowledge so others could grow the plant.

As communities increasingly grasped the nutritional and economic benefits of moringa, volunteers and farmers saw the need for a mechanism to manage the future of moringa in Benin. Thus, ABM was born.

"We envisioned an organization that would promote moringa on a national scale and facilitate a market for moringa thereby taking the responsibility of promoting moringa and creating a market off the farmers themselves," former US Peace Corps volunteer Christoph Herby told MediaGlobal.

Last August, the vision came to fruition at the widely participated launch of ABM.

Moringa industry in Benin has flourished notably as ABM facilitates more farmers growing moringa alongside other crops as an additional source of income, and as an affordable supplement for malnutrition.

Through ABM, efforts of farmers, which were usually confined in their own fields and villages, are stretched out to markets and other moringa producers across the country. "Ultimately the goal is to create nationwide demand for moringa powder, satisfied by a network of well-supervised moringa plantations," said Herby.

ABM sets the production standard to strategically incorporate moringa into nutrition programs. One of its key activities is conducting workshops with farmers, health workers, and students. Since its launch, there has been a spirited demand for orientation on moringa cultivation and processing, informed ABM technical assistant Patrick Starr.

Benin's health agenda has inspired the expansion of moringa networks such as Moringa Partners, which reaches out to growers from Cameroon, Ethiopia, India, Costa Rica, and the Philippines.

"On a larger scale, [the] Peace Corps is increasing its focus on food security," said Herby. "And moringa is being considered a primary component in Peace Corps' food security planning for the West Africa sub-region."

"The world is still learning about moringa," said Glasgow, optimistic that more moringa benefits will be developed as a worldwide demand is set in motion.

While ABM acknowledges that it will take years to see tangible effects of the program, the empowerment of Beninese farmers has resulted in the cultivation of hope, health, and abundance beyond quantifiable terms.

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