Earlier in the year I had the privilege of traveling to Ghana to learn about how shea nuts are grown, harvested and processed into butter. Since my return I have been working closely with Global Mamas on a project that seeks to transform the lives of women producing shea butter by connecting them to consumers like YOU, who are interested in paying a fair price for ethically sourced and all natural skincare. In the process of researching the best plant-based oils available in Ghana I was introduced to Emily Cunningham and Kwami Williams, the founders of True Moringa. Named Best of Indie Beauty Expo and featured in Birchbox, True Moringa is one of those products you must know about. I'm thrilled to introduce you to Emily and Kwami, and to share their story of innovation and empowerment. Spread the word! Xoxo Alexis.
1. Tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how True Moringa came to be.
We both fell in love with moringa by very different paths- Kwami, a native of Ghana, immigrated to the US at the age of 8 and went on to study aerospace engineering at MIT - even working for NASA. Emily studied development economics at Harvard and worked in a number of different sub-fields of development - advocacy, microfinance, small enterprise development, and a brief stint building rickshaws. Fate brought us together through MIT’s D-Lab program, and we traveled to rural Ghana to work with farming communities there in 2012.
We were astounded by what we saw in the villages - vast acreages of fertile, uncultivated land, and smallholder farming families living on that land earning less than $2/day cultivating subsistence crops. Meanwhile, in Ghana’s beautiful tropical climate, the resources they needed to transform their lives were growing in their own backyards. We were particularly captivated by one of the crops we saw growing in the village - known locally as the ‘miracle tree,’ the ‘never-die tree,’ - or just moringa.
Aid organizations had spread these moringa trees throughout rural communities in Ghana, explaining that the leaves and seeds were valuable and nutritious. Without connections to a market though, the fast growing moringa tree became a nuisance in farmers’ backyards and the seeds from the tree were left to rot or fed to the animals.
When we returned home to the states, we started doing a bit more research on this so-called miracle tree. It turns out the seeds of the tree were rich in antioxidants and unique moisturizing agents that made an incredible cosmetic oil for hair and skin care. The leaves are incredibly nutritious - gram for gram, more protein than eggs, more calcium than milk, and more iron than spinach, making them a perfect prevention for malnutrition. Even the waste product from processing the oil made a natural fertilizer, animal feed, and flocculant to purify water.
We were sold. Kwami packed his bags and moved back to Ghana, and together, we set about building the supply chains to connect small farmers to the global market!
2. What are the benefits of using True Moringa oil on your skin?
Let us count the ways! First off, natural oils are the best way to restore moisture, texture, and tone to the face, and to prevent breakouts, dryness and redness. True Moringa has been called “argan oil on steroids” for its unique moisturizing and anti-aging agents. Unlike comparable oils, moringa is naturally rich in the cytokinin zeatin, known for stimulating cell division, growth, and delaying aging of cells. Moringa is also rich in crucial fatty acids and antioxidants that fight the free radicals that cause premature aging.
We cold-press our oil in a heat-controlled environment using proprietary technology that we designed and built ourselves. Moringa oil is rich in oleic, behenic, linoleic acid, which increase the permeability of skin and prevent dryness, signs of aging, and cracking. Lightweight and easily absorbed, the presence of long-chained hydrocarbons make True Moringa an extremely smooth and dry oil that will not clog pores, leave a greasy after-feel, or stain clothes. Dry or mature skin will benefit from it’s anti-aging and hydrating properties and oily or problem skin will benefit from its ability to soothe redness, minimize scars, even skin tone, and protect against breakouts.
3. Are there any connections between the shea tree and the moringa tree? I know they both grow in arid climates. Also, shea butter is produced dominantly by women in West Africa. Is this the case with moringa oil?
Both shea and moringa are predominantly grown in the three northern regions of Ghana - Ghana’s poorest regions. The rise of shea as a global commodity has helped many rural farming families to earn a sustainable wage and break the cycle of poverty - a trend that moringa is building upon. Unlike shea, which is wild harvested, moringa is grown at the household level and the leaves of the nutritious tree are incorporated into local cuisine in the north by women cooking for their households.
4. How is moringa oil production changing lives and empowering the farmers who harvest the seeds?
Our holistic model provides farmers more than just a living wage - we aim to fix the gaps in the supply chain that prevent small farmers from reaching the global market in the first place. To start, many farmers don’t have the capital to plow, plant and maintain land, so we provide high quality inputs like seeds and fertilizer on credit. We give farmers the training they need to grow up to the standards of the international market and a dedicated agricultural extension officer to follow up with them. We teach communities how to integrate the nutritious moringa leaves into their local cuisine and we’ve piloted moringa based malnutrition prevention programs in rural clinics.
Moringa trees are perfect for risk-averse small farmers - they thrive in arid climates and require very little water. They produce leaves in about 2 months and seeds within 8 months. They can actually be intercropped within existing crops to help them grow better. To date, we’ve planted over 250,000 trees to replenish depleted soil and deforested land.
5. Tell us about your True Moringa processing facility in Ghana and how it is employing youth in Accra.
Often, commodities like cocoa and coffee beans are purchased at low prices from West Africa and shipped off to Europe or the US to be processed into value-added goods like coffee and chocolate. True Moringa processes in-country to add value and create jobs locally in Accra, where unemployment is a huge problem. We designed and built our own processing center from scratch so we can ensure both the highest quality oil and the maximum social impact.
6. What's next for True Moringa?
We’re launching the largest moringa farm in Africa this spring - our nucleus farm - and inviting our customers to be part of it by planting a tree! We envision our nucleus farm as a place where farming families will be able to come and learn the latest techniques in permaculture and organic farming and cultivate nutritious food for their families. We plan to build the first large scale off-grid moringa processing center on the land, providing employment and adding value in the very same rural community where we first learned about the moringa tree.
In other news, our first line extensions come out this spring - we’re cooking up some exciting all natural skincare goodies made almost entirely of ingredients cultivated and processed by small farming families in Ghana. We’re also launching True Moringa’s sister brand in the superfood space - Minga Foods in the US this summer. Stay tuned and follow us for updates!