There’s a new kid on the superfoods block – and it’s making a real difference to the pockets of many South Africans.
From single, female breadwinners to start-ups that own the entire value chain, moringa (pronounced “more-in-ga”) is creating opportunities for hundreds of entrepreneurs.
Moringa oleifera, or the “tree of life”, is hailed as having numerous nutritional and medicinal properties. Its leaves contain more vitamin C than oranges, more potassium than bananas and more protein than eggs and milk.
The leaves are used to make teas, while the pods are consumed as food (by humans and animals), oils are made from the seeds, while powders for nutritional supplements for smoothies and bars are made from the plant’s leaves and roots.
Imported some 50 years ago, moringa is mostly farmed in Limpopo, with a few farms located in Gauteng, the Mpumalanga lowveld and in KwaZulu-Natal.
The evolution of farming
Globally, the moringa industry is worth about $5.5 billion (R92.5 billion) and is expected to grow healthily over the next five years as demands for a healthier lifestyle, organic foods and the importance of nutritional supplementation grow.
The nascent South African moringa industry is providing exciting opportunities for businesses. One such entrepreneur is 2018 North West Female Farmer of the Year Maboang Matlou, who has moved from growing cash crops and livestock to farming moringa.
“After the avian flu hit in 2017, I realised that I needed to be growing a crop that could be stored if market conditions were unfavourable, and that could be processed to add value.”
A mentor from the department of agriculture gave her 1 000 moringa trees and assisted with treating the trees, product testing and nutritional analysis.
Today, Matlou’s company has more than 10 500 trees on its farm in the Bosplaas area and is producing several value-added products containing moringa – including a health salt, gin, capsules and tea.
The company has plans to use moringa oil to produce cosmetics from its new premises in BioPark in Pretoria, where it is being incubated by The Innovation Hub.
Government support is key
Private-public support has been an essential component of the success of the South African moringa industry.
Registered in 2013 as a non-profit organisation, the Moringa Development Association of SA (MDASA) is a partnership of universities, farmers, government departments and research institutes – all mandated to help develop the sector.
The association, along with the Agricultural Research Council and in collaboration with various universities under the aegis of the International Society for Horticultural Science, successfully hosted the second International Symposium on Moringa at the CSIR International Convention Centre in November 2019.
Matlou was assisted by the department of trade and industry to attend trade shows in Dubai, Cuba, Japan, China and Russia.
“This helped me to gain access to markets to study internationally acceptable norms for labelling and packaging.”
According to her, the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs regularly assigns labourers from the Expanded Public Works Programme to help her farming businesses with harvesting, drying and planting. In addition to payment, the workers receive skills transfers.
Purpose-led private industry
Another success story, Origin Organics, was started with no farming background.
Founders Julian de la Hunt and Llewellyn Marshall, both white collar professionals, were doing non-government organisation work in a small town in Mpumalanga when they encountered the tree growing naturally.
De la Hunt recalls: “We started researching the many benefits, and wondered why we had never heard of it. Being entrepreneurial and risk-takers, we soon realised it could be a massive industry. We leased a piece of land outside Nelspruit and planted 5 000 seeds.”
Today, Origin Organics has 250 000 trees and runs the full gamut of growing, producing and retailing specialty products such as teas, vegan capsules and raw moringa powder, as well as moringa-infused products such as porridge, soups and nutrition bars.
All Origin products are selling in national retailer chains including Pick n Pay, Dis-Chem and Medicare Pharmacies, and have experienced much success online with Takealot.
What started as non-profit project with a mission to feed the nation – the pair say “we felt that no child should go to school on an empty stomach and definitely should not be malnourished” – has become a fast-growing business focused on delivering high-quality supplements for athletes.
Future of the industry
The moringa industry in South Africa faces certain challenges to growth. Lack of funds for capital purchases – such as agroprocessing machinery, infrastructure builds and farm inputs – prevent many medium-sized farmers from scaling up. Until it grows, the industry will remain a small-scale employer.
It is in need of standardisation of packaging and labelling for the many products that are being developed on an almost monthly basis
That said, there are certain clear opportunities in the industry. Pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, animal feed and water treatment are some of the already proven applications.
According to a study commissioned by the Industrial Development Corporation, South African moringa producers need to differentiate themselves from their Indian and Chinese competition – which farms on much larger scales and therefore cannot be beaten on price – through quality.
Luke Chimuka, professor of environmental analytical chemistry at Wits and a founding member of the MDASA, agrees: “If we get the quality correct, we can make a big dent internationally. Suppliers are looking for product that is organic and HACCP-certified [HACCP is a preventative food safety management system in which every step in the manufacture, storage and distribution of a food product is analysed for microbiological, physical and chemical hazards].”
Much of this boils down to the credentials of the laboratories conducting the testing, and South African labs, especially those backed by universities and other research institutes, have strong international reputations.
The moringa industry is already creating demand for existing products and supplies. For example, Origin Organics is purchasing large quantities of blueberries and honey for its latest product, moringa-infused juice.
The company is using its market position to help other producers. For example, it recently invited suppliers to exhibit products at its stand at a large retail show.
De la Hunt notes: “As entrepreneurs, we know how hard it is to get exposure in a crowded market. Origin Organics tries to pay it forward wherever possible.”
In a short time, moringa, the wonder plant, has established itself as a new product with roots in many communities and businesses.
Backed by government and industry bodies, and developed by regular South African ingenuity and grit, the industry is here to stay.