A ‘miracle tree’ that could feed sub-Saharan Africa
The moringa’s leaves and seedpods deliver extraordinary nutrition, advocates say, but aid groups await a formal study.
As a child growing up in India, I greeted the appearance of one particular vegetable on my plate with exaggerated distaste: tender seedpods from the moringa tree, locally known as “drumsticks.” Imagine my surprise when I heard a health worker from sub-Saharan Africa describe this backyard tree as a possible solution to malnutrition in tropical countries – he called it a “miracle tree,” no less.Skip to next paragraph
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Ounce for ounce, says Lamine Diakite, a Red Cross official from French Guinea in West Africa, moringa leaves contain more beta carotene than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas. Its protein content is comparable to that of milk and eggs, and its leaves are still available for harvest at the end of the dry season, when other food may be scarce. Malnourished children gained weight when put on a timely dietary supplement made from the leaves, Mr. Diakite says. He passed around pouches of the green, hennalike powder at a recent international summit in Boston.
Until a decade ago, moringa was not widely known in Africa. Its leaves (boiled like spinach) were an occasional vegetable. Immigrant Indians prized the long, slender seedpods (stewed or cooked like green beans) as a delicacy. “But its nutritional value, newly ‘discovered,’ has been known for a long time,” says Lowell Fuglie, an international development administrator who has been instrumental in popularizing the moringa in Africa for the past 10 years. Laboratory analysis has corroborated traditional knowledge about the plant. It now awaits further validation by western science.
But even those who know moringa is edible don’t always exploit its nutritional value, particularly beneficial to those eating a carbohydrate-heavy diet (meat is often costly in Africa).
Senegalese people using moringa leaves to make mboum sauce, for example, discard the cooking water, which contains many nutrients, Mr. Fuglie says. His interest was sparked by research findings collated by the nonprofit Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO). “Seeing moringa described as the most nutritious of all tropical vegetables,” says Fuglie, whose father worked for USAID in Africa, “I wondered why there was so much malnutrition in regions where the tree is easily grown and used.”