Rick Kemmer of Strong Harvest International passes along information about the moringa tree to peer educators in Nicaragua.
The world is going to be hearing a lot about the moringa tree in years to come. A couple from Vancouver is helping the moringa earn its place in the spotlight.
Jeri and Rick Kemmer first learned about the moringa more than a decade ago, while training for a years-long mission trip to Africa. Rick directed a community development effort for the Church of God in Tanzania, while Jeri was the national director of a child sponsorship program there. They spent six years in Tanzania, sometimes traveling to villages so remote there were no roads, no pathways, no way to get there except by boat. They learned lots about native people's cultures, lifestyles and vital needs.
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Clean water and nutritious food were the primary needs. Rick was busy with small economic development projects — like distributing dairy camels and goats, he said — but what clearly had the most benefit for local folks was spreading information and seeds of the moringa, a versatile and hardy tropical native that grows quickly, flourishes in poor soil and packs a rich nutritional punch.
The tree is a native of the Himalayan foothillls of northwestern India, but it is spreading around the developing world as people discover its benefits and sturdiness.
"Slowly over the decades it is making its way around the tropics," said Jeri, 55. "People are discovering they can grow good nutrition right in their own backyards."
"It's so simple. Anybody can plant a tree. There are just a few specifics for this plant, and these people are subsistence farmers. This is second nature for them," said Rick, also 55.
The moringa became second nature to the Kemmers, too. They returned from Tanzania in 2007 and "got jobs, bought a house and settled down," said Jeri, "but couldn't get moringa out of our minds or hearts."
According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, approximately 20,000 children die each day in the developing world due to malnutrition and unsafe drinking water. "We looked at each other and said, we can't know this and not do something," Jeri said. The couple continue to hold down local jobs — she works as a dean's assistant at Clark College and he does water jet cutting for Diversified Welding Works — but they've also launched a nonprofit called Strong Harvest International, whose mission is to hasten the moringa's reach across the developing world.
They'll be traveling to Nicaragua in November to lead trainings of more moringa boosters, and mean to return to Tanzania next year with a group of Strong Harvest board members.
What's so special about the moringa? Right off the tree, the fresh leaves contain:
• Twice the protein of yogurt.
• Four times the calcium of milk.
• Three times the potassium of bananas.
• Four times the vitamin A of carrots.
• Seven times the vitamin C of oranges.
• High iron and numerous (cancer-fighting) antioxidants.
• All essential (protein-building) amino acids.
Those are the nutritional highlights, but there's plenty more that makes this tropical tree a practical miracle. Its leaves can be eaten fresh, cooked like spinach or ground into a powder that can be stored or added to other foods. Moringa increases milk production in lactating mothers. It even produces a high-quality oil that's both nutritious for humans and compatible with machines.
Even more remarkably, crushed moringa seeds are a "natural coagulant" with the ability to remove contaminants from water at the molecular level, the Kemmers said. Scientists are just catching up with this property of moringa, but Jeri said she's seen the brown, dirty water that some Tanzanians are accustomed to drinking turn clear within hours. "It settles out 90 percent of the impurities," she said. "For people who don't have access to clean water or firewood (to boil water), that is huge."
Rick said he's seen moringa-cleansed water wipe out epidemics of diaper rash that had been raging in isolated places for generations.
Moringa grows like a weed, so to speak, but doesn't spread like one. "It's not invasive," Rick said. But it is extremely hardy and likes sandy loam soil; it's also drought resistant and easy to maintain after it's established.
Growing a really productive moringa tree means aggressively pruning its towering trunk, Rick said. A Strong Harvest trainee in Mexico who hacked feet off a fast-growing trunk feared he'd killed the tree with that assault, but 10 weeks later, on a return visit, Rick saw the shapely tree had thrived, grown 7 feet tall and sent out many lateral branches full of nutritious leaves.
"That's what you have to do, if you don't want your leaves to be up at the top of a 14-foot pole," he said. "It's not picky about where you prune it." Nor is it picky about soil and water. The moringa is so hardy, it can be planted in a bag of sand if need be, Rick said.
A tropical or subtropical climate appears to be the only real requirement. The Kemmers once experimented with growing a moringa at home, here in cool Clark County and the result was "sad and pathetic," Rick said.
Below the surface
Spreading moringa news to remote, uneducated people has meant customizing Strong Harvest's outreach techniques. In Tanzania and elsewhere, the Kemmers found that obstacles from illiteracy to tradition to superstition sometimes kept locals indifferent, or downright hostile, to new ideas about ancient fundamentals like trees and water.
"Are people still (cleaning water with moringa seeds)? No, it was the white guy's magic," is what Rick heard when checking back at one Tanzanian site. Some people fervently believe that "water is alive" and that life must not be eliminated, he added. "You never know what's just below the surface, culturally," Rick said.
Children are usually more receptive to new ideas than adults, he added. "We love working with kids. We have found that adults the world over are resistant to change."
So the Kemmers adopted a decidedly grass-roots approach. "Peer educators" who hail from the local community are the best purveyors of new knowledge, they found; even better is peer educators who happen to be respected local leaders — like tribal chiefs, mayors, teachers, doctors. Over the past few years Strong Harvest International has trained dozens of peer educators in Nicaragua, Mexico and Tanzania, and has received requests for training, materials or moringa seeds from El Salvador, Haiti, Togo, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, India and Indonesia.
Peer educators in Nicaragua are now working with residents of the infamous Managua city dump, a massive urban landfill that's home to "the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua," Jeri said. "Trees have been planted in the community and people are being trained in how to grow and use moringa to improve their health."
Task No. 1 for peer educators is convening community meetings where the locals speak first — describing what's good about their lives as well as what's hard. What health issues do they face? What is their water source and do they treat the water? How is sanitation? What are their food sources, cooking methods and basic daily diets?
What the Kemmers learned, they said, is that people in underdeveloped communities eat pretty much the way modern Americans do: by loading up on carbs. That's largely by necessity, not by choice. Further training exercises outline three basic jobs that food does for people (strength, energy and "protection"), and where those basics come from (protein, energy foods and vitamins/minerals) and then examines the local diet to see how it measures up. What's missing? Is there enough protein? Is there enough protection from disease?
This basic discussion of human nutrition is followed with a how-to guide to planting and encouraging the moringa. All these lessons are laid out in a training manual that includes both detailed data and stick-figure drawings. "People love these drawings," Rick said. "We are dealing with a high level of illiteracy so these are really helpful."
'The new superfood'
"We're not the owners of this information," Rick said. Far from it: the moringa is already marching across the tropics, making dents in malnutrition and waterborne disease as well as serving as a cash crop at market.
Inevitably, multinational corporations that sell everything from health food to cosmetics are hopping aboard the moringa bandwagon too. "It's going to become a fad: the new superfood," Jeri said.
"As the Western world develops more of an appetite for it, they're going to have to go to the tropics to buy it," Rick said. "Local entrepreneurs are going to pop up. We want the on-the-ground farmer to have the power."
Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; firstname.lastname@example.org; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits