Making the most of mighty moringa
Growing wild on the plains of Ethiopia, as well as in Sudan and parts of Kenya, the leaves of Africa's indigenous moringa tree (Moringa stenopetala) are most widely used as a nutritious accompaniment to cereal dishes. In southern Ethiopia's Konso district, however, the leaves are used to treat stomach problems as well as mild forms of malaria, and more advanced stages of the disease are traditionally treated using extracts from chopped roots. Long overshadowed by the better known Indian variety, M. oleifera, Africa's indigenous moringa is coming out of the shade and becoming more widely known for its medicinal, and nutritional properties.
Generally people in the south of Ethiopia plant moringa around their houses in gardens and, in some areas, in separate agricultural fields. The trees grow well in semi-dry areas, requiring little extra care and water. In these communities, moringa is used to treat malaria. But there are claims that the plant can treat other parasitic diseases, notably sleeping sickness (Trypanosomosa brucei). The medicinal and nutritional values of M. stenopetala have been investigated over the last decade by Dr Yalemtsehay Mekonnen and her research collaborators at Addis Ababa University. Experimental results show that the leaf and root extracts of M. stenopetala are active against the infective stages of the disease, which kills around 40,000 people each year.
But moringa's medicinal benefits are not common knowledge, and to address this, Addis Ababa University has been pushing for policy changes, through lobbying Ethiopia's agricultural research institutions and ministries. The University team is pushing for moringa to be conserved and planted in other parts of Ethiopia, as a promising source of medicinal and pharmaceutical products. Since the plant is traditionally grown and used by communities in Konso, it is hoped that it can be popularised with few challenges.
Nutritious pods, shoots and leaves...
While future possibilities for M. stenopetala are still being explored, M. oleifera - which originated in India - is now indigenous to many countries in Africa, Arabia, South East Asia, the Pacific and Caribbean Islands, and South America. In Senegal, where it is locally known as Nebeday , it's leaves are particularly valued during the dry season, when few other green leafy vegetables are available.
However, traditional methods of preparing the leaves in Senegal, for example boiling them up to three times, have been found to decrease their nutritional content. To improve preparation and enhance the nutritional value of Moringa, organisations such as the Church World Service (CWS) and the NGO Alternative Action for African Development (AGADA) have been training a network of government health workers. Techniques developed include single boiling of the leaves, use of the boiling water as a nutritional drink, and preparation of a leaf powder. Moringa leaf powder offers a quick and easy way to add nutrition to a meal. High in iron and calcium, the powder is being promoted to pregnant and lactating women. Drying the leaves in the shade preserves over half of the vitamin A content. The dry leaves are then rubbed over a wire mesh into a powder, which can be stored easily and added to sauces during cooking.
M. oleifera also has economic potential. For example, moringa seeds contain a natural coagulant which can be used to purify water. The most common water purifier is aluminium salt, but this is an expensive option for developing countries. As prices rise, water companies have been accused of underdosing chemical treatments in order to meet increasing water demands and cut costs. But the natural coagulant found in moringa, which can fully replace aluminium salts, offers a locally produced substitute. As it is biodegradable, moringa seed coagulant could also be of interest in developed countries.
Professor Suleyman Aremu Muyibi, of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, has ambitious claims for M. oleifera seeds, believing that they could potentially provide a renewable, sustainable and biodegradable material for treating global water supplies. As part of a Nigeria-based study, Muyibi emphasises that such an opportunity could be especially attractive in developing countries, where roughly 1.2 billion people still lack safe drinking water and an estimated 25,000 people die from water-borne diseases every day. If use of the moringa coagulant were to blossom, the large-scale cultivation of moringa species could be an exciting new source of income for farmers, as well as providing nutritional and medical benefits to rural and urban populations.
Date published: January 2007
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