Melania Chipungu, of Lusaka’s Ibex Hill, is one of a growing number of smallholders tapping into the Moringa tree market. The health benefits of Moringa tree leaves have sparked local and global consumer interest. The leaves are reported to have many health and nutritional benefits and to be high in vitamins, calcium, potassium, amino acids, anti-oxidants and protein.
These winning traits encouraged Melania (72) to combine her passion for farming with the drive to empower communities.
In the early 2000s she started growing Moringa trees on her nine-acre farm. Since then, she has been harvesting Moringa leaves that she pounds into a powder, bottles and sells at local markets.
Melania is the founder and champion of an empowerment group for women smallholder growers. “I’ve seen the benefits of growing Moringa trees and I spearhead the local chapter of the Mitengo Women’s Association (MWA) to empower other smallholder farmers,” she says.
“The most difficult part of my business is branding the products, making the Moringa brand easy to recognise and growing consumer appreciation of product value.”
ABUNDANT HARVEST FROM THE MIRACLE TREE
Despite the challenges associated with branding and packaging Melania keeps going with her farming venture because she sees the enormous potential of the Moringa tree. A drought-resistant plant that needs no chemical inputs it is a food supplement, its oils are used in food and cosmetics manufacturing and extracted for biofuel. It is also a water purifier, and has value as stock fodder and fish feed.
Personally committed to planting hundreds of trees on her farm, Melania says, “the Moringa has a year-round harvest which gives it a potentially high return on investment.”
Melania grows seedlings in an on-farm nursery and plants them into ridges. The farm labourers hoe the ridges manually to prepare for planting. She has 400 trees on an area roughly covering 3.5 acres (1.4ha) of her 9 acre (3.6ha) farm.
A drip irrigation system keeps the Moringa orchard watered and vegetable and mushroom waste is added to chicken litter to make up compost for the orchard.
Melania says these orchards have a very long lifespan if they are properly managed and will not need replanting.
Costs revolve mainly around labour for land preparation, crop cultivation and packaging. Moringa leaves are pounded into powder and bottled into 250g containers. The staff of six people take care of the Moringa plants and of cassava and mushroom cultivation.
A 250g bottle of Moringa powder, which can be mixed into drinks and savoury dishes, sells for K30 (retail) and K20 (wholesale). Most of Melania’s customers are local community members who buy the product for consumption and for re-sale.
Melania also markets her product at agricultural expos and at weekly markets in the district. This kind of marketing gives good exposure to Moringa products and other farming produce, she says.
Another low-input crop, according to Melania, is cassava which shows good returns relative to the input costs. Cassava is harvested in the third year after planting, and Melania markets cassava leaves and tubers all year round. Cassava leaves sell for K5/kg and cassava tuber flour sells for K10/kg.
Better consumer awareness about the benefits of healthier food has increased the demand for cassava products and Melania plans to expand her area under cassava.
“Our parents farmed cassava as a primary crop. That income, and the income from maize, helped to raise children. I think it’s time for us to push the production of this important cash-crop,” she says.
Lusaka’s Soweto market and other township markets are good outlets for cassava, which is generally pounded into powder and served as a maize meal substitute in the urban areas, Melania explains.
Mushrooms provide this enterprising farmer with another income stream. She grows the mushrooms in a grass-roofed building 30m X 50m and can manage 1 000 mounds at one time. She harvests mushrooms year-round. One mound can yield up to 10kg of mushrooms with a retail value of K25/kg.
She describes mushroom growing as an intricate process that took her a couple of years to master before she was producing quality mushrooms.
“The main inputs are cotton waste and maize bran that I set for four days to get the mounds right. This must be done under strict hygienic conditions to eliminate green bacteria,” she says.
“Although the mushroom project is a relatively new venture, it has proven to be rewarding. Infrastructural investment promises better results going forward,” she adds.
Time spent working in the public sector has given Melania some important management and production skills. She recognizes marketing as a key component to success and has attended local and international expos on agricultural markets. “I’ve learned to identify under-used resources and use them. This is vital for small farmers like myself,” she says.
To fertilise the Moringa trees, and the cassava crop, Melania uses natural (rather than synthetic) fertilisers. Farm-generated organic materials provide the components for compost.
“The idea is to maintain an agricultural system, similar to a natural ecosystem,” she explains.
The women of the MWA local chapter have helped her train 200 local women in this ‘natural system agriculture’ and she has a demonstration plot on her farm. Many of the trainees have started growing Moringa trees and households have benefited from the improved nutrition that Moringa brings to the family.
“Empowered women with extra income have had a positive impact on communities,” Melania says.
The capital investment is high with estimated start-up costs of K600 000/1 000 trees. This can be prohibitive for small scale growers who need government support with financing and with technical upskilling. Rather than be held back by a lack of capital Melania has boot-strapped her operation using available materials and local labour.
Investment returns on Moringa orchards are estimated to be about 14.5%.
“There needs to be more focus on empowering women in agiculture,” says Melania. “There is no shortage of enthusiasm and commitment, but women drop by the wayside because of a lack of finance and various other challenges.”
Melania says she has relied significantly on partnerships for technical support and to help overcome challenges. She keeps her operation ‘capital-light’ by selecting drought resistant crops.
“Access to finance is a huge challenge that can take years to get, but keeping the operation capital-light means you can grow as financing issues are addressed.”
Melania started farming with nothing but her passion and she is undeterred by financing problems. She has a vision for the future and uses her experience to drive that vision. “I once went to an expo and saw how good quality packaging had turned Moringa growing from a cottage activity into a mega-businesses. That is the path I want to follow.”