Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Miraculous Tree


So there's a new internet cafe in one of the market towns closest to me, and so far it's pretty chill. Hopefully this will herald a new age of connectivity. Given that the internets are humming this morning, it's probably about time to talk about what I actually do in Asiri with regards to Peace Corps projects.

It's really easy to shy away from writing about my projects here, because any description inevitably makes them sound tidy and well-defined. They're not. My role here, at least on paper, is to live in this rural Ghanaian community, identify groups of people interested in small scale income generation and "agroforestry" interventions, and support the development of these projects. That's a bloodless description, disregarding the shock of entering an entirely new culture, the emotional highs and lows, the scrambling for resources, the struggle to find interested people, and the hope that difficult projects will bear fruit and provide some lasting benefit. There's absolutely no guarantee of success, it is perfectly plausible to leave here after a couple years with very, very little that's tangible or material to show for your time.

That said, it's coming up on five months at my site and I actually do, surprisingly, have something to report, I've become Crop Introduction Guy for a multipurpose tree called Moringa oleifera. When I was talking to my Dad about it he used the word "catalyze" and that's probably the right one to use. This project started with a few conversations between me and my counterpart, sort of my main contact in Asiri, a very experienced cocoa and cashew farmer named Barnabas. I introduced him to the crop, we talked about its use (more on that below), and about different possibilities. He in turn started talking to the farmers and looking at these possibilities through the lens of their needs, mainly for a diversification of agricultural income, and we started holding meetings for interested folks. I continue to serve as a source for seeds, a resource on basic (very basic) planting information, and when our trees are mature on basic processing. It's three-way communication between the farmers who are planting it, me, and the local Ministry of Food and Agricultura (MOFA) extension agent who has helped a lot with integrating moringa into the existing system of agriculture (which I'm just learning).

The Wikipedia article I linked to above has a lot of decent information, but it somehow manages to miss the whole damn point. Moringa is, to use the technical term, fucking incredible. It's a fast growing tree that isn't too picky about soil because it drops a taproot several feet down to harvest nutrients and water from the subsoil, meaning you can plant it in otherwise marginal land. Although there are a wide variety of edible parts to the tree, and medicinal uses of the non-edible parts, the most dramatic benefit is that it accumulates very high amounts of vitamins, minerals, and proteins in the leaves. In addition to being a great fresh vegetable, the leaves can be dried to a powder that is 27% protein by weight, and it's both storable and transportable. The leaves and leaf powder deliver complete protein, all essential amino acids represented, as well as Calcium, Copper, Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Selenium, Zinc, and Vitamins A, C, and E. It's everything you need to raise a healthy little kid growing on a tree, and by adding a soupspoon of the dried leaf powder to a child's portion of stew you're boosting tremendously their intake of the vitamins, minerals, and proteins and providing an important hedge against malnutrition.

But even here I'm falling into a sort of easy narrative: I learned about this great thing, we talked about it and decided to grow it in the community, now we all have this great thing. That's not even remotely close to how it developed. First of all, people are interested in growing moringa because it has potential as a cash crop, not as a source of expanded nutrition. And that's perfectly reasonable, that's what they told me from day one: "We need more ways to make money from farming." And they drove our approach to this project from a cash crop perspective; most Peace Corps work with moringa focuses on small plantings for individual families, but since we were trying to work at a larger scale our main challenge was finding a bulk supply of seeds, which we eventually sourced from another Peace Corps Volunteer's project in northeastern Ghana. And even telling it like this is ignoring all the background context to working with moringa in Ghana, the people who were lying to farmers and selling seeds at prices that were simply exploitative, taking advantage of people's desperation to increase their agricultural income (this resulted in one of my best stories from Ghana so far, my Hardy Boys-esque run-in with the guy my sister dubbed the "unscrupulous local official" who could have been a stock character from a boys' own adventure book).

And that reminds me that I'm ignoring the cast of characters. In addition to Barnabas, my counterpart, there's Augustan, one of the district's best farmers who planted a little moringa last year but was stymied by the high cost of seeds. Abraham is the MOFA agent who comes to our meetings and filters the basic planting information that we have through the lens of someone knowledgable about local agriculture. Then there's Techi, a real big dude who whales on the gon-gon, the traditional bell, to announce that yes, we're having a meeting tonight, Nana Badu, the traditional authority (he is one of the sub-chiefs in Asiri) in our part of town, who embodies the structure of this village community, Gladys, a really awesome farmer who helped me get set up planting pineapples on my farm...And so on and so on. They're doing the work, and they feel the consequences, both positive and negative. I'm just some guy who shows up, talks a little bit, and can help getting seeds.

Just a couple of weeks we found out that a company is opening up operations in our market town to buy moringa. This is huge, we have a buyer. Even huger, it's a Ghanaian company. Yet another word of explanation is necessary. One of the reasons Ghana doesn't get all it could from its agriculture is that the big cash crops are processed out of the country; cocoa in Europe and cashew in Asia. So all those value added steps of taking a bean and processing, packaging, and selling it don't directly benefit Ghanaians, they benefit other deserving people, but not Ghanaians. This company does its processing in Ghana's Western Region, and exports from Ghana to developed countries, potentially capturing more of the money domestically.

Moringa trees start producing leaves and seeds in the first year, but they really take about three years to mature. We're planting our moringa seeds now, and the first little green shoots have started to come up. The project isn't finished, because now that we're growing it, and now that we have a buyer, it's important for people to know how to process and eat moringa themselves, so that they can directly benefit from their trees and sell whatever they have in excess.

So that's my first project...anxiously uncertain...mindblowingly frustrating...but of all the things I do in Peace Corps this might be the best. Time's up, peace out.


yesido said...

It's awesome to hear first hand the start of a Moringa project in Ghana. I'm building a website to educate people on the benefits of moringa at www.moringatoday.com. I will be linking in your blog to show how amazing the plant is to everyone.

Thanks for an amazing eye-opening blog.

Catelin said...

Hey sam,
I loved hearing about the Moringa project your working on. Totally fascinating. I know you said it is a complete protein, but does it have the amino acids in all the recommended levels? Just curious, just finished Human Nutrition and my teacher had stated that was rare. But then again the plant sounds like an incredibly rare treat to begin with too. I love how your manging to encourage numerous levels of benefit to the people of Ghana. I check your blog once a week, such a neat adventure to follow. Continue the marvelous work and may you have continued good health. Catelin

Moringa Seeds Supplier said...

“The leaves and leaf powder deliver complete protein, all essential amino acids represented, as well as Calcium, Copper, Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Selenium, Zinc, and Vitamins A, C, and E”.

I am really happy to hear about your moringa project to be started in Ghana
Peoples in Ghana will really benefit from your project.

I pray that you have strength to continue to do the good work.
God bless you!

Check this link too Moringa Seeds Supplier

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