DALLAS – Moringa has been taking root in the wellness community the last few years, found in everything from supplement powders to smoothie shots and energy bars. The medicinal and nutritious plant, packed with vitamins, minerals and protein, has been competing with kale as the newest "superfood" leafy green.
But throughout Africa and Asia, moringa is more than just a trend, it's a livelihood. It's often a staple in the daily diet, its leaves mixed into stews and steeped as a hot tea. The strong-branched tree grows wild but has been cultivated as a water-saving, fast-growing crop to provide income and stability, in addition to nutritional security, to rural communities. It has been called "the miracle tree" and "the tree of life" because of its potential to combat malnutrition, and its seeds can even be used for water purification.
Herbal tea options
Dallas-based Rakkasan Tea Company, a veteran-owned business that imports loose-leaf tea from post-conflict countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Rwanda, has now partnered with GreenPath Food, a sustainable agricultural operation based in Ethiopia, to import dried African moringa leaves (Moringa stenopetala) and other herbs from smallholder farmers.
Brandon Friedman, CEO of Rakkasan, says he was looking for herbal tea options for customers who prefer a caffeine-free hot drink, and he chose four dried herbs from Ethiopia: moringa, English lavender, Ethiopian mint and sage. They each offer a strong, unique flavor that can be sipped on their own.
"We asked, 'What is the American palate?' We decided it was a desire to have some flavor," says Andrew Weiler, special projects manager for GreenPath. "The mint is incredibly minty, the sage is naturally a potent flavor. The moringa rounds it out with that bitter flavor that I don't think many of the rest of them have." GreenPath dries its herbs and tisanes at relatively low temperatures, not directly in the sun, to maintain the flavor as well as the color.
Economy and agriculture
GreenPath, a three-year-old for-profit startup, has developed a network of more than 150 smallholder farmers in Butajira, Ethiopia, who use organic, permaculture methods to grow herbs and other crops like avocados and chile peppers. They've been exporting the goods throughout Africa and Europe, and the herbs for Rakkasan will be the first time they have shipped to the United States.
The economy in Ethiopia, which is recovering from many years of war in addition to drought and famine, is primarily driven by agriculture. Recent reforms have opened up more room for development, and GreenPath aims to cultivate better income-generating opportunities for small farmers that are not competing with larger crops like corn.
Each farmer has half a hectare of land that they transform into a "mini food forest," Weiler says. A permaculture system means that every element plays an important role, and herbs are key. He says sage grows well in volcanic soil; mint deters pest insects; and lavender attracts pollinators and its deep root structure helps maintain soil and prevent erosion.
"Ethiopia has a great climate for herb production, which enables us to grow the herbs we are supplying Rakkasan year-round," says Jacie Jones, managing director of GreenPath. "This is invaluable for farmers, who (in the absence of GreenPath) would typically receive only seasonal income for traditional crops."
The staff at GreenPath is particularly excited about moringa because of its local and social importance. "It's a staple of the diet in southern Ethiopia, but the rest of the world is finding out about it," Weiler says.
In addition to protein, moringa is high in vitamins, calcium, iron and potassium, and there are ecological benefits, too.
Daniel Cunningham, a Dallas-based horticulturist at Texas A&M AgriLife Research, studied two species of moringa for his master's thesis at Texas Tech University.
"Our research project was in one of the driest parts of Kenya, where people have traditionally been malnourished," Cunningham says. "We were looking for something that would grow without a lot of water and was nutrient dense." Moringa also provides shade, can improve soil fertility, and grows very quickly.
"It can grow up to 15 to 20 feet in one year," Cunningham says. "You get a lot more leafy greens from that than spinach."
Moringa and the other herbal teas from Rakkasan range in price from $12.99 to $17.99 a canister, which produces about 20 to 25 cups of tea, and are available at rakkasantea.com.