In 2000, my family won the US visa lottery and we emigrated from Accra, Ghana to Baltimore, Maryland. I was eight and filled with wild dreams of an exciting and very American life ahead of me. Returning to live and work in Ghana was low on my list of future possibilities, and working with farmers was not a consideration. And yet, at 26 years old, I find myself doing just that—living and working in Ghana on an agribusiness serving over 2,500 farmers, all because of one tree and the belief that it can change the story of agriculture in Africa.
As far back as I can remember, I was obsessed with things that fly. My bedroom walls were plastered with posters of fighter jets, helicopters, and space vehicles. Fascinated by the mechanics of flying, I competed in national robotics competitions, and by high school, I was dead set on a path to pursue aerospace engineering. I was blessed to continue my studies and training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and, during school breaks, at the NASA Goddard and Kennedy Space Flight Centers. But at the cusp of graduating and embarking on my American dream, a mentor challenged me to return to Ghana on a Christian service trip. For the first time, I witnessed rural poverty from which my middle class upbringing had shielded me. I knew but ignored all the oft-cited development statistics, but here they were, real faces of real people.
Suffice it to say the trip destabilized my life—from an identity crisis (Am I Ghanaian or am I American?) to my once clear-cut life plan. If aerospace engineers could put a man on the moon, couldn’t I do something to help these people put food on the table? And more importantly, how could I empower people with the means to improve their lives as they see fit?
My existential life crisis led me to MIT’s D-Lab, a program that works with people in the developing world to co-create solutions to global poverty challenges. D-Lab’s flagship course presented an opportunity to return back to Ghana yet again. This time, I collaborated with small farming families on a crop locally called “the miracle tree,” or moringa. Gram for gram, its leaves contain more calcium than milk, more protein than eggs, and more iron than spinach. Peace Corps and NGOs had distributed these trees to rural households throughout Ghana and much of West Africa decades ago for their nutritional benefits. However, without a connection to the right markets, farmers had no incentive to plant moringa beyond their backyards.
So we returned to MIT to research how to cold-press a then-unutilized part of the tree—the seeds—into a lightweight moisturizing oil for hair and skin care. Four years later, that oil now fuels our clean beauty brand True Moringa, and we have since launched a sister brand Minga Foods, an organic superfood line powered by the nutrition-dense moringa leaves.
Over the past several years, we have grown from a scrappy startup to a company serving over 2,500 farmers and running Africa’s largest certified organic moringa farm. We process the produce we source from farmers in Ghana using technologies we’ve developed or optimized. This commitment to adding value locally has enabled us to create over 60 jobs to date.
We have set an ambitious goal to plant one million moringa trees by Earth Day 2018, committing to plant one tree for every order made through our websites. Our vertically integrated model connecting farmers to end customers ultimately redefines conventional notions of agricultural value chains and smallholder farmer engagement. To date, our farmers have earned over $460,000 from their moringa trees, which before MoringaConnect was a forgotten natural resource in their backyards.
After four years building MoringaConnect, it is clear to me that my jump from aerospace engineering at MIT and returning to NASA after graduation into agriculture was completely worth it. Today our farmers realize that money grows on their moringa trees and are using this income towards school fees for their children, medical bills, housing improvements, and other income generating activities. We are excited to continue to prove our thesis: the solution to improving the lives of rural farmers, the poorest demographic in our world, grows right in their backyards and communities. Learn more about our journey and how you can enjoy moringa for skincare at truemoringa.com and protein-packed smoothie boosters and antioxidant-rich moringa tea at mingafoods.com.
Author: Kwami Williams
Co-founder & CEO at MoringaConnect