Czechs start moringa superfood business in Ethiopia

Photo: archive of Jaromír Novák

Moringa oleifera is a plant that is often referred to as “the drumstick tree” or “the miracle tree”. Indigenous to India, Asia and Africa, it has for centuries been used to help treat a wide variety of illnesses, but has only fairly recently been discovered in Europe as an effective health supplement with antifungal, antiviral, antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties. Jaromír Novák discovered the benefits of the moringa tree while working in Ethiopia and, with the help of the Czech Development Agency, decided to set up a business which would bring moringa products to the Czech Republic. I spoke to him about the MojeMoringa project and began by asking him to say a few words about the tree and its uses.

Photo: archive of Jaromír Novák

“The local people use moringa as food, like we do cabbage or spinach for instance, they take the leaves from the tree and cook them and it gives them a lot of nutrition. In Europe we can use moringa leaves that have been dried and ground to a powder as a health food supplement because the tree is full of vitamins, anti-oxidants and minerals.”

I understand that the locals used it to treat malaria, but that it has been ascertained that it has a lot of other curative properties?

“Yes, it is traditionally understood as a natural medicine, against malaria but also to help lower high blood pressure, for diabetes and so on, it has been used so for hundreds of years. Of course, Czech legislation does not allow us to call it “medicine”, since it has not been pharmaceutically proven, but in Africa and Asia they know that it really helps and they use it. For instance they use the roots of the tree against malaria -they boil the roots to make a strong tea.”

How did you come to be interested in the moringa tree?

Photo: archive of Jaromír Novák
“I first heard about it in Ethiopia where I met some local doctors who had studied in the Czech Republic. They introduced me to the moringa tree and gave a really interesting presentation about how various parts of the tree can be used, how full of vitamins it is and its many benefits to health. One of the doctors showed me moringa powder from which you can prepare tea and made some for me to taste. He said that previously he had suffered health problems with high blood pressure and diabetes and moringa helped him a lot, he didn’t have to use so many medicaments since he started consuming it. That’s how I first came to hear about moringa. I got interested in it and we looked into it closer with my friend. Then we visited a group of farmers who prepare moringa powder from dried leaves. It was easy to bring to Europe and we soon started promoting moringa here as a food supplement. And that’s how we started the business.”

So now you are helping a community in Ethiopia to produce oil and tablets from moringa right?

“That’s right. We are cooperating with some local farmers. Before they could only dry the leaves and grind them to a powder, but we brought them the technology they needed – a press to make moringa tablets and a mill to press oil from the moringa seeds. So now they are able to make these products and sell them on the Ethiopian market.”

Where are they being exported to?

“We are still developing the business in Ethiopia and our partner who is more business-oriented and has an export license exports moringa not just to the Czech Republic but to Canada, the US, Japan and The Netherlands. ”

How difficult was it to set up a small business there? I know you got support from the Czech Development Agency…

“Yes, without their support it would have been extremely difficult, but even with it it was not exactly easy because Ethiopia has strict norms for foreign investors who want to start a business here. You need to think about how to reduce the extremely high starting expenditures which can be done through cooperation with a local partner. In such a case you pay lower fees to register your company. So that is what we did, we found a local partner with an export license, who was already registered in Ethiopia. So it was not easy, but we succeeded and we are cooperating, so it all turned out well.”

You say you are cooperating with local farmers. What was the interest like on their part and how are you helping them?

“We have enabled them to increase their production, to improve the quality of processing through shared know-how, to improve hygiene conditions, and most importantly we are helping them to sell moringa abroad and by increasing sales and getting more farmers involved we are increasing their income and helping them to support their families.”

What are your long-term plans? Do you have any specific goal?

“In the course of the next five years we hope to enlarge and stabilize the company in Ethiopia, to develop our own export business not just to the Czech Republic, but to Germany, Slovakia, Poland and also to the Balkans. So we want to improve the brand and increase sales in Europe.”

Your business is near Lake Abaya in the south-east of the country– does that mean you live and work there?

Photo: archive of Jaromír Novák
“We work in Ethiopia as experts on developing projects and we travel there say once per month or once per two months for two weeks or a month and when we are there we try to improve the work activities, come up with new ideas and communicate with the farmers to brief them about our plans. We have been working like this since 2012, but this project MojeMoringa was launched in 2014.”

And what about you Jaromir, do you use moringa yourself?

“Of course. That’s obvious. I like to use the moringa tablets that we created here in the Czech Republic with a business partner who specializes in medicinal products for the pharmaceutical industry. We asked him to produce tablets that are as natural, as clean as possible from this moringa leaves powder and we succeeded, our moringa tablets are excellent, I use them and feel healthy and strong.”

What is the oil used for? How do you decide whether to buy the oil or the tablets?

“Well the tablets you swallow as a health supplement. The oil you can use as a normal oil, as you would use olive oil for instance, but the main benefit is you can use it directly on your skin for a better complexion, you can use it on wrinkles, bruises and so on.”

You have spent quite a lot of time in Ethiopia these past few years. What do you like about life there?

“Well, Ethiopia is an amazing country with a really amazing history. It is the only African state that was never colonized and they are a super-proud nation, they have excellent food, special food that you cannot find anywhere else –like their flatbread injera, which I love - I love the people, they are amazing and the nature there is also wonderful.”