Ingenuity, Peanut Butter and a Little Green Leaf

I first learned of moringa early in my service. It’s a small, thin tree, with medallion shaped leaves resembling cooked spinach. Each serving contains more vitamins and nutrients than any other food in West Africa, and maybe the world. Native to India but found throughout the tropics, it contains, gram for gram, more vitamin A than carrots, more vitamin C than oranges, more potassium than bananas, more iron than spinach, and, astonishingly, more protein and calcium than milk. And, as a tree, it’s a permanent fixture that, once matured, is capable of being harvested every few weeks.


Battling Malnutrition

Food security is a central issue for all of Africa, particularly when accompanied by malnutrition. In West Africa, the extent of child malnutrition is among the highest in the world. All too often children suffer most in a food crises, whether due to rising prices on the global market or drought and crop shortages—a looming threat again this year. As a Peace Corps Health volunteer in Aouloumat, a rural region of Niger, I learned that malnutrition is often caused by a lack of variety in one’s diet—a vitamin deficiency—not by a lack of food. The problem is largely cyclical. If basic grains like rice and millet are in short supply and high demand—thus more expensive—less money goes towards a balanced meal. When you are very hungry, filling the belly takes precedence over finding vegetables for sauce.

The crux of the food security and malnutrition crises in Niger, particularly in rural communities, lies not in an inadequate variety of foods able to be grown, though crop diversity certainly pales in comparison to many other places in the world. The issue is more immediate and basic. During the pre-harvest, lean season (over half the year) basic grain supplies diminish, and most of the already scarce vitamin and protein-rich foods (fruits, vegetables, beans) dwindle. Even when all are relatively cheap and readily available at once (a short period of no more than a few months), the combined power of grains, proteins and fruits or vegetables is rarely taken full advantage of, either for a lack of money or knowledge, or both.

All of this calls for a local solution. Importing food in a tenuous market cannot be the answer. Though non-governmental organizations can help, the people in affected nations also bear a responsibility to help themselves, and community leaders are needed. For a few years now, Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF] has implemented a groundbreaking malnutrition rehabilitation program that includes the fortified peanut butter product “PlumpyNut” in Niger. In the community of Aouloumat specifically, it has done wonders to make moderate to severely malnourished children healthy during the lean season. Yet rural communities often misunderstand. Since one has to go to the clinic to get PlumpyNut, villagers sometimes view it as medicine.


Moringa and PlumpyNut

A few months into my service, I attended a Peace Corps workshop for health volunteers centered around the Hearth Model— an innovative, two-week nutrition course for about 10 to 12 women, teaching them improved cooking recipes with local ingredients. Once the women graduated, some “Maman Lumières,” or exemplary women, were selected to continue the classes with a new group—with earlier Mamans passing on the knowledge. In addition, the recipes learned were to be given to the attendees’ children over the same period, their weight gain measured and recorded. With the help of an MSF counterpart, we decided to introduce this program into women’s literacy classes in Aouloumat.

We developed ways to improve existing foods, especially for children. In Niger, especially in the region around Aouloumat, weaning porridge is often a simple millet based drink called koko, made from pounded or ground millet powder and water, which is then boiled and served. A ubiquitous and inexpensive ingredient at markets and in villages is kuli-kuli, a leftover peanut resin. It is rolled into balls, cooked and dried, which allows it to last for months and can later be pounded into a powder. We tested a recipe that included adding the powder to the koko as it cooked. Afterward we added a little milk and sugar. It tasted great, and the kids who tested it loved it too. We priced one serving for one child at 100 West African francs (20 cents). This cost could be further reduced if a family used their own millet, or had milk from their own goat or cow. The calories, protein and vitamin content in the new mixture were vastly greater than that in the original porridge.

Months later, a five-country conference was held in Burkina Faso. Four volunteers from Niger together with their Nigerien counterparts attended. The focus was moringa, and with a food crisis imminent at that time, the discussion assumed a particular urgency. One workshop involved creating recipes using moringa in new and varied ways. We reworked the improved koko we had created earlier, adding moringa powder for an additional vitamin boost. It went over well, and a Ghanaian chief in attendance even came back for seconds! The new recipe spread to a number of possible service providers, and we carried it back with us to our own communities. In Aouloumat, we began to develop a moringa nursery, led in part by my friend and colleague Tsahirou Kadri, the village chief’s son.

In this way, governments, non-government organizations and individuals can educate rural villagers about a traditional version of therapeutic foods that could stand up to any packaged product. By learning to add vitamin-rich moringa powder to their own peanut butter or koko, in addition to milk and sugar, Nigeriens and West Africans would be able to strengthen what little staple grains they are able to give their children—providing an option for parents without the time, means or motivation to go to a clinic to produce something nutritional at home.

The issue of global food security calls for multi-faceted solutions—recipes from many ingredients. No one program or product can do it alone. Moringa, when combined with other locally available foods, or using a minimal amount of imported products, can lead to preparation of complete meals at low cost. If governments, organizations and rural community leaders were to set up programs to help villagers learn and pass on its benefits, the effect could be exponential. With the right mix of tact and effort, future food crises can be alleviated and food security increased—in a small corner of Niger and far beyond. Just don’t forget to add the kuli-kuli.

photo by J.T. Simms

J.T. Simms studied film at Cornell and Vanderbilt Universities. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Aouloumat in the Madaoua department of rural Niger from 2007 to 2009.

Related posts

The world is a complex place. Let our global network of journalists and experts help you make sense it.

Subscribe below for local perspectives and global insights: