Monday, January 7, 2013

Moringa Dilemma

Written by Ty

Here's a dilemma for you. Let me know what you think:

I have tried and failed twice to start seedlings for the moringa tree. The moringa tree is sometimes called “the miracle tree” because its leaves contain the essential amino acids—a providential oddity in the horticultural world. As you may know, legumes contain some amino acids (the building blocks of protein, essential amino acids being the ones your liver cannot make itself so you must eat them) while grains contain a different subset of amino acids, but you must eat a combination of grains and legumes to get all of the essential amino acids that you need. Not true for the moringa tree. Eating the leaves provides a complete protein just like meat does. But growing moringa trees is cheaper, easier, and more sustainable than growing animals for food. All they need is sun and rain. We have plenty of both here. The moringa leaves would a perfect addition to the diet of our children here at City of Hope, as well as the children in the village.

In January I went to great lengths to obtain moringa seeds from a Scandinavian agricultural project in the city 2.5 hrs away. I had to visit them several times in order to procure the seeds. In February, just before the rains, I planted 1000 seeds and left instructions with a friend to water them if they needed it. He did so, but one day the cows got loose and discovered our seedlings. They devoured the tender shoots in five minutes. In August I tried again, this time building a fairly stout fence around them. The rains were again immanent. My friend was away so I left instructions with the children to water the seedlings. When I returned in December: no baby trees. The kids had forgotten to water them. Now I am out of seeds.

Joi had a very good idea. I teach over and over again that it is important to encourage the ideas and initiative of the local people. When the idea is their own, they are much more likely to persevere and carry the plan to fruition. Joi's idea is to gather a group of the boys who are interested in farming and teach them about the moringa tree. Perhaps their desire to grow and become stronger will incite them to take on a moringa project of their own. And then they will be motivated to water them and protect them from animals. I agree. Great idea. That's what I should have done in the first place.

Recently a local nursery owner/farmer brought one of his many sons to the clinic. He was very sick. After bringing him to the hospital he improved dramatically. As a gift to the hospital, the man offered to give us some seedlings—he grows them for profit. We drove to his farm yesterday and discovered a pleasant nursery with thousands of trees of a dozen varieties: coffee, tea, mango, avocado, guava, grevillia, and others—some of them four feet tall. He gave us our choice of 30 trees. I observed all I could and asked many questions. He offered us a price of 12 cents per seedling if we wanted to buy more. I intend to take him up on that in the future in order to do some landscaping. He did not know the moringa tree. I told him about it at length, explaining it would help his many children. I asked him how much he would charge me to raise 1000 moringas until they were 2 feet tall. His price is $70—a steal really—especially given the frustration and failure I have endured thus far. That's seven cents a tree.

So what do I do? Do I strive to somehow incite our boys to start a moringa nursery, with admittedly a fairly high chance of failure and high probability of having to start and restart several times, or do I take the shortcut and get a jumpstart by spending a little money? Of course it would be beneficial to teach the boys to grow seedlings for profit, which they can do for themselves in the future. And even if I get the 2' tall trees, which will probably take a year, I'll still need the boys to plant them, guard them from animals, and nurture them through the transplantation process. But if I rely on the boys' initiative, it may be three years before we finally have 2' tall trees. It's been a year already and we have nothing. They need the protein ASAP. Which will be more profitable: getting them the additional protein as soon as possible by a shortcut which is a pretty sure bet, or investing in their agricultural and business skills and more importantly in their initiative and self esteem by helping them start a nursery—which has a high likelihood of several rounds of failure IF it ever succeeds. I am accepting votes and comments below...

I know, I can do both, but I only have so much time and so much money. I may end up doing both, but want to hear what you think.

Why is a doctor spending time and energy on this? Because a healthy diet, the benefits of a healthy career and income, and a healthy relationship with the land will do more for the children and the community than passing out pills in the clinic will ever do.


  1. Interesting dilemma.
    I can tell you the model we used when we were M's and how I think it would apply to your situation.
    The model is 4-steps: Model, Assist, Watch and Leave
    I assume it would be applied to the trees like this:
    1. Model - you go get the trees from the nursery and start taking care of them alone. They can watch you; start teaching
    2. Assist - continue teaching and let them assist you, gradually move to you assisting them
    3. Watch - remove yourself from active tree care but watch them and intervene if they are not doing it right
    4. Leave - they have learned to do it by themselves now
    You could probably apply this to your OS pharmacy dilemma, too.
    Additionally, I would not be concerned with buying the seedlings. Jesus never offered help to us on condition of us first learning to help ourselves. Learning a work ethic is part of the growth process. Besides, I imagine there would be benefit from these plants to a number of weak who aren't even capable of working anyway (very young/old, sick, etc.)

  2. both. However, I vote do emphasis on the teach the boys part. I don't have a profound philosophical reason for you. Those boys have made it this far without moringa trees. Granted they could be better if they have more protein, but they aren't dying, those boys in the orphanage seem to be thriving. They whooped me in soccer multiple times this summer. The lesson could be lifelong and in my opinion trumps the immediate need. And if they really do need protein and that's the best way, well go buy some. But don't forgo the lesson.


  3. Your closing to this post perfect example of why you do what you do, the important perspective you have learned and now are sharing with others! Fascinating to learn of the moringa tree with all the amino acids. After reading your dilemma, I bet you will indeed find a way to do both. Especially after reading the comments – I love the 4 steps by alwaysjoyfuldejs, which allows you to not only focus on the teaching, but in fact allows you to use the more immediate solution as a powerful part of the lesson. To my inexperienced and untrained eye, it appears that one area to navigate carefully would be to not let the "easy" solution of already having the seedlings prevent the ownership of the idea take root. That could be the focus in the year before the seedlings mature, and within that time perhaps they could plant some seeds of their own!

  4. I agree with the comments I've read and also think you should do both, maybe on a smaller scale so that the $ you had planned to spend is split between the two projects.

  5. Both. Consider it as two separate projects. Spend the $70 to meet the more imminent need of nutrition, but procure the seeds as a project more focused on the lessons that can be learned (without the pressure/frustrations of needing the product so badly). It's awesome to read about your experiences, by the way! Love you guys! :)

  6. You could do an experiment with some small, fast growing animals do demonstrate how the healthier food produces stronger animals. I really believe that you have to demonstrate the value of a vision, not simply count on others to believe in it - especially with kids!
    You might also ask some older or infirm members of the community could care for a small number of plans in their homes as an insurance policy and a way to allow them to contribute to the long-term health of the city.
    And boys like competition, so maybe you could create two teams and have them see which could produce the healthier seedlings. You might want to do it in such a way that the prize is greatest if both groups' crops are healthy.

  7. Today I have been desperately homesick for Tanzania and TCOH, so I went to your blog and ended up reading several pages' worth, including the above moringa post. I don't know much about these guys personally or if they'd even be able to help, but they could possibly at least help you procure seeds or seedlings more easily...or direct you to someone who could.

    Hope you guys are well!