Ethiopians pride themselves on their determination to find local solutions. While the country has made some progress towards child stunting and wasting targets, both indicators (approximately 37% stunting and 7% wasting among children under 5 years old) remain higher than the average for Africa. The causes of malnutrition are complex and interrelated. They can stem from poor infant feeding practices and sanitation environments to food insecurity, limited access to health services, inequities and poverty, among other factors. This calls for integrated approaches from policy to the programming domain. This story illustrates how joint efforts to enhance a local variety of moringa can support mutually reinforcing gains and bring new actors, such as UNIDO, into the nutrition arena.
In the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region of Ethiopia, moringa leaves are a popular traditional food.
“Every day, they put it on the table,”
explained Lemlem Sissay Fetene, Chief Technical Advisor at UNIDO. In Arba Minch, where the moringa value chain project was launched in February 2017, the leaves are cooked with onions and garlic and served with kita, a pita bread made of maize flour. In Ethiopia, the production of moringa had not yet been formalized in terms of product development, production, safety, or export.
In many parts of the world, moringa oleifera is known as a ‘superfood’ that seems to boost the immune system, while providing protein, vitamins (B6, B2, C and A) and minerals such as iron and magnesium. The dried leaves are sold as dietary supplements, either in powder or capsule form, in various countries.
Exploring the nutritional powers of a local species
The project is being implemented in two phases thanks to generous funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, which showed great interest in supporting activities that would target nutrition through a local food like moringa. One question UNIDO and their cohorts had was how the species grown in southern Ethiopia, Moringa stenopetala, compared. Along with nutrition, gender and economic goals, verifying the properties of the plant was integral to the Moringa Value Chain (MVC) project. “Despite its significant economic contributions to the livelihood of millions of people in southern Ethiopia, Moringa stenopetala has not been given due research and development attention,” noted a review published in the International Journal of Agricultural and Food Research.
Aurelia Calabrò, UNIDO Representative and Director of the Regional Office Hub in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia along with Lemlem Fetene, was part of the team that recognized the potential of moringa for improving not only nutrition in the region but also economic development. It is also contributing to the sustainable use of natural resources. Since the crop was already farmed and eaten, the challenge ahead was not one of nutrition education, but something more straightforward – to stabilize its production, add value and introduce quality regulations to develop products for domestic use and possibly international export.
“Moringa was selected as a commodity for rural development in connection with gender empowerment,”
Aurelia said during an interview in early 2021. The former First Lady, Roman Tesfaye, was an advocate, along with regional government officials from the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional state (SNNPR). Furthermore, indigenous foods, like moringa, and the promotion of related knowledge is aligned with national nutrition programme and the tenets of the Growth and Transformation Plan II (GTP II) 2015‒2020, Ethiopia’s vision to end poverty. Two research institutions at the regional and federal level, assisted with testing the species for nutritional properties as well as regulating safety standards – the Southern Agricultural Research Institute and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute.
Embracing multi-sectoral approaches in support of shared goals
The MVC project was designed with a multi-sectoral approach that encompassed nutrition, income-generation, women’s empowerment, technology development, capacity-building for government workers and local members of farming cooperatives, and infrastructure for the value-chain. “In the Ethiopian context, the links between agriculture, agro-industry development, gender and nutrition have important implications on poverty reduction, biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability.” While the connections described above hold true for many developing countries, they have particular resonance in one of the ten poorest countries of the world, whose economy and infrastructure lags behind many of its neighbors.
The overall goals for the pilot phase – to improve the nutrition and income of targeted rural women and communities – were multi-sectoral by design and can be broken down into four main areas. These include: (1) forming farming cooperatives with 85% women, who were selected through a grassroots-level ‘Woreda Selection Committee’; (2) establishing pilot farming plots and processing lines to make products such as oil, soap and tea; (3) establishing quality certification through the Ethiopian Public Health Institute and others; and (4) improving the food security of households.
In addition, the project hoped to find answers to these questions:
- What are the herbal and medicinal properties of Moringa stenopetala?
- How can moringa help pregnant women and malnourished children under five years old?
- Can water be purified with moringa?
- What products, in addition to oil, tea and soap, can be made to generate income?
Local production within the context of COVID-19
At the beginning of the pilot phase, UNIDO and partners set out to collect baseline data on how much moringa was being produced and how it was consumed. They identified women’s groups for potential involvement in forming the cooperatives. The government allocated 30 hectares of land near Lake Chamo to set up nurseries for demonstration farms, five of which were developed by the 85% female farming cooperatives.
The two-year pilot phase came to a close in September 2018, when UNIDO and partners paused the project to reflect on what had been achieved and to modify the program going forward. Looking back on phase one, Lemlem summarized the impact.
“This project created awareness about moringa not only at the community level but also for private enterprise opportunities. At this inception stage, we have identified about ten organizations working in the food, beverage and export industries. We want to link the activities we are doing to these organizations.”
Vitabite is one agro-processing company using moringa as a main ingredient for concentrated protein bars. Another one is Melkem Moringa, which is developing beverages. However, nutrition is a complex issue and these achievements need to be carefully considered within the context overweight and obesity, which affected over one-third of adult women in 2016. Ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages can contribute to excess calories, underscoring the need for government regulation and holistic approaches for nutrition.
One of the first challenges was with water supply. The local government responded by helping to dig a well. Another issue was aligning deadlines. The SNNP administration contributed to building a processing plant for moringa during the first phase. In addition, there is “a demand for moringa processing and development that exceeds the human resources we have,” Aurelia observed.
Expanding partnership in Phase 2
The inception of the second phase was completed in March 2021, delayed slightly by COVID-19. Phase 2 will concentrate on sustainable production/use of natural resources, increased productivity, further improving value-addition through processing and marketing, in addition to knowledge management to support the project’s multidimensional goals, including improved food and nutrition security of the targeted rural households ‒ especially women and youth. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has joined as a partner in phase two, and it will lead efforts to promote the nutritional value of moringa as part of its efforts to strengthen agri-food systems.
The FAO Country Representative, Fatouma Seid explained, that:
“As part of FAO’s mandate to enhance food security and nutrition of rural communities and strengthen their livelihoods, we are looking forward to a successful partnership with UNIDO and SNNPR’s Bureau of Agriculture (BoA) on a moringa value chain development in an inclusive, nutrition- and gender-sensitive manner with due focus on women and youth.”
This arrangement capitalizes on FAO’s strong presence at the sub-national level in Ethiopia through its work on institutionalizing nutrition in the agricultural sector, both at federal and regional levels, and strengthening capacity of agriculture extension workers. It is also linked to other complementary activities that FAO is pursuing with the Ethiopian Public Health Institute to update the national food composition table with the local moringa varieties. In addition, FAO’s involvement enables the project to build on the gains of a former FAO, UNICEF and EU multi-sectoral nutrition initiative in SNNPR, which supported women groups on complementary feeding. Phase 2 will leverage these same women’s groups to continue to enhance complementary feeding practices for young children while helping to sustain their the moringa-related income generation activities.
According to Mr. Tesfaye Moges, the Moringa project coordinator,
“FAO will work closely with the SNNPR-BoA to design and implement a sustainable business model for the MVC that not only enhances income and employment opportunities for women and youth, but contributes to the improved food security and nutrition status of the community.”
This will be demonstrated through skills development to improve production and productivity, technology transfer through research, enhanced access to microfinance and markets by ensuring quality and certification of the products, developing a nutrition-sensitive agriculture training manual and social behavior change material for all actors across the moringa value chain, including the SNNPR-BoA.
Most of UNIDO’s management activities have been undertaken remotely. At present, 108 beneficiaries are members of the Moringa Producing and Marketing Cooperative, participating in project activities. The Coop has been granted a title deed for the land and will have user rights to the processing plant. Phase 2 will directly benefit 17,450 people and about 35,000 others indirectly in eleven woredas in SNNPR through the joint efforts being undertaken by FAO, UNIDO and the regional Bureau of Agriculture.
Despite the slow pace, the UNIDO team has already seen significant gains on the road to formalizing the production chain. Said Aurelia,
“We created an opportunity for companies and the community to demonstrate the value of moringa. It has been used for medicinal purposes – for diabetes and hypertension. But now its nutritional value is being documented.”
With the UN Food Systems Summit (FSS) on the horizon, these types of win-wins are particularly appealing and timely. This Ethiopia experience is not only an emerging example of inter-agency collaboration, but also how UN agencies that have not traditionally engaged in the nutrition arena can make meaningful contributions towards nutrition goals.
 Seifu, E. 2014. Actual and Potential Applications of Moringa stenopetala; Underutilized Indigenous Vegetable of Southern Ethiopia: A Review. International Journal of Agricultural and Food Research. Vol. 3 No. 4, pp. 8-19.
 Establishing a Moringa-based economic development program to improve the livelihood of rural women of Ethiopia. Terminal Report. September 2018. UNIDO.
 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Development tracker. UNIDO: Improved rural livelihoods through supporting the moringa value chain development in Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, Ethiopia. Last updated on 1 July 2021. Available at https://devtracker.fcdo.gov.uk/projects/XM-DAC-41123-PROJECT-190016.