Not Just Skin Deep: Interview with True Moringa's Emily Cunningham & Kwami Williams

We first saw Moringa Connect at Natural Products Expo East, a little over a year and a half ago. Co-Founder Emily Cunningham enticed us over to talk with her beautifully packaged, golden moringa oil, and we were hooked by the efficacy of the product and the story behind the brand. We're relaunching our Not Just Skin Deep blog series with an interview with Emily.

Tell us a bit about how you got started! What were you doing before you founded MoringaConnect?

My co-founder Kwami and I were both undergraduates and met through MIT's D-Lab program, working with small farmers in rural Ghana on a host of affordable technologies. While we were there, we were struck by the enormous potential we saw. As it turns out, there are over 1.5 billion acres of uncultivated land in Africa and 120 million small farmers living on that land earning less than $2/day. Meanwhile, the tools they needed to transform their lives were growing in their own backyards. 

It was the farmers we met in rural Ghana who first introduced us to the moringa tree. We worked alongside them to develop technologies to extract the antioxidant rich oil from the moringa seeds and supply chains to connect them to conscious consumers worldwide. 

Prior to our love affair with moringa, I had studied development economics and bounced around a number of different sub-fields of development work (including a brief stint as a rickshaw builder), and Kwami had his sights set on being an aerospace engineer (and even worked for NASA!).     

Photo credit: Agritools

Why moringa? What's so special about the moringa leaf and oil?

Moringa is known locally as the "miracle tree" because there really isn't much it can't do. Moringa leaves have more vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more protein than eggs, and more iron than spinach per serving. Moringa oil is being called "argan on steroids" for its anti-aging, moisturizing, and skin-soothing abilities. It's extremely versatile and makes a wonderful facial oil (replacement for a daily moisturizer or night cream), conditioning hair treatment, or body oil. Even the waste product from oil processing (pressmeal) can be used as a natural fertilizer, protein-rich animal feed, or flocculant to purify water. 

The tree itself flourishes in arid climates, requiring little water, and producing seeds in eight months and leaves in two months! It can be intercropped within existing crops to help those crops grow better, and replenishes the soil with essential nutrients. So for farmers, it's a no-risk, high reward source of food security and income all rolled into one. 

How do you process the oil? Who is making your product and how are they compensated?

What makes us special is that we manage the entire supply chain. We work with over 1,600 small farming families throughout Ghana, providing the inputs and financing they need (like seeds, organic fertilizer, and plowing services) to kickstart their moringa farms and the training they need to grow product up to the high standards of the global market. We then buy the seeds from them at a fair price, and ship them to our processing facility (that we designed and built from scratch and tailored specifically to moringa processing) where they are cold-pressed into our True Moringa oil. This ensures that we're able to produce both the highest quality oil and have the most social and environmental impact. To date, we've planted over 250,000 moringa trees. 

Photo credit:  Agritools

Photo credit: Agritools

What other exciting projects is the company working on?

We launched our Minga Foods brand in Ghana to make nutrition easy on the go. Our first product is an infuser pouch filled with moringa powder to add into smoothies, soups, or stir-fry for an extra boost of nutrition. Word on the street is it may be coming to the US soon! 

We're also launching the largest moringa farm in Africa - our nucleus farm - this spring. It will be steady source of organic seeds and leaves, a demonstration site for the latest permaculture and agricultural methods as well as a testing ground for off-grid processing technologies. We're excited to provide income and food security to hundreds of new farmers and ramp up production to meet growing demand!  

What products are in your beauty bag?

Photo credit:  Sasha Pedro Photography

I use True Moringa Unscented Body Oil for literally everything - it's my go-to facial cleanser, moisturizer and hair conditioner while traveling. For those of you afraid to put oil on your face or in your hair - I've been there! Every skeptic I've met who has given moringa oil a try as a replacement for their facial soap or moisturizer hasn't turned back. 

For body soap and lotion, I turn to Alaffia (they're doing amazing things with rural communities right next door in Togo) or Dr. Bronners (amazing supply chains around the world and a to-die-for peppermint aroma). For more than just the basics, I love Josh Rosebrook, Ilia, and One Love Organics.

Where do you see the company heading in 5 years? 10 years? What's your vision for the future?

Moringa oil is going to be the next "big" beauty oil - akin to coconut, jojoba, or argan. We're looking forward to replicating our high impact model and processing technologies in partnership with smallholder farmer organizations around the world to ensure that those at the bottom of the supply chain are treated fairly. 

We're really excited about Minga Foods too - we believe that true development will happen when products are not only grown and processed in Africa, but also packaged, branded, and sold in Africa - to Africans. We're looking forward to creating a line of healthy snack foods powered by moringa, utilizing all of the wonderful natural resources already grown in Ghana and the surrounding countries, but often exported to the Western world (think pineapple, mango, cashew, cocoa, honey). Over the next few years, we hope to see Minga become a pan-African brand and ultimately a global brand.