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Moringa Oleifera Research in Haiti: The Acceptance of a Community

Posted: May 6, 2015

by Cara McDonald

Abstract

A research project was conducted in 2013 to examine the diffusion process of Moringa tree practices in Haiti and the seed maturity at which the seeds should be harvested to produce oil. The Haitian people in Williamson, Haiti, are willing to accept the benefits of the Moringa tree when the practices align with their culture. Facilitation of diffusion of Moringa tree practices should focus on empowering a local to take the lead in distributing and communicating information. The most successful promotion of Moringa tree occurs when community members witness the various benefits of Moringa first hand. Access to markets is the key factor in income generation from Moringa products. Level of maturity of Moringa seeds to produce 90% of oil is still unknown, however the subject has merit for further investigated.

Introduction

Moringa oleifera, commonly known as the moringa tree, is a multi-purpose tree that fulfills many basic human needs and can potentially be an economically supportive tree for the Tropics. The tree leaves can combat malnutrition by providing essential amino acids and vitamins while the seeds have been known for centuries to clean water. Additionally, valuable oil with medicinal and nutritional uses can be extracted from the seeds. This tree provides food, water, and income. It is non-invasive, fast growing and prevalent in equatorial lands, which coincide with regions suffering the most from malnutrition and economic instability. These facts led published author Lowell J. Fuglie to state: "It is surely no exaggeration to call the Moringa oleifera tree The Miracle Tree." (Fuglie, 2001)

Mature Moringa seeds contain 40% oil that can be sold on the market for $12 - $17 for a 2 oz. bottle in the United States(Lalas et al. 2002). Websites such as Ulta.com and Moringasource.com claim that the oil is "highly valued in the cosmetic industry for its exceptional anti-aging properties. The antioxidants and the nutrients present in this oil blend help curb the damage free radicals can have on skin." This oil can be extracted simply using a seed press. Although research has been conducted on extracting the oil from mature seeds, little work has been done to precisely document the quantity of oil that can be obtained from seeds of a particular maturity (i.e., seed mass).

Due to the Moringa tree's ability to combat malnutrition and provide food, water and income, this tree is perfect for communities in developing countries where these necessities are major issues. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, access to education is low, in rural areas almost 90% live below the poverty line, and basic social services are practically nonexistent (WFP, 2015). The infant mortality rate in 2013 was 55 of every 1000 births with a population of 34% under the age of 14. Of the total population in 2012 50% were undernourished (World Bank, 2015).

In the community of Williamson, Haiti, there is an orphanage that houses, feeds, and educates 45 children on a daily basis. The surrounding community is made up of rural poor families. The Moringa Tree has potential to serve this community. In 2013, I conducted a research project that aimed to access the community acceptance of Moringa Tree practices and the optimal seeds size for oil production in the Haitian community of Williamson. I conducted an in depth study of a typical village's willingness to accept new practices involving the Moringa Tree. I also did a less thorough study of other Haitian communities which provided further insight on the general populations acceptance of the tree.

Timeline

I received $3,000 from the Summer Discovery Grant for Undergraduate Research in 2013. These funds covered travel costs, in country costs and research materials. I received Institutional Review Board (IRB) permission and I conducted pre-field research on Moringa tree practices, seeds, leaves, oil production and others successes. I departed for field research in May 2013 and returned in August 2013.

Field research consisted of interviewing participants, traveling to multiple communities and organizations, and tracking trees and seeds. At the initial participant meeting, I obtained informed consent from participants. After the initial meeting where participants collected a tree, two weeks was given before traveling to households and conducting interviews and presenting information about the benefits and ways of using the tree with descriptive posters.

Methods

The original goals and methods changed and developed during the life of the research project. In the proposal stage, I set two main objectives for field research during May-August, 2013, with clearly planned methods and research procedures.

  • Objective 1: At what seed maturity should the seeds be harvested to produce oil? Seed maturity can be measured by harvest date, but a more precise measurement is seed mass and dimensional size. The objective was to find the earliest date at which the seeds contain 90% of the final oil.
  • Objective 2: Will the people in Williamson, Haiti, accept the practices and benefits of the Moringa tree?

Objective 1

Methods of obtaining seeds and oil at the proposal stage. A stock of 500,000 Moringa trees is maintained at Signa Haiti, an independent NGO in Archahaie, located 10 miles from the House of Hope orphanage. Signa Haiti's managing director and long-time researcher of the Moringa tree, James Kishlar, was a contact willing and able to provide the tools and trees needed to conduct the research project. Seeds were to be collected at various sizes and maturity from trees provided by Signa Haiti planted on the orphanage grounds. The organization had a seed press that could be used for pressing the seeds at their various maturities. Quantity of seed oil was to be measured at various seed maturity and observations of oil released from the seeds were to be made. Once optimal seed size was determined, a screen would be made that the people could use to sift seeds to find the correct size seed for oil production. Furthermore, I planned to return with seeds to Penn State in the Fall of 2013 for further chemical analysis.

Methods of obtaining seeds and oil in the field stage: method adaptation. Although Signa Haiti was a fairly close location, travel was difficult and costly in Haiti. Travel to the site only occurred three times within the field research stage. It was pivotal that research methods adapted to the field conditions. Seeds were tracked at a closer location where a Williamson community member maintained 20 Moringa trees. This location was a tropical forest lust with tropical trees and community members' gardens. The forest was a 10-minute walk, meaning easy access to the trees daily. To track seedpods from flower beginnings, a colored zip-tie and photo was taken marking each branch with the date and time it was tagged. However, the new location also presented challenges.

Transition to using these trees did not occur until early June. At that time the trees were all flowering and they did not have time to grow seeds before I departed from the country. In late June, there was heavy rainfall and strong winds that destroyed a large portion of the participating trees. The location was close to many residents and the trees were not barricaded or secured from their surroundings, allowing for animals and residents to interfere with the tracking of tree seeds.

Due to these challenges and the lack of time to adapt for sufficient seed size tracking, in late July I changed my research objective. I began collecting seeds around the village and tracking exact tree location and time of seed harvest rather than tracking size. These seeds were brought back for further analysis in the chemical engineering lab.

Oil production also presented a challenge. After consulting with others in Haiti working with the Moringa tree and talking to the local Haitians, it was determined that oil was not regarded as a viable product. The way Haitians were accustomed to acquiring the oil is through boiling the dry seed and scraping off the top layer that appears to be oil. This method of obtaining oil destroys much of its nutritional value. Also, without proper production and storage the oil becomes rancid easily. The oil did not prove to be a supportable product to promote within this context. Therefore, I changed methods to only collecting seeds for home base research purposes and I mainly focused on the second research goal.

Objective 2

Acceptance and diffusion facilitation in Williamson proposal stage. I sought to address this objective through an action research approach by answering these questions: Will the Haitian people in Williamson accept the practices and benefits of the Moringa tree and how can their adoption and diffusion be facilitated? These questions were to be evaluated within the community and at the orphanage. IRB permission was obtained to conduct research with human participants. I planned to teach heads of five specific households to grow, maintain. and cultivate the Moringa tree in their yards. Each week, I planned to interview the participants on their tree usage. The five households were to be categorized on their income level, education level, and number of people living within. Acceptance was to be evaluated by how often the individual households: 1) ate Moringa tree leaves, roots and seeds and 2) extracted the oil to use or sell.

Many of the households observed were know to participate in the open market, where it was assumed the oil would have potential to be sold for medicinal use. A seed press was to be built and maintained on the orphanage grounds, so the practices could be continued after I departed. Sustainable continuation of the diffusion of the tree practices was to be continued through weekly contact with Haitian Agriculture Program Manager, Isaac Adrien, from August-December to keep track of the project's progress. I planned to return in December 2013 to conduct follow up interviews with participating community members to determine the rate of adoption and identifying factors of decline. However, these plans were adapted as the research project was conducted on the ground in Haiti.

Acceptance and diffusion facilitation in Williamson: method adaptation. The methods for objective 2 changed drastically due to country context and cultural norms, what was unknown prior to field research, limited field research time, and other research questions becoming important and more feasible to address such as: What is the best method for gathering participants? What incentivizes/de-incentivizes participation in innovation-diffusion within the culture? How do Haitians react to someone from a different culture attempting to influence them? Do Haitians prefer to use Moringa in certain ways? Finally, What is already being done with Moringa Tree in Haiti?

The method of gathering participants was a challenge and changed from five specific households to eight community members that expressed interest. Originally an announcement was made at the local church for participants to gather on a Monday afternoon at a specific time. The recruitment announcement was made at the orphanage church because it was the most common gathering place and time was limited. Although this method excluded the opportunity for evaluation of other community members who did not attend the orphanage church, it seemed to be the best option in recruiting a significant number of participants.

At the scheduled time of meeting, only a few people showed up at the meeting and they were 1-2 hours late. The challenge became communication. Without the convenience of a quick email or text, the best way to facilitate the first meeting was to hold it immediately after church. When this was done, over 20 people stayed, expressing that they were interested in participating. I realized it would not be easy to manage 20 participants, nor would it be possible to interview 20 participants each week. Using the Haitian culture's disregard for time as an advantage, I again changed the method for participant recruitment. I stated that whoever would like to participate continually had to come to a meeting at 4:00pm sharp the following day to receive a tree for participation. This lead to a decline in participation to 8. I continued as planned with the 8 participants in Williamson and did two interviews with each during the time I was there.

At the initial meeting, it became evident that community members were already aware of the Moringa Tree and already had Moringa planted. This led to another research method adaptation. Many community members knew what the Moringa tree was, but many were unaware of its nutritional benefits and multiple uses. A plethora of Moringa trees were already in the Williamson community; the facilitation of the adoption of the Moringa tree did not seem needed. Thus objective 2 changed to furthering the knowledge of the Moringa tree benefits and practices with a focus on participant preference of using the leaves versus leaf powder.

As the project progressed and results were determined, I also changed methods to successfully facilitate the diffusion of the Moringa Tree. At the end of the project, instead of distributing trees, community members were incentivized to request a tree. To ensure the sustainable continuation of the project, I realized that my return and influence was not the most effective and materials were passed to a participant that expressed interest in continuing the spread of Moringa. This method proved to be more successful and sustainable.

Since Moringa is used in Haiti, I devoted time and research to learning what other organizations were already doing to promote the Moringa tree. Instead of only researching within the community of Williamson, other communities were observed to gain further knowledge of the Haitian uses for the tree.

Results

After interviewing and observing the children and staff at the orphanage, I discovered a few key themes. A 35-year-old participant with 5 children illustrates the finding that the simplicity of the Moringa tree makes it easy for Haitians to accept and use. During my interview with her, I noticed that she had 20 Moringa trees in her small yard. Some were short; others lined her property, serving as a fence. The participant was illiterate, did not complete high school, and struggled to make a living. She described her love for the Moringa tree and her use of it in every meal. When questioned about her first encounter with Moringa she stated that she saw American missionaries distributing the seed, so she decided to try it and found that she liked the taste and continued to eat it. After seeing the nutrition facts, she was surprised and expressed that she simply ate the leaves and flowers of the tree because she liked them. She also said in the interview that her children were hardly ever sick and she used to be anemic. However, since eating Moringa she had been cured. Some of her trees were cut low and shrub like. Some growers of Moringa believe the young shoots to have more nutritional value. When questioned why she kept the trees pruned, she responded that it was because it is easier to get to the leaves when the trees are short.

Through another participant, I realized that a foreigner should not be at the forefront of promoting the Moringa tree, but rather observe what happened when Haitian participants took ownership of using it for its benefits. One of the participants I observed was the house mom. Her responsibilities included cooking for the children and guests, supervising staff and taking care of the children. I presented a bag of leaf powder to her and I instructed her to put the powder in my food to help me not get sick, because it had many vitamins. The participant misunderstood due to the language barrier, and thought I was implying that her food made me sick. The participant used the whole bag in my food that night out of anger and frustration with me pushing the Moringa powder on her. Through this participant and through other experiences with the Haitian culture, I concluded that the people are very prideful. For an American to instruct them on something they take pride in, such as cooking, was unacceptable. This pushed me to further adapt my research methods for clearer understanding of Moringa in Haiti.

Another example of this included a 95-year-old lady who participated and was constantly seeking approval of her trees. Through her responses to questions, I found that she was more interested in the Moringa tree because an American was the one giving her the tree and coming to see her. I also realized that, for the use of the Moringa tree to continue when I left, I had to let the Haitian people do what they wanted with it, using it in ways that were familiar and fitting to them. Instead of seeing the benefit from me promoting it, the community saw the benefit from others in the community.

When the results were applied for the remainder of the research project and I removed myself from the forefront of promotion, I observed that the community members and participants best saw the benefit of Moringa Tree when another participant had success. For example, another participant was a lady living at the orphanage as well. When I arrived in May, she was pregnant and due to have her baby in the next month. When she went to the hospital to have her baby, she and the baby had many complications. They both had to have blood transfusions and the baby was severely underweight. The participant was not producing breast milk in either breast. When she returned home after being in the hospital for 2 weeks, I encouraged her to eat Moringa every day. She stated at the time that the doctor had also told her that and so agreed to eat Moringa daily. After a few weeks of eating Moringa leaves or Moringa powder every day, she started to produce breast milk that she reported was greenish in color. The baby gained a significant amount of weight in the following weeks. The community members saw what had happened when she started to eat Moringa and they saw the nutrition it provided for this participant. Through witnessing the benefits the Moringa tree can provide, the community gained a greater interest in Moringa. I observed more community members coming and asking for seeds. This participant's success also increased the frequency that the orphanage used it in meals for the children.

Not only did the participant with the baby provide an example for the community of the Moringa Tree, the orphanage Moringa trees also showed people the benefits. The trees on the orphanage property grew very fast. When people came from the community to the orphanage they remarked at its quick growth and the shade it provided.

I also conducted field work in several communities outside Williamson including Fort Jacques, Kenscoff, Callebasse, Cazale, La Gonave, Titanyen, Port-au-Prince, and Arcahie. I observed a wide variety of urban and rural areas, as well as different landforms and climates. I noted that Haitian people of different regions acted very differently towards the Moringa tree than the community members of Williamson.

I also observed organizations that utilize Moringa. La Gonave is an island off the coast of Haiti. The population is about 75,000 and most people suffer from extreme poverty. It was there that I observed the WISH (West Indies Self Help) organization for its involvement in Moringa. WISH had been working in La Gonave for about 60 years and utilized the Moringa tree for the past 20 years. Berry Gould explained that the organization distributed power form Moringa to medical clinics. They also did educational programs and distributed seeds or small trees to the community.

Berry explained that many years ago there was a massive famine on the island. During the famine, the people who were most desperate for food would resort to eating raw leaves. Now, eating raw leaves is a status representation, showing that one is poor and starving. He stated that it has a negative connotation within the culture there and the people of La Gonave do not usually eat raw leaves or put them in their food. For this reason, the people that WISH foundation works with on the island, tend to prefer leaf powder rather than raw Moringa leaves. I realized that the same ethnic groups act differently towards Moringa because of their location in the country.

I also observed a mountainous rural area in La Gonave. Moringa was highly prevalent and I concluded that this rural village had discovered Moringa long ago. The people not only ate Moringa, but they were also aware of its ability to be a strong companion plant and they stated that it helped their gardens grow faster.

Callebase, Haiti, is located outside of Port-au-Prince at a high elevation and in a more developed area. Agriculture is abundant in this location and, compared to other regions of Haiti, malnutrition and starvation are not as rampant. Moringa tree was not as abundant in this area as it was in Williamson or La Gonave. Many people in the area had not heard of Moringa tree.

Wayne Farm is located in Kenscoff not far from Callebase at an altitude of 1500 meters. A Haitian American woman named Jane Wayne was in charge of the farm and provided information on Moringa in this region of Haiti. Because of the high altitude, the climate is not suitable for Moringa. At the Wayne Farm, Jane sold products from Haitian craftsmen such as jewelry, clothes, purses, and Moringa powder. A 6 oz. container of Moringa powder was sold for $2.50 USD. The powder was bought from a farmer that she employed in Cazale. The farmer grows thousands of trees and makes the powder by hand. Jane noted that she had only sold the powder to tourists and never to a Haitian local. Based on this observation I concluded that Moringa products such as powder are not likely to be viable products on the Haitian market, even though, a simple Google search reveals many Moringa products for sale outside of Haiti. Moringa is a potential source of income for Haitian farmers, yet access to tourist markets is essential for success.

In Cazale, I watched Jane Wayne's Moringa farmer while he produced Moringa powder. To make the powder, he dried the leaves on large tarps then put the leaves into a 3-foot mortar and pestle to be ground finely. Mashing the leaves was a labor-intensive process and the farmer often had to switch with someone for a break. After mashing the leaves he passed it through a fine cloth onto a tray, and then scooped it into a large plastic bag. Much of the powder was lost in production. Based on this, I concluded that there was potential for a more efficient way to produce the powder.

When I visited a hospital for malnourished children in Port-au-Prince, I again noted that westerners within the country are often the promoters of Moringa tree in Haiti. The western missionaries used Moringa powder daily in the children's meals.

Analysis/Discussion

Communities and locations in Haiti differ in their attitudes towards Moringa. It seems that the less-affluent communities are more knowledgeable than the more-affluent communities about the Moringa tree. This is something that would require further research. Although in some areas where Moringa was not abundant, it was not hard for the people to try it once hearing about its benefits.

Through interviewing and observing the community of Williamson, Haiti, I concluded that they are willing to use the Moringa tree. Their knowledge of growing the tree is sufficient. They are able and sometimes willing to adapt quickly to add the leaves to their food. Moringa powder in Williamson is not a marketable product because the tree's supply is too high, resulting in zero demand for Moringa tree products when trees are easily accessed. The powder is not preferred in food, and raw leaves are more acceptable in common dishes such as spaghetti, rice and the common vegetable dish, legume. The community members generally accepted information best when passed along from other Haitians or from witnessing the information themselves. The simplicity of growing the tree and its rapid growth made the tree most desirable. The small sample of participants provided in-depth insights on the obstacles to the widespread adoption of the Moringa tree in Haiti. The results may serve as a foundation for broader research in the future in Haiti and other countries.

Challenges that were faced during research included cultural barriers to acceptance and time of field research. There were many new research topics that came from my three months spent in Haiti such as, why do Haitians differ in their knowledge about Moringa across various regions? I also noticed a possible relationship between differing knowledge is the proximity to foreign missionaries and expatriates. Cultural barriers that became a challenge were the race relations between a white female and average Haitian, i.e. what acceptance was out of genuine interest versus what acceptance was related to race relations as described in the accounts of participants.

Time was a challenge, especially when it came to tracking seeds. Haitians in Williamson described the Moringa tree to have a "pod season" and a "flower season." It seemed that upon my arrival in May, the seeds were at full maturity, falling off the tree and at the end of the summer, seeds were just beginning to flower. If there were more time to track seeds, they could be collected and examined. The seed season is also a topic of further investigation.

There were some factors that could improve the accelerated acceptance of the Moringa Tree and future innovations in Haiti. For example, some people assumed they would receive a certificate after attending an informational meeting about Moringa tree. Many expressed that they would be more interested in participating if they could receive a certificate of participation. It is also important to note that the descriptive posters were one of the most influential materials in showing people the importance of the Moringa tree. Many participants were illiterate and the pictures of the nutritional benefits were very helpful in teaching them. This could also be relevant to future attempts at innovation diffusion in Haiti.

Conclusion

The Haitian people of Williamson, Haiti, are willing to accept the benefits of the Moringa tree and they are willing to accept the practices of the Moringa tree that align best with their culture. In attempt to facilitate the diffusion of an innovation in Haiti, the facilitator should not push and promote in the forefront, but rather empower a Haitian community member to do so. When the benefits of Moringa were observed first hand, it made it more appealing to community members and participants to try Moringa. Moringa products, such as oil and powder, have potential to be a source of income if farmers have access to tourist markets and can produce Moringa efficiently. I was unable to determine optimal maturity for Moringa seeds to produce 90% of oil, however, further investigation with an ample amount of time to track seeds, will help me to determine that.

Resources

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