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UN award a tonic for herbal seller

By Lucie Morangi (China Daily Africa) Updated: 2015-09-20 12:13

Kenyan woman's natural remedies company hopes to parlay prize into partnership with Chinese firm

Botanical Treasures, run by a woman entrepreneur, is among 25 winners of a United Nations sponsored program known as SEED. The program recognizes small and medium-sized entrepreneurs whose innovations promote a green economy in developing nations.

Now the herbal enterprise, which sells products made from the Moringa oleifera tree, is turning its focus to expansion in the Chinese market.

 UN award a tonic for herbal seller

A traditional Chinese medicine store. Elizabeth Mbogo said she is buoyant about prospects for China to boost the exports of her herbal enterprise. Photos Provided to China Daily

Elizabeth Mbogo, 37, the Kenyan director and founder of the business, is buoyant about prospects for China to boost her exports. It also could help her shore up her domestic market share.

The leaves, seedpods and other parts of the tree are widely used in herbal medicines, as a food in many part of Asia and Africa, and in cosmetics.

It is used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from anemia to viral infections. "Moringa is sometimes applied directly to the skin as a germ-killer or drying agent," according to WebMD.com. While the effectiveness of many uses is unproven, and the roots can be toxic, the website notes that as an antioxidant, "it seems to help protect cells from damage".

Mbogo is currently exporting relatively small amounts of moringa in raw form to Asia. Additional markets include Germany and Switzerland.

"China is a big consumption market for herbal products," Mbogo says at the SEED Africa symposium in Nairobi. The two-day event brought together entrepreneurs from several African countries including South Africa, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania.

SEED is a global initiative founded by UN environmental and development programs, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. It underlines the significant role of eco-entrepreneurs in promoting sustainable development and reducing poverty at the grassroots level.

Mbogo started the company in 2007 after have a positive experience from taking powdered Moringa oleifera leaves for inadequate lactation after giving birth, but she says she was frustrated by the lack of information and public awareness of the tree's benefits.

"At the time, Internet speeds were slow while the costs for accessing it were very high. I knew more needed to be done," says the former film producer who abandoned that career path to embark on promoting the herbal product.

She discovered that the Kenyan government had invested heavily in moringa research and development. Farmers were aware of the tree's value in Eastern Kenya, an area with mostly favorable weather, and in semi-arid parts of the nation's north. But little was being done to link the farmers to the market.

With initial capital of $290, Mbogo bought the dried leaves, which are packaged and sold in downtown Nairobi.

"Very few people had interacted with this product and it was hard to sell it. But slowly, I secured outlets and more people referred others to it," she says.

To penetrate the retail market, Mbogo knew she had to improve her packaging and range of products. Access to financing became her biggest challenge.

"Because of scant information about this product, lenders were uneasy about extending credit lines to my business. Moreover, the product was new and hence experienced sluggish sales. Our payments were therefore unpredictable and this was not encouraging to bankers' eyes," says Mbogo, who has completed her diploma in nutrition from Kenyatta University.

She decided to turn her focus to the export market. There, she found more awareness about the product and European countries, especially Germany and Switzerland, became export markets for her.

Her insistence on organically farmed products is her biggest selling point, she says. "I work with 500 farmers and train them on using traditionally proven alternatives to synthetic pesticides," says Mbogo, who gets many tips from her agronomist husband.

There are a number of nonsynthetic options scientifically proven to control pests by either repelling them or causing physical damage to insects, she says. Onion and garlic are examples of natural herbs that can be intercropped to reduce pest prevalence.

This is important, she says, at a time when there is much more consumer awareness about possible adverse effects from agricultural chemicals on health and the environment. Many countries also have strict limits on chemical residues on agricultural products.

Mbogo believes her good practices earned her the SEED award, which comes with $5,000 in seed funding together with training in business expansion.

Her diligence also brought inquiries from a Chinese furniture dealer from Shenzhen who sees a good opportunity and wants to market Botanical Treasures products in major Chinese cities. If successful, she says, the proposal would involve a joint venture in which a factory would be started in Kenya to develop high-end products for export.

"Chinese people are acutely aware of the benefits derived from the Moringa oleifera," she says.

The discussions are ongoing but Mbogo says she is optimistic. The business is already exporting products to Chinese markets. The most popular are moringa nuts, reputed to treat inflammatory diseases such as rheumatism, bone problems caused by low calcium and migraines. She says they have exported about 20 tons of the seeds to Hong Kong since last November.

She, however, cautions against long-term use of herbal medicine made from the nuts, saying its use should be limited or discontinuation once the health problem has been addressed.

"We make sure we advise our clients on this information when they buy the products from our shops," she says, adding that the proposed Chinese deal would improve packaging and branding, and include information of product uses in Chinese.

She does, however, recommend long-term use of the leaves in powdered form. This can be used as an additive in tea and food. Mbogo says she would like to combine the herb with tea in teabags and believes it will be readily accepted once introduced on Chinese shelves.

"When blended together with our high quality tea, I believe it will be suitable for this market," she says.

"It is ironic that little emphasis is given to Moringa oleifera in Africa, where a high number of nutritional problems in infants are still posted. Lifestyle diseases are also on the rise, straining state health budgets."

Mbogo wants to produce more value-added herbal products for Kenyan shelves. "It can be sold as beverages, healthy snacks and even in capsules for children. Heavy investments will be needed for such product development."

Mbogo says receiving the SEED award comes at an ideal time, as her business is on the brink of expansion. "The Chinese product provides a good turning point for my business. It will mean more farmers to supply the raw product and better returns for them."

She adds that once operational, technology and skill transfers would push product innovation and employment opportunities for youths and women. She hopes to travel to China next month to cement the deal.

Mbogo says she also hopes to promote stevia, a natural sweetener, in the Chinese market during the giant China Import and Export Fair, also known as the Canton Fair, in late October and early November. For a long time China has been the biggest producer of this natural herb but demand continues to outstrip supply. "We hope to develop linkages since we have started minimal production of stevia and work toward expanding it among Kenyan growers," says Mbogo.

lucymorangi@chinadaily.com.cn

 

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