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This Bitter-Tasting Plant Powder Could Improve African Food Security

High in vitamin C and with more potassium than bananas, moringa powder already has a lot going for it, but there are also claims it could help producers in Ghana and Niger.

Hey, you over there looking a little spaced out—want something to go with your weed? Or you with the tweed jacket—want something to fatten up your pigs? Moringa powder could be just what you're looking for.

Yup, this unremarkable looking plant makes for ideal animal feed when ground into a green powder, and is also used by drug users to mix with stronger substances and create lethal cocktails.

Farming and hustling aside, moringa has joined the likes of baobab, adzuki beans, and goji berries in the nauseating world of superfoods and all the accompanying Instagram posts.

READ MORE: This Superfood Is Fighting Malnutrition in Zambian Orphanages

There has been a lot noise around moringa and it has a list of health benefits as long as your intestines. According to the Dutch artisan bakery Loaf of Nature, which uses moringa to produce its "miracle bread," the tree's leaves have seven times the amount of vitamin C of oranges and three times as much potassium as bananas.

Last year, American company Kuli Kuli Foods raised $350,000 (around £230,000) to become the first food producer to bring the powder to market in the US, in the form of energy bars. These currently come in three flavours: crunchy almond, dark chocolate, and black cherry.

"In terms of creating a sustainable and ethical brand that makes superfoods popular in the US, we want to do what Sambazon did for acai, Ancient Harvest did for quinoa and Guayaki did for yerba mate," Lisa Curtis, founder of Kuli Kuli, tells me.

That's all well and good, but what on earth does moringa taste like? A number of online recipes including it discuss the need to mask its bitterness. The problem may be how it's prepared. As Malcolm Riley, a.k.a. The African Chef, tells me, "if something doesn't really taste good to you, then it's not really going to do you any good to eat it," regardless of health benefits.

"Moringa has a very deep, earthy, smoky flavour, but it's also very strong. If too much is used then it will tend to overpower whatever you are cooking," explains Riley, whose company sells moringa-based chilli relish. "It [the relish] has been made from combining the moringa with apples, chillies, and green peppers. And it really complements sausages well."

The moringa tree can improve nutrition and food security in the communities where it's being produced. Unlike traditional crops such as cereals, which are more vulnerable to droughts, it can thrive in harsh conditions.

Is there any sage advice Riley would give when it comes to choosing foods to pair with moringa?

"As a rough guide, I've found that it seems to go well with fruits and vegetables that are the same colour, so limes, avocados, coriander, cucumber," he says. "It's also an OK thickening agent [for soups, smoothies and ice cream etc.], but it does have a gelatinous property, a little similar to okra. Compared to baobab, which has a higher pectin level, you need to use a lot more to get the same thickening effect."

You can get your mitts on moringa powder at numerous health stores. But be aware, the green stuff may have racked up a hefty amount of food miles on its way to your stomach. The moringa tree is typically grown in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Haiti.

Kuli Kuli gets its powder from Ghana and Niger, which Curtis tells me also has a social purpose. The company partners with women cooperatives to ensure that it has a clean supply chain, and that the workers producing the powder are paid a fair wage. While a portion of the powder is imported to the US, the rest is sold by the women in their local communities.

See, moringa is apparently more than just another superfood for gourmands who like to consume these things as if they're going out of fashion (well, aren't they?). The moringa tree can improve nutrition and food security in the communities where it's being produced. Unlike traditional crops such as cereals, which are more vulnerable to droughts, it can thrive in harsh conditions.

This means that if crops fail, smallholders can rely on the trees to ensure they are able to generate added income and food to support their families. The leaves will typically be eaten raw, or cooked and sautéed with oils, onions, or garlic. They can also be ground into powder or a fine paste, which can then be mixed into porridge or stew.

READ MORE: Your Kale Chips and Expensive Juice Have Nothing on West African Food

And the benefits of moringa don't end there. Being rich in vitamins and minerals, it's thought to be an ideal candidate to treat disease and malnutrition, and the development community is already recognising its potential. In Haiti, powdered moringa leaves have been given to people with HIV and AIDS, the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organisation awarded the tree its "Traditional Crop of the Month" prize, and World Vision is halfway through a four year project to promote moringa growth in Niger. The NGO also plans to train groups of local women in the tree's cultivation, a bit like Kuli Kuli.

All sounds pretty rosy, but there is a slight irony in the fact that moringa is being produced for people who have too much food by people who can't get enough food. Despite this, Curtis believes Kuli Kuli's business model provides skills and tools for communities, and is more sustainable and self-sufficient than food aid, which has so often fallen flat on its face.

But the food supply chain is complex. Producers will always source ingredients from smallholder communities in developing countries, sometimes paying them a low wage. It's left to another member of the Kuli Kuli team, Michelle Chirby, to try and convert me to its social mission.

"We have planted over sixty thousand moringa trees to date and employed over 500 women farmers," she says. "Many of these women we are working with make five to ten times the average income in their region. This is money they can then use to feed their children and better their education."