“Three months after adding the leaves to the children’s meals we could see a noticeable difference in their appearance and energy levels.”
In 2005 Mavis Mathabatha retired from teaching and started working with vulnerable children – many living with impoverished grandparents – helping them with their homework and providing them with two meals: breakfast and lunch. In some cases, these where the only meals the children had. Mavis found her new commitment both deeply satisfying and heartbreaking.
‘Most people here are unemployed and people have difficulty. The children were very malnourished. You could see it with the natural eye – the bloated abdomens, swollen gums. With limited funds I was struggling to make the meals nutritious enough.’
The turning point came when a friend told Mavis about a ‘miracle’ tree growing in Malawi, called the Moringa. According to the information available, the Moringa leaves had ‘more Vitamin C than oranges, more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more potassium than bananas and more protein than yoghurt.’ The tree was also hardy, suitable to the semi-arid conditions of Ga-Mphahlele, where Mavis had established her feeding centre.
‘I imported my first seedlings from Malawi and planted the first 12 trees in September 2006. We still harvest from these trees,’ Mavis breaks off a small branch and hands me the pungent herb-like leaf. ‘After three months we could pick the leaves and added them to the children’s diet.
Three months later we could see a noticeable difference in the children’s appearance and energy levels. I could see why they call the Moringa the miracle tree.’
Mavis now set about in earnest educating the larger community and propagating the tree, establishing the Sedikong Organic Farm. By 2009, when she received a grant from the SA Trust, she was packaging and exporting the dried leaves to Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho, had distributed 6000 trees amongst households in her surrounding area, and received the University of Fort Hare research results, confirming the veracity of the Moringa’s nutritional promise. In 2010 Mavis was awarded National Female Entrepreneur of the Year award by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries. Yet she remained hampered by funding, unable to build capacity.
‘I approached the Pick n Pay Foundation. Fortunately my application was a success and I received R338,882 in financial assistance. What I valued equally was the financial workshop I attended with Suzanne Ackerman – there is so much more to learn about strategy and business management.’
Thanks to additional financial assistance from other sources, Mavis is determined to keep growing Sedikong Organic Farm, spreading the benefits of the tree while at the same time subsiding her feeding programme – the origin of it all, and still running strong.‘It makes me so happy to see the children eating and happy; to see the ladies and young boys who would otherwise be unemployed working at the drop-in centre and the farm.’
Mavis picks up a box of smartly packaged tea, proudly branded Sedikong. ‘We have now barcoded the tea, and package the leaves in a powder format, crushed like a dried herb, and in capsules. We will be looking at how to improve our processing and distribution, amongst other things. There is so much to do,’ she winks, ‘but one cup of Moringa tea and I have the strength to keep going and going.’
Box: ‘The miracle tree’
The nutritional and medicinal properties of the Moringa oleifera (also known as the horseradish tree due to its strong flavour) has been anecdotally documented for centuries, but over the past two decades more reports have appeared in mainstream scientific journals. In recent years three international NGOs in particular—Trees for Life, Church World Service and Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization—have advocated Moringa as “natural nutrition for the tropics.” Leaves can be eaten fresh, cooked, or stored as dried powder for many months without refrigeration, and reportedly without loss of nutritional value. Moringa is especially promising as a food source because the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other foods are typically scarce.
Source: Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (US)