Friday, June 15, 2012

Kopto (Moringa oleifera): One solution to food insecurity and malnutrition in Niger

My travel companion opened a large Tupperware box and a very pungent, earthy-sour smell with a hint of sugar enveloped our old Toyota Land Cruiser. Her lunch consisted of roasted chicken thighs and some type of cooked leafy green. I turned my head away in a vain attempt to lessen the impact of her lunch on my nostrils and looked out at the dry, sandy landscape rolling by my window. Monoculture and deforestation had clearly taken their toll on the environment in this part of southern Niger. Men with handmade hoes were breaking through the parched earth to uproot desiccated millet stalks, piling them onto rickety wooden carts pulled by beleaguered donkeys. It had recently drizzled in this area of the country, so the farmers were preparing to sow their millet fields. If Niger does not receive an adequate amount of rainfall this year and these farmers’ crops die, the country, like many in the Sahel, will have to address a major food crisis. Desertification coupled with one of the highest population growth rates in the world increases Niger’s vulnerability to the consequences of crop failure - poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.

As we bounced along and my nose acclimated to the odors in the car, I realized that I was smelling something familiar. The greens in my companion's lunchbox were kopto, a type of leaf eaten in Niamey especially during the month of Ramadan. In fact, we were on our way to a kopto farm to talk to the women who cultivate it and to learn more about their proposal for packaging and selling their kopto harvests.

In Zarma, kopto means leaves in the general sense but has come to be associated specifically with the leaves from the tree Moringa oleifera. Zarma speakers also call it windibundu while Hausa speakers refer to it as zogala gandi. Moringa trees are native to northern India but are common throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Its ability to thrive in areas with poor soil and low rainfall make it an ideal candidate for fighting against desertification in the Sahel. In addition, its rapid growth rate and highly nutritious leaves and beans present Niger with one compelling solution to chronic issues of malnutrition. Some Nigeriens also believe that this panacea lowers blood sugar levels, making it an ideal food for diabetics.

A niébé field bordered by moringa and papaya trees
The farm we visited was lush and green, unlike the fields we passed to get to our destination. Moringa trees were growing along the edges to demarcate each plot and serve as a windbreak for other crops such as sorgho (sorghum), millet, and niébé (black-eyed peas). In return for their protection, the Moringa trees benefit from the weeding, fertilization, and irrigation of the other crops. The multiple harvests provided by the quick-growing leaves ensure that the farmers have a source of income and food when the other crops are not producing. One of the few drawbacks to this plant is the fact that it requires irrigation in the first months of its life until it becomes established and can survive on sparse rainfall alone.

After showing us their fields, the women took us to see their homes where they dried the Moringa leaves on their roofs. They explained to us that this situation is not ideal because the leaves lose nutrients when exposed to sunlight. In addition, they lacked proper storage and packaging facilities, so the dried leaves were kept piled-up on the dirt floors of their one-room huts until market day. Before leaving the village, one of the women gave me some freshly cooked moringa leaves in an effort to convert me. Although I love the kopto dish associated with Ramadan, I decided to try making a wheat-berry salad with the leaves. It has become a regular side dish at meals in my home, but it could easily be a light lunch since the wheat-berries are filling and the kopto is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, and protein.

Granaries along the road.
Crop diversity projects, like the women’s kopto cooperative I visited, benefit rural farmers who are most likely to be affected in a food crisis. By moving away from monocultures, promoting reforestation, and looking to alternative sources of food, farmers can begin to reverse the effects of desertification and improve their resiliency in times of low grain production. Organizations, like the Eden Foundation, are researching which native perennials can be planted amongst annual crops to improve soil fertility, discourage topsoil loss, and most importantly, diversify nutrition for the people. This focus on native plants addresses the issue of irrigation, a technology that is not available to everyone. Other initiatives that are working to better nutrition and food security in Niger are:

Helen Keller International: educating families about infant and young child feeding to reduce malnutrition and give children a better start in life

Africare - Niger: multiple projects addressing issues such as food security, good governance, education, and management of natural resources 

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