When I first heard the story of skincare brand, True Moringa, I was blown away! What the two founders have created is truly inspiring. Kwami Williams, a former aerospace engineer (yes, becoming a rocket scientist was his initial aspiration), and Emily Cunningham, a Harvard economics graduate, are proving with True Moringa that a beauty product can be efficacious, eco-friendly, and nontoxic while uplifting poverty stricken communities. Now that’s beautiful.
The two met during their undergraduate studies on a trip to rural Ghana with MIT’s D-Lab program where they were challenged to develop a practical solution to the area’s poverty challenges. The moringa tree, widely planted and uncared for in the area, became the heart of their solution.
First, their idea was to create a proprietary oil press technology and provide it to rural farmers in West Ghana allowing them to extract moringa oil from the trees’ seeds and sell it to the international market. This led to the formation of their company – Moringa Connect.
Kwami stationed himself in Ghana where the two have based their headquarters, while Emily became the US contact, and things seemed to be going well until they received feedback from farmers that in addition to tools and training, what they really needed was help accessing the international market. The two decided to form contracts with the local farmers they were working with to buy the oil from them and take on the job of selling it wholesale to skincare companies around the world. Up until 2015, this was their model, but the two took a leap and decided to create their own branded skincare company, True Moringa, with the aim of being able to provide better margins to their farmers.
I chatted with co-founder, Emily Cunningham, about bringing this impactful company to where it is today: the challenges (government corruption and power outages in Ghana); the rewards (hearing stories of farmers being able to send their kids to school); and why moringa may very well be the next hot superfood/skincare ingredient to know about – the nutritional benefits described below will blow you away!
Read on for excerpts from our interview.
What are the nutritional benefits of the moringa leaves and oil produced from the seeds?
Moringa trees are planted everywhere in Ghana for their nutritional benefits; the leaves are so rich in iron and calcium, and are incredibly nutritious – gram for gram they contain more protein than eggs, more calcium than milk, and more iron than spinach.
And what are some of the skin benefits?
Moringa oil is very similar to the skin’s natural oil production, so that means it doesn’t clog pores; it’s great for sensitive skin; it’s extremely lightweight and easily absorbs. It’s great for all skin types and can help to balance oil production while hydrating the skin.
It also contains unique plant hormones that stimulate cell growth and delay aging of skin cells making it great for reducing lines and wrinkles. We have even had testimonies from new moms that it helps with scars and stretch marks.
So, you started out selling the moringa oil wholesale to other brands. Why did you decide to shift from this model and create your own skincare brand – True Moringa?
Originally, we were just a technology company creating oil presses for small farmers to create their own oil, but we got feedback from farmers that they needed a lot more support to connect with the market. We started providing training and an extension officer, tools, and contracts saying we would buy their moringa oil. Then we started selling the moringa oil in bulk to other brands and about two years ago we decided to take a leap and create our own brand.
It has been an evolution over the past five years, but we really created True Moringa for two reasons: Firstly, by creating our own brand we are able to get higher margins for the farmers and secondly, we are able to introduce high quality moringa oil as a branded product to people who might not have heard of moringa oil before.
A large part of our business is still supplying moringa oil to other brands around the world not just the US, but in Taiwan and other parts of Africa.
What was the biggest challenges along your journey creating True Moringa?
We manage the whole supply change so on a given day we will have to deal with anything from government corruption in Ghana or the electricity being out for 24hrs – to the more conventional cosmetic sales challenges. But I would say that building trust with the local farmers was the most difficult part initially because the farmers have been let down so many times before by outsiders.
There was this one story we kept hearing where the government and other NGOs encouraged farmers to plant sunflowers for sunflower seeds years and year ago. These entities gave the farmers all of the tools and training to grow sunflowers, but then at the end there was no market for the sunflower seeds. The farmers were very angry, rightfully so, and so every village we went to no matter how remote they were would say, “Well, how do we know you’re not like the sunflower people?!”
It was a process to gain their trust, but I think working with Peace Corps was really helpful and once we got their trust it started to spread to other volunteers with other NGOS. Now it’s farmers that help spread the word; one person is an early adopter and then people will see them earning money and then say hey, I want to grow that too.
Tell me more about the government corruption you deal with and the power outages – how crazy?!
We are lucky in that Ghana is one of the fastest growing economies in West Africa – it has a better functioning government than other countries in the region, but I guess it’s a lot of bureaucracy.
For example, sometimes we have to put up with driving somewhere really far to get a form signed only to find that that person is out for the day, or dealing with someone wanting a bribe to complete a simple task that’s part of their job. But I would say the larger problem is the electricity outages which happen pretty frequently. Sometimes there will be no water or electricity for 24 hrs at a time without notice.
Why does that happen?
In simple terms, you could say that the government doesn’t pay its electricity bill. A lot of the country’s electricity and oil comes from Nigeria, so when they don’t pay their bill, they turn off the electricity basically. The whole grid is more complicated than that, but that’s a simple explanation. (If you’re curious for a more in-depth explanation, read here.)
It’s a hassle and a huge cost because when the electricity goes down and we have to make an order, we have to use the backup generator which can be very expensive. The dream is what we are now creating, which is an off grid processing center that will be much closer to our nucleus farm we are creating will run on alternative power.
Tell me about your nucleus farm and your 1 million trees planted program.
We started a campaign on Earth Day, where every order placed from Earth Day to the end of this year we will plant a tree in the customer’s name. Right now we are almost at half a million trees and by the end of the year we hope to hit 1 million.
This nucleus farm is organic certified and will act as a centralized place where we can experiment with new training techniques, hire people to work there and some of the proceeds from that farm will go back to the community into a fund for them to allocate to their needs – they can decide if they want to use it for schools, roads, or put it to use locally.
Is there any interest in becoming a completely certified organic brand? Is it even possible?
Right now we work with small farmers that are decentralized throughout the ten regions of Ghana and it’s pretty impossible to get them all certified. We work with over 2,500 farmers and they each have an acre or less of land, so the cost and time involved with getting each of those tiny parcels of land certified just doesn’t make economic sense.
But because there is increasing interest from customers and other brands that we supply for organic certification, we created our nucleus farm. We will continue to work with decentralized farmers as well, but this way we will have both organic certified and non certified oil.
What’s been one of the high points for you?
I think those little moments when you hear from farmers about how the extra income they’re earning helps them put their kids in school or make ends meet through the dry season; those have been the coolest parts for me.
Synthetic preservatives in skincare is a point of contention lately. What do you use to preserve your skincare products?
Most of our products are not water based, so we luckily don’t have to use synthetic preservatives. Moringa oil has one of the longest shelf lives of any oil; it can last 3-5 years which is pretty crazy compared to most other oils. A lot of our line is oil based and has a naturally high content of vitamin E (meaning it helps to prolong the shelf-life), so we don’t have to use harsh preservatives.
Kwami and I are both new to the skincare industry. When we first started working with farmers, we began to learn more about skincare, and we learned how lax the standards are for beauty in the US, how many chemicals are in cosmetics, and we soon became very passionate about changing our own skincare routines and helping to bring clean high quality products to market that are paraben-free, sulfate-free and vegan.
Your main offices are located in Ghana. Why did you decide to face the challenges of running a company in Ghana, when it would presumably be much easier doing the manufacturing and running the business in the states?
We find that so often commodities are exported or extracted from developing countries without much value being added. For example, there isn’t’ a local production of chocolate in West Africa even though West Africa is a huge producer of cocoa. The same with mangos and coffee. They all get exported and then processed in the US. This way we create jobs in West Ghana and add more value.
Ideally we would love to not only cultivate and produce there, but brand and sell locally as well. We started to do that with our sister brand, Minga, which uses the leaves of the Moringa tree to create superfood powders for smoothies. That product is completely made, produced, packaged and sold in Ghana.
Written & Photographed by Amy Chang