I first learned of moringa early in my service. It's a small, thin tree, with medallion-shaped leaves resembling cooked spinach. Each serving contains more vitamins and nutrients than any other food in West Africa, and maybe the world. Native to India but found throughout the tropics, it contains, gram for gram, more vitamin A than carrots, more vitamin C than oranges, more potassium than bananas, more iron than spinach, and, astonishingly, more protein and calcium than milk. And, as a tree, it's a permanent fixture that, once matured, is capable of being harvested every few weeks.
Food security is a central issue for all of Africa, particularly when accompanied by malnutrition. In West Africa, the extent of child malnutrition is among the highest in the world. All too often children suffer most in a food crises, whether due to rising prices on the global market or drought and crop shortages--a looming threat again this year. As a Peace Corps Health volunteer in Aouloumat, a rural region of Niger, I learned that malnutrition is often caused by a lack of variety in one's diet--a vitamin deficiency--not by a lack of food. The problem is largely cyclical. If basic grains like rice and millet are in short supply and high demand--thus more expensive--less money goes towards a balanced meal. When you are very hungry, filling the belly takes precedence over finding vegetables for sauce.
The crux of the food security and malnutrition crises in Niger, particularly in rural communities, lies not in an inadequate variety of foods able to be grown, though crop diversity certainly pales in comparison to many other places in the world. The issue is more immediate and basic. During the pre-harvest, lean season (over half the year) basic grain supplies diminish, and most of the already scarce vitamin and protein-rich foods (fruits, vegetables, beans) dwindle. Even when all are relatively cheap and readily available at once (a short period of no more than a few months), the combined power of grains, proteins and fruits or vegetables is rarely taken full advantage of, either for a lack of money or knowledge, or both.
All of this calls for a local solution. Importing food in a tenuous market cannot be the answer. Though non-governmental organizations can help, the people in affected nations also bear a responsibility to help themselves, and community leaders are needed. For a few years now, Medecins Sans Frontiers [MSF] has implemented a...