The skill of traditional medicine has for long been handed down orally from one generation to the other, a strategy that has seen herbalists keep their trade secret.
It is, therefore, not unusual to see herbalists marketing their products in intricately labelled containers, ostensibly to keep the ingredients private.
But Elizabeth Mbogo is changing the trade and has no secrets about the ingredients of her product that saw her ditch a high-flying career five years ago.
The mother-of-two was shoved into the world of herbal medicine at her lowest moment by her husband in 2007.
“I had no milk to breast feed my first child and all the known modern methods had failed until my husband brought me some nondescript seeds to chew and the results were instantaneous,” she says.
All over a sudden, she had milk in plenty to breast feed her bundle of joy.
Through study, she would later establish that the “magic seed” came from a wild tree scientifically known as moringa oleifera. It was used on small-scale by those who knew of its healing benefits.
“The more I used moringa, the more I got convinced to share it. I won over my extended family and friends to use it and their health improved considerably,” she says.
Internet searches and literature review on the tree surprised her as to why no entrepreneur had exploited the crop commercially.
The thought of making moringa a lifestyle for Kenyans kept recurring and eventually she quit her job from a local film company to invest in the magic tree. She started with buying the herb and going to every event she could manage — women chama meetings, school gatherings, church forums and agricultural field days just to popularise her new-found passion.
“I would receive lots of questions from farmers and consumers but I would make sales at the end of every presentation,” she says.
Her mission, she notes, went beyond teaching and helping people make the right diet choices; it involved putting in place information systems for the data which she had obtained. She went the World Agroforestry Centre searching for information on the different species of moringa and where the tree can grow best. The Ministry of Agriculture, department of nutrition, offered her a ready farmer’s forum where she championed for its planting and use.
Since she wanted to professionalise her herbal medicine practice, Ms Mbogo partnered with her husband — an agronomist — to register a firm, Botanic treasures, dealing in processing, distributing and retailing of nutritional health products majorly from moringa olifeira.
Currently, her firm has over 1,000 acres of land under moringa spread in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid areas and owned by a network of 500 farmers. The tree thrives well in arid climatic conditions.
“We are currently working with over 500 farmers in Turkana, Yatta, Makueni, Meru, Mbeere, Siaya, Bomet, Taita, Muranga, Nyeri, Kilgoris, Embu, Malindi and Lamu from whom we invest and buy the produce” she notes.
To ensure accountability, Botanic treasures works with groups of farmers.
Her husband uses his knowledge in agronomy to train farmers on best farming practices, for example, on organic pest control in order to ensure that their product meets both local and international standards.
Botanic treasures, she says, is a social enterprise offering marginalised farmers in arid and semi arid regions a crop that can make good income.
“As a social entrepreneur, I constantly plough back my profits to train farmers on growing and use of moringa,” she says.
It takes nine months for a farmer to start earning from the ‘magic tree’ with a kilo of its dry produce attracting Sh300. Her firm buys both leaves, the back and to a minor extend, the roots of moringa tree.
A well-tended acre of the tree has the potential to give a farmer about Sh125,000 every month in an entire harvesting season. The yields increase as the tree grows older.
Her company has invested in a 50-acre nucleus of the tree to ensure a continuous supply of the raw material at their processing plant when supplies are not forthcoming.
After processing in their factory based at Karen, Nairobi, the various herbal products from moringa are supplied to supermarkets and distributors in and outside the country.
“We have a distributor in Botswana with several individuals in the diaspora requesting for regular supplies from our website which we deliver,” says Mrs Mbogo.
Five years since she opened her business with Sh30,000 capital, Botanic treasures has employed eight people besides offering an income to farmers in arid and semi-arid areas.