African Disruptors: MoringaConnect
The accidental story of the Miracle Tree, the MIT aerospace engineer, the Harvard development expert, and the many talented Ghanaian farmers.
When Kwami Williams and Emily Cunningham enrolled at MIT and Harvard respectively, neither of them thought they would be running a fully integrated international agribusiness that served thousands of Ghanaian farmers and counted Aveda (Estee Lauder’s natural brand) and Birchbox as customers. Kwami was well on his way to becoming an aerospace engineer at NASA while Emily was preparing to tackle international development issues the conventional route, by working for organizations like the World Bank or the United Nations, but a trip to Ghana changed everything for them.
While in Ghana, they were exposed to the following realities: 64 percent of Ghanaians were farmers, most of whom lived a precarious life, earning less than $65 per month; many of these farmers were some of the most hardworking and most persistent people they had ever met; the farmers, while hardworking and industrious, had no access to resources such as fertilizer, education, seeds which would increase their productivity; those that did have access to these resources had no access to dependable markets to sell their products; and perhaps most striking of all, aid organizations had planted hundreds of moringa trees, referred to locally as the “never-die tree” or the “miracle tree.” So, confronted with a level of poverty they had only read about but never quite experienced, and aware of the abundance of the miracle tree and the value it held, they decided to found MoringaConnect.
MoringaConnect is a vertically integrated supply chain for moringa based food products sold in Ghana (Minga Foods) and moringa based beauty products sold globally (True Moringa). The company’s business model is an example of the kind of innovation that African entrepreneurs must adopt and that African governments must support in order to create markets, jobs, and wealth for the hundreds of millions of African citizens struggling to make a living.
The MoringaConnect Business Model
MoringaConnect used one of the theories that Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, developed called jobs-to-be-done to figure out exactly how to serve the farmers. On Kwami’s second trip to Ghana, he had co-designed a human-powered machine that processed the seeds from the moringa tree into oil and was looking to get feedback from farmers about how best to disseminate the technology. The farmers were excited to see that they could process moringa seeds but quickly added, “When are you going to bring the motorized version so we can all gather our seeds together for processing? When will you give us the inputs and guarantee a market for us so we know that our hard work will not be vain?”
Listen to Kwami and Emily’s Harvard Business School’s Disruptive Voice Podcast here for more details on the story.
So, instead of simply providing a machine, Kwami and Emily began thinking about how to build a market for a product they knew little to nothing about. So it is with innovations that create markets. At the onset, the entrepreneur typically has to create an integrated business model which encompasses multiple components of the solution’s value chain. MoringaConnect did three things to create a market for both the farmers and its product in Ghana. The company provided financing and education to the farmers; added value to the farmer’s harvests in-country; and finally, created partnerships with both local and global companies to sell the processed products. Consider how this differs from simply planting the trees (like the aid organizations did) or Kwami and Emily’s original idea of simply providing a processing machine to the farmers. It is significantly more difficult. But it is also significantly more impactful. See Figure 1 for MoringaConnect’s business model.
Figure 1 MoringaConnect Business Model
In just three years, MoringaConnect has engaged more than 2,000 farming families across ten regions in Ghana, providing them nutrition workshops on how to integrate the nutrient dense moringa leaves into their everyday meals. The company also provides agricultural inputs and technical training to boost farmer productivity which has resulted in over $400k in new income from the farmers’ moringa harvest, representing a 5–10x increase in income for farmers.
MoringaConnect is currently scaling their operations in Ghana and expanding their distribution of True Moringa in the USA and Minga Foods in Ghana. They are raising $800K, of which they have closed $550K, to fuel this growth. MoringaConnect is a far cry from aerospace engineering and economics, yet their work could yield galactic returns. Both Kwami and Emily have done so elegantly, what many struggle to do: assume the risk of developing innovative business models that create prosperity for many, in the face of enticing “Harvard and MIT type” job prospects.
In 2015, the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) awarded MoringaConnect the African Impact Award at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya. As a display of humility, Kwami gave the award to his mother for her unwavering support through this arduous entrepreneurial journey.
Beyond MoringaConnect… Why this is important
The simple truth is this — Until our rocket scientists and economists pull up their sleeves and create businesses that cater to the average person in Africa, true development simply will not happen. Until our presidents and prime ministers consider policies that ensure productive employment for the average person in Africa, inclusive economic growth will continue to be elusive. But most of all, until we all change our mindsets about the capabilities of Africans, progress will continue to be slow. Africans need markets; Africa needs market-creating innovations; and Africa needs disruptors like Kwami and Emily.
Okendo Lewis-Gayle is the founder of Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance and currently a Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Efosa Ojomo is a protege of Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, and a 2015 MBA graduate of Harvard Business School. He is currently a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.