A Manitoba scientist and entrepreneur is using Canadian science to explore a neglected African plant in hopes this will create a platform to explore more high-value, underused crops.
“If we bring those resources in Africa which are neglected due to lack of knowledge, due to lack of research, if I can use the Canadian system… we can bring something impactful,” said Mulualem (Mulu) Kassa, founder and director of BioTEI.
BioTEI began its work with African moringa — sometimes called “the miracle tree” for its high nutrient content and other health benefits. Where it grows in East Africa, people use it as both food and medicine.
‘Powered by Canadian research’
Kassa originally hails from Ethiopia. He completed his PhD in the United States before working as a post-doctoral researcher for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the National Research Council Canada.
He worked on “developing cost-effective and high-throughput genetic and genomic technologies.” This technology is in use in various wheat improvement programs.
Kassa was also part of a team that published a study on wheat genomics in the journal Nature.
However, his dream was to use Canadian research to build knowledge and develop uses around neglected African plants. He saw opportunities for economic development in African countries through his research.
He founded BioTEI in March of 2018, with backing from African investors, the support of National Research Council Canada’s Innovation Assistance Program, which he calls “vital to successfully launch the R&D project.”
They had to start somewhere, and moringa showed potential as an emerging plant on the world stage.
They began with research — a lot of it. They partnered with the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie to crush moringa seed into oil, to study the seed cake for nutritional and functional properties, and to find uses for the leaves and even the hulls of the seeds. The aim is zero waste.
The data they got amazed them, said Kassa.
“As a scientist, I have to be very careful. I don’t want to exaggerate things. But I was surprised,” said Kassa.
Kassa had heard stories from people in East Africa about how they used it for food and medicine. One anecdote from the 1980s suggested some communities survived a famine by eating the leaves.
BioTEI research suggested this could be true. African moringa (Moringa stenopetala) contains minerals like calcium, potassium, selenium and iron, said Kassa. According to their data, it contains more folate than beef liver, which is listed as one of the highest food sources of folate, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
They found African moringa contains the antioxidant rutin, and its dried leaves contain about 36 per cent protein.
“Then we said, OK now science has proven it,” said Kassa. Now it was time to develop products. “That’s why we call it science driven. It was not business driven.”
BioTEI developed a facial moisturizing cream, a moringa oil product, and moringa leaf herbal tea under the brand “Moringa Steno.” It launched in January 2020.
It found a distributor in health store chain Vita Health, which Kassa praised for going over and above to help the product get off the ground. The company contributed customer testimonials and featured moringa cream as a “staff pick.”
DeLuca’s specialty grocer also picked up the product, Kassa said.
The pandemic has caused some delays, but BioTEI continues to work on new uses for moringa. They hope to blend moringa leaf and seed protein with Canadian-produced proteins like pea, oat and soy.
They plan to explore moringa-based supplements, powders and beverages, and to research its therapeutic potential. The husks of the moringa seed also show potential as a component in water filtration systems.
Kassa said the company has just received clearance to export its products and will be expanding into international markets.
“People in the world, they trust Canadian,” said Kassa. Canada has a high bar for research.
Meanwhile, Kassa said there’s opportunity to improve African growers’ quality of life.
BioTEI is able to provide a premium price to moringa growers in Africa. It’s a neglected plant often grown by poor people, Kassa said. A greater market for moringa could provide economic empowerment.
“This is a more sustainable way of support,” Kassa said.
Kassa said he hopes BioTEI can create a model for others and show that knowledge is powerful even for a crop that doesn’t grow in Canada.
He said he hopes, “Other countries might follow and support people.”