Who's That Gal: Emily Cunningham of
Emily Cunningham, a recent graduate of Harvard University and co-founder of Moringa Connect, is dedicated to unlocking the potential of agriculture in Africa's farming communities by bringing us nature's miracle tree, the Moringa tree. We caught up with Emily to talk about her company's first retail product, True Moringa, social entrepreneurship, being your own boss and what it's like running a business with a co-founder who's located in Ghana.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is Moringa?
Moringa is an amazing tree that produces leaves and oil seeds that are really rich in nutrients. The leaves have more vitamin A than carrots, more protein than eggs, more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach per serving (one tablespoon) and have been used as a cure for malnutrition by NGOs and Peace Corps worldwide. The oil seeds from the tree are rich in antioxidants and moisturizing agents, so they make really great anti-aging skin and haircare products.
What inspired you to start True Moringa?
My co-founder, Kwami Williams, and I travelled to Ghana with the MIT D-Lab program. D-Lab works on affordable technology for developing countries so we were there on a class field trip to work on simple human-powered oil extraction. We were overwhelmed by the potential of the amazing botanical plants we saw growing around us, especially the Moringa tree. In talking to the smallholder farmers we met, it became clear that the supply chain for natural products was broken. Farmers needed access to finance, quality inputs like seeds and fertilizer, training on the best agricultural practices to produce up to the standards of the international market, and a guaranteed buyer to turn barren land into land that could give them a huge return and a sustainable livelihood.
So we became very interested in helping those farmers and worked for a while on small scale processing concept that we later scaled into a full-size processing center which is what we now have in the capital city, Accra.
Today we work directly with the farmers to source seeds and in return we are providing them training on nutrition, agricultural practices and a guaranteed market for their seeds.
What are the skin benefits of using Moringa?
It’s really an amazing substance. It minimizes scars and stretchmarks, reduces lines and wrinkles, repairs damaged hair and skin, restores texture and tone, and replenishes shine and strength.
You can use it on your hair and on your skin - similar to argan oil.
What challenges did you face starting an international business as a young woman?
One of our biggest challenges has been building relationships and community trust with the smallholder farmers in Ghana. They are very risk-averse, and for good reason, because of many past instances where companies came in promising false hope. Every village we go to and talk about the opportunities our company can present people say, “Oh 20 years ago this sunflower company came by telling us to plant all this stuff and never came back,” or another story along those lines.
We build trust by proving we will come back and by doing everything we say we will. We also invest back in the community by running nutrition programs and other local initiatives like building solar dryers. We try to show that we really are involved in their community.
In terms of operations, we also have faced challenges with setting up our processes for how things need to be run day to day. We have to teach the farmers things like how to plant in rows, how to use the right amount of fertilizer and also not to sell to other buyers.
Not all our challenges are in Ghana though. We have to do a lot of work to educate our consumer on the benefits of moringa, something most people have never heard of, and to get people to understand that you can use the oil for both your skin and your hair. A lot of people don’t really know that oil is really great for all types of skin - even oily skin. Moringa is such a great multi-purposed product, but it is hard to explain to people that it really can do everything. People don’t believe it!
Can you tell us more about the process that goes into your products? How do you find people to work for you in Ghana?
Processing was at the core of our business from the start. We originally wanted to be a technology distributing company where we would give human powered units to farmers and they would make their own oil. However, we found that there were tons of gaps in the supply chain and the best way to go about it was to create our own vertically integrated supply chain to include the smallholder farmers in the process. I started developing the seed sheller and Kwami did the oil press, and then Kwami led the effort to scale it up to the commercial level.
Today we make an effort to add value on the ground by employing unemployed youth in Accra rather than outsourcing our processing to the US or Europe.
Kwami directly trains these youth in engineering, design, and computer skills. Today we have 700 farmers and 8 staff who work in the processing center and as agricultural extension officers, plus Kwami and myself.
Has working abroad ever presented you with challenges?
Yes! Communication has been very difficult with the distance between the two teams, mainly Kwami plus everyone in Ghana and myself here in Boston. I go over once a year in January but the rest of the time Kwami and I rely on Skype, Google Docs, and WhatsApp.
How has being based both in Boston and Ghana influenced your brand?
Boston is a really great city for entrepreneurship. Having all the universities and accelerator programs in the area, like MassChallenge, as well as the general “you can do it” spirit makes you feel really supported.
What is next for Moringa Connect?
We just launched a new site for our retail brand, True Moringa, a new lavender facial serum (yes you can still use it in your hair) and we are aiming to launch a body butter in September. Ultimately, Moringa is just the start. We want to build more inclusive global supply chains for smallholder farmers by partnering with other high quality, ethical vertically integrated supply chains to bring conscious consumers the best that nature has to offer!
Favorite meal in Boston:
Favorite eco beauty product (besides Moringa oil of course):
Organic Bath Co.’s Shea Butter
Next country on your list to visit:
Somewhere in East Africa, Rwanda or Kenya
Key to surviving the winter in Boston:
Going to Ghana in January!
Three words to describe your style:
Pure, simple, and all-natural
And because we’re a book club, what are you currently reading?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Come meet Emily at Ladies Lounge!
We are so proud to annouce that Emily will be sharing her and Kwami's story of social entrepreneurship in Ghana at this month's Ladies Lounge on April 30th at WeWork's Fort Point office. The event starts at 6 P.M., hope to see you there! Click here for more info.