Monday, July 20, 2015

WomInspire: Emily Cunningham of True Moringa

In the Boston community, True Moringa is one of those success stories that we all love to talk about. It's how I first discovered the brand, actually. Another blogger mentioned that Emily and her business partner, Kwami Williams, had built a beauty brand that fit into so many of my "desirable" categories. I love to see a line of products that is not only natural (and works!) but to see that they produce things in an earth friendly, responsible way is something that you can't find in your average beauty brand. I had a quick chat with Emily Cunningham and just have to say that this is the type of women who takes the phrase "You can't change the world" and leaves it in her dust.

Is it true that you guys started True Moringa while in college? #1 How ambitious + awesome and #2 Where did the inspiration come from?

First, College is the best time to start something! The resources we were able to access through our university networks, the mentorship, the energy of the social enterprise ecosystem of Boston - not to mention the benefits of being young and naive and not taking "no" for an answer :) 

The inspiration and idea behind our brand and mission came from the farmers. My co-founder Kwami Williams and I were lucky enough to travel to Ghana through MIT's D-Lab to work on affordable technologies for developing countries. While there, we were struck by a paradox: there are 1.5 billion acres of fertile, uncultivated land in Africa and 120 million smallholder farmers living on that land earning less than $2 per day. 

Think about exactly what that means- here we are, in the midst of the tropics where some of the most beautiful and valuable botanicals grow - and farmers are struggling to get by on subsistence crops. We knew there was huge untapped potential for high-value agriculture. The farmers came to us with the idea to commercialize one crop in particular called moringa, known locally as 'the miracle tree' for its medicinal properties. We went back to Cambridge to do some market research and study the benefits and were absolutely floored. 

The seeds of the tree produce nature's best anti-aging moisturizing oil for hair and skin care. The leaves of the same tree are rich in nutrients, boasting more vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, and more protein than eggs per serving. The waste product of oil processing is an ideal organic fertilizer, poultry feed, and flocculant to purify water. The tree thrives in arid climates and produces leaves within two months and seeds within 8 months, mitigating risk for small farmers. Miracle tree indeed. 

I am kind of obsessed with your vertically integrated supply chain (yes, I am obsessed with a supply chain, see image below). Why is it important for True Moringa to not only be a natural hair + skincare option but to also impact the livelihood of those involved with said supply chain?

At our core, our mission is to increase the wages and better the quality of life for smallholder farmers. The obvious benefits of controlling the whole supply chain is that we can ensure that smallholder farmers are paid well, and we understand the needs of the community and are able to address them by providing extra services.   

If you want to include smallholder farmers in a global supply chain, you have to start with the basics. Providing access to quality inputs like seeds, fertilizer, and organic pesticides, financing for plowing and planting the land, and Good Agricultural Practices training are all musts. We also provide design workshops to train farmers to create things like solar dryers and nutrition programs to teach villagers how to integrate nutritious moringa leaves into local cuisine. 

The second step of inclusion is in-country processing.  It's crazy to think that most of our cocoa, coffee, cotton, etc. is grown in developing countries (much in West Africa), but that there are no large-scale chocolate or coffee production or manufacturing plants in these places, nevermind consumer-facing branded products. If we could capture the market share that commodity producing countries have historically exported to the US and Europe, we could create so much more value and so many more employment opportunities on the ground. 

Kwami and I worked together on the initial prototypes for our proprietary small scale processing technologies, and Kwami has since scaled them up into a fully-operational centralized processing center.  

Intimate knowledge and control of our supply chain and processing not only allows us to have a bigger social impact- it also makes great business sense and ensures we can produce a higher quality product.  Small farmers are smart and extremely risk averse- for a good reason. Building trust within communities is key to preventing side selling and ensuring that cultivation goes according to plan. Having modular production capacity close to the source cuts shipping costs of raw materials by a factor of 7, minimizes the inefficiencies of a contaminated batch, makes the investment in increased capacity much smaller in targeted areas where supply is growing most rapidly, and ultimately allows for incredible traceability and understanding of the nuances of what regional factors produce the best quality oil.

I am really excited to see where you guys are headed. Where do you see True Moringa going in the future?

We have some exciting product launches in the works including a full facial care and body care line that will integrate even more ingredients native to Ghana and employ more local formulators. Stay tuned! 

When you aren't building a brand, what do you love to do?

I love live music, running, yoga, and (amateur) swing dancing!  

Also, I have heard through the grapevine that you are in a band... is this true? If so, when do you find time to sleep?

Haha, yes! My other love: Kwami is also quite the dancer, but I fear repercussions of sharing any YouTube videos, so I'll leave the googling to your readers :)    

OK, random question time, since I have an expert here, I have never used oils on my face but just realized that there is some pretty nasty stuff in my current moisturizer ( I won't name names). What Moringa product would you suggest for my face (a little bit of redness and uneven skin tone, not too dry but not too oily)? 

Big thanks to Emily for taking the time to talk about her amazing brand! You can find True Moringa on their site, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

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