EMPOWERING EARTH

Virtuous plant rejuvenates community

Thanks to its deep roots, the acacia moringa draws upon water 60m below ground. Its cultivation thus offers the double advantage of limiting irrigation while creating a natural barrier against erosion.
Thanks to its deep roots, the acacia moringa draws upon water 60m below ground. Its cultivation thus offers the double advantage of limiting irrigation while creating a natural barrier against erosion.

TUNISIA • The people of the El Hencha, a small town not far from Sfax, Tunisia, continue to practise traditional agricultural techniques, based on the cultivation of olive and almond trees and small-scale vegetable plots, for which they need to draw heavily upon groundwater reserves.

These practices are typical of those found in areas across southern Tunisia, which has been suffering from the effects of climate change, and where these ancestral techniques are aggravating the loss of arable land.

In 2012, Ms Sarah Toumi, who had been observing this worrying situation for some time, decided to launch a project that would break with tradition: On her grandfather's plot of land, the young woman started to cultivate acacia moringa.

Thanks to its deep roots, this tree - which has its origins in Asia - draws upon water 60m below ground. Its cultivation thus offers the double advantage of limiting irrigation while creating a natural barrier against erosion. The canopy of the leaves protects the soil and even restores it through nitrogen fixing, which essentially revives soil that has become arid and lacking in nutrients.

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Encouraged by the results, and with the help of partners such as Ashoka Venture, Ms Toumi set up cooperatives that bring together increasing numbers of women to cultivate this virtuous plant on their own land. Her social enterprise offers seedlings, technical advice and help with market opportunities at the time of harvest, such as the transformation of moringa leaves into powder, mainly for the European market. Rich in vitamins and minerals, this powder is turned into a dietary supplement in the form of honey or tea.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Virtuous plant rejuvenates community'. Print Edition | Subscribe