The saying that agriculture is profitable and sustainable is neither rhetoric nor a cacophony.
Careful inward looking and proactive efforts in the agricultural sector truly have the potentialities.
Income generation, employment creation and poverty alleviation potential of the sector are real considering the foreign exchange earnings from cash crops such as cocoa, cashew, palm products and moringa oleifera.
In the last few years, the demand for moringa oleifera in the international market has become high, and with the high demand come the high foreign exchange earnings.
Some Nigerians have become millionaires buying and selling (exporting or serving as agents for foreign buyers) or cultivating moringa oleifera seeds and leaves. However, the focus here is largely seed production and marketing.
So far, scientists have affirmed about six of many health benefits of the plant. This, perhaps, explains the exponential demand for the plant’s by-products.
Moringa leaves are rich in many important nutrients, including protein, vitamin B6, vitamin C, riboflavin and iron.
It is rich in vari ous antioxidants, including quercetin and chlorogenic acid.
Moringa leaf powder can increase blood antioxidant levels and the leaves may lead to reduced blood sugar levels, but more research is needed before any solid recommendation can be made.
In animal and test-tube studies, Moringa oleifera has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Moringa oleifera can also lower cholesterol levels, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease.
Animal studies suggest that Moringa oleifera may protect against arsenic toxicity. However, this has not yet been studied in humans.
Moringa seed economics and marketing
Compared with cocoa, cashew, and other cash crops, the price of moringa is far better.
It is a verifiable fact that a kilogramme of the seeds is sold for N1000 and above to net buyers, who in turn sell to exporters at a higher rate.
Poor varieties and inadequate inputs would give an average of one metric tonne (1,000kgs) of seeds per hectare in a year.
But with improved varieties and inputs such as manure/fertiliser application, irrigation in dry seasons and pest control, the yield per hectare can become as high as eight to 10 tonnes (8,000-10,000kgs) per hectare.
A kilogramme of cocoa is sold for about N600 and cashew about N500.
Inputs required in cocoa plantation maintenance and crop protection are costly, increasing the cost of production and depleting the profitability margin.
Cocoa and cashew trees start seed production after two to four years, depending on the variety.
Moringa trees start production from four to nine months, also depending on the varieties. This implies that the return commencement is faster than either cocoa or cashew.
Mr Yinka Oluwole, owner of a moringa seed trading business, Woleyinka & Son (Nig) Ltd, based in Ogbomosho, Oyo State, said buyers are mainly from India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, America and China.
Oluwole said the product is always demanded round the year, adding he constantly could not meet up with the demand from the Chinese buyers in particular. The current price he buys from farmers is N1000 per kilogramme.
Another aggregator in Ilorin, Kwara State, who also sells to an agent to an exporter, Mr Tomiwa Owolabi, buys from farmers at the rate of N900 per kilogramme, confirming the price region Oluwole says he buys.
Owolabi and Oluwole attested that having five to 10 trees of moringa plants at the backyard has been helpful for some low-income families, helping them to get some additional incomes regularly. They claimed the business of aggregating the seeds is equally rewarding.
Land clearing, preparation and planting
Moringa is a drought-tolerant crop that performs exceptionally well in semi-arid ecologies. However, it needs regular watering to perform optimally.
Land clearing, if commercial cultivation is the focus, is done mechanically. After land clearing, the land is ploughed and harrowed.
Moringa seedlings grow very fast if planted on loose and drained soil, with adequate manure or fertiliser application.
Seedlings are raised in a nursery from the seeds of the preferred varieties for a month. The nursery should be located under a shed to prevent excessive sunlight, and should be irrigated regularly before transplantation.
Transplanting the seedlings in a rain-fed culture should be done in June, when the rainfall patterns must have stabilised.
If the farm is irrigated, transplanting could be done earlier. Also, this should be done early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid dehydration and stress.
The plant population for moringa should be, as recommended by the Advanced Bio-fuel Centre, India, 1660 trees per hectare. The spacing on the same row is 2.5 metres and 2.5 metres in-between rows.
This way, maximum space for each tree would be allowed, and the yield per tree would be optimised.
Seedlings, seeds and improved varieties
There are improved varieties of moringa. They are said to be improved on two grounds. One, they are early-maturing, starting to produce fruits from around four months.
The second reason they are classified as improved is that they are higher-yielding than the older varieties.
Combining early maturation and better yields are not only profitably advantageous to the farmers but also economically sustainable to the industries.
Seeds are planted in a nursery, where adequate care is given for proper germination. They are then transplanted after land clearing and preparation.
Institutes in Nigeria where improved varieties could be obtained include the Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria (FRIN) in Ibadan, Oyo State.
Weed management, manure or
Managing weed infestation is crucial on a moringa farm, as weeds compete with the economic trees over micronutrients required for healthy growth and fruiting.
The weeds are controlled mechanically, using mowers, tractors and semi-mechanical cultivators. Manual weeding is done with machetes and hoes, while chemical means of controlling weeds are herbicides.
Weeds are also controlled using biological techniques. This is done by using herbivores such as goats and sheep to feed on the weeds.
However, this technique is used with care, and it is particularly used when the trees have grown beyond the reach of the ruminants.
Oluwole affirmed that farmers in Nigeria do harvest a tonne per hectare due to weed infestations and non-application of manures or fertiliser.
Compost manures from poultry and pig dung are used to improve soil fertility by placing such around the trees and irrigating the base. Fertiliser is another source of soil enrichment that would help in maximising the yield of moringa.
Harvesting the seeds
Seeds of moringa are harvested when the pods turn brown. Premature pods are always green, and if harvested in this form, the seeds would be whitish instead of dark brownish, and they would be hollow.
Off-takers would always reject premature seeds, and this would also amount to a waste of time, resources and efforts.
When they are fully mature, the moringa pods are brown, and the kernels become dark brownish while the seeds are fully formed.
Seeds are removed from pods, and are spread under the sun for about five hours to remove moisture. After this, the seeds are bagged, graded and stored in a cool and dry place before sale.
Starting a moringa farm
Starting to earn some good income from this less capital-intensive and stress-free agribusiness requires a portion of good farmland. The land could be leased, borrowed or purchased. The next step is clearing the land, and subsequently getting seeds or seedlings of improved varieties.
The nursery could be established in seed bags while clearing the land. This will make them ready by the time the land preparation is done.
Transplanting should be done in June to ensure plant survival, and by the end of the year, the tree would have started fruiting.
The Advanced Biofuel Center, India, claims having a genetically improved variety capable of yielding a minimum of seven metric tonnes per hectare if adequate care is given.