Moringa Initiative, founded by Evan and Bernice Kilburn in Zambia in 2013, has established itself as a major international bulk supplier of dried moringa leaves as well as branded moringa-containing products. Moringa is grown on the family farm outside of Lusaka, and the dried leaves are processed into seed oil, tea, powder, and capsules. The Kilburns’ daughter Natasha and her husband Lloyd Abernethy founded the Moringa Initiative in Durban, South Africa, in 2018. He discusses the company’s growth trajectory, various sales channels, and revenue-boosting trends related to health and superfoods.
When moringa was mentioned in a casual conversation in 2012, the Kilburns had been successfully farming in Zambia with various crops. The couple did some research and, inspired by the superfood’s nutritional benefits and their desire to pursue their business dream of agri-processing, hired a number of smallholder farmers to cultivate the crop on some of their farm’s available land. They also started a new company called Moringa Initiative.
The climate in Zambia is ideal for growing moringa, a hardy crop that thrives in hot, dry conditions. In just over a year, we were able to go from seed to finished product.
During those 12 months, Moringa Initiative built drying and processing units. For the farmers it employs, the company provided housing, a creche and a clinic on its property.
Abernethy says moringa requires a rigorous drying process to ensure a quality end-product.
“It is a finicky crop in terms of the bacteria, yeast and mould that can be found within the leaf,” he explains. “However, if harvested and dried correctly, you can rid yourself of those complications.”
The company could tap into Evan Kilburn’s experience as a tobacco farmer – where the crop has to undergo a similar process – when it built its custom drying unit. “After harvest, the moringa is dried at a specific temperature for a precise time to get the nutrients at a perfect level. This controls the humidity and the moisture within the leaves.”
The dried leaves then go through various processes, depending on the final product, before it is packaged and distributed.
Today, the nutritional benefits of moringa are quite well known, but when Moringa Initiative had its first products ready for sale it was a different story. Abernethy says part of its marketing drive is still aimed at educating the buyers about its health qualities.
“Moringa is a niche item; in the beginning, it was difficult to convince retail buyers to stock it. We did have the benefit of novelty because it was so unique and brand new; it at least piqued interest and we had some early successes.”
Slowly but surely, the branded products made it onto the shelves of health stores and pharmacies, and eventually large retailers as well. Today, Moringa Initiative can be found in Spar and Pick n Pay in Zambia and South Africa, with additional listings in Shoprite and Choppies in Zambia.
In terms of the most popular items, Abernethy explains it is very dependent on the geographic location. “In Zambia, our range of teas is the most popular: the lemon and ginger, apple and cinnamon, pure moringa and lemongrass,” he says. “In South Africa, the capsules sell really well and when it comes to the health stores, our 100g bags of pure moringa powder are popular.”
Although Moringa Initiative’s main objective was always the creation of a retail brand, it has found significant traction in the wholesale market, which now accounts for the bulk of its revenue.
“Putting a product into retail does come with significant costs: packaging, distribution, advertising and marketing. It helped once we shifted to wholesale where these costs are lower and the income could supplement spend on the retail end,” says Abernethy.
Over time, the company realised its core strength lay in its primary agriculture production capabilities and that wholesale supply is a viable and sustainable income stream. “The Zambian and South African markets are only so big. We’ve now established good partnerships for wholesale in the US and EU.”
The company sells to moringa brands that buy the leaves and then process and package under their own label. Food and beverage development companies and pet food manufactures also procure wholesale from Moringa Initiative.
Moringa Initiative has its own e-commerce website and, in South Africa, it is also available on Takealot.com. While it placed its product on this digital marketplace from when it started selling in the country, the pandemic lockdowns really pushed online sales.
“It picked up immensely and hasn’t slowed at all,” Abernethy reveals. “Brick and mortar stores still bring in 60% of our retail sales, but online has already picked up to 40%. This growth surprised us, to be honest, we didn’t realise there was so much scope for growth and sales on an online platform in South Africa.”
Moringa Initiative wants a share of the growth the superfoods industry is experiencing and is even considering expanding to other crops.
“At the moment, we have put all of our eggs in one basket, but we have been testing some of the others, like chia – which we have planted on the farm – and stevia. We don’t want to jump into anything else too soon. We want to make sure we’ve established our moringa products first.”
Another trend that benefits the company is that modern consumers are actively looking for the backstory of the product and the brand. “When they are drinking moringa tea, they are interested in where it was grown and harvested and what the journey from sowing to shelf looked like. We aspire to being seen as a clean-label product: organic, GMO-free, no pesticides, no chemicals,” Abernethy says.
Moringa Initiative will be receiving its organic certification soon, a move that resulted from a trade fair in the US, which the team attended in 2019 in search of export markets for its branded goods. “The main takeaway was that no one in the EU or US was interested unless our product was organically certified. Getting this in place will really help us,” he adds.