Products derived from biodiversity offer sustainable and inclusive business opportunities for smallholders and rural populations in the countries of origin. Commercialisation of underutilised species contributes to the conservation of biodiversity and promotes food security, thus helping to achieve two of the United Nations’ millennium goals.
Novel food products from so called previously “neglected and underutilized species” are booming.
The US market for herbal supplements saw an increase in volume for the ninth consecutive year, closing at almost 5.6 billion USD in 2012. In most of the cases, these products are made directly or indirectly from plants that have been neglected over the last few centuries but which are now being rediscovered thanks to their many benefits.
However, there are challenges when it comes to establishing novel plant products. Experts list four major issues that need to be solved in order to build and maintain a successful novel plant product business that generates sustainable development benefits in the countries of origin:
1. No clear benefit
Often, new products are being launched just to disappear only months after their first market appearance. Why is that? Simply because there are no or not enough functional benefits, or these benefits are not communicated clearly enough.
Markets can be developed, competition can be displaced, and consumers can be educated. Indeed, many measures can be taken to drive business forward. However, there is one big potential showstopper – legislation. The danger of legislation was made apparent in 1999 in the case of Noni (Morinda citrifolia), where the US-based company Morinda Inc. had to delay the EU market introduction of their Noni juice product because they did not apply for approval in accordance with the EU Novel Food Regulation.
3. Unsteady supply situation
It is a chicken and egg situation: consumers are not willing to buy until they have gained enough confidence in a product or are otherwise convinced of its value. This means it takes producers a while to achieve significant sales volume when introducing a new product. At the same time, producers need to provide enough stock, in case demand should pick up.
If demand is not as high as predicted then producers in the countries of origin might reduce or even stop their production and the supply of ingredients to the manufacturers of consumer products will run dry. Once demand picks up and orders start coming in, supply will then not be sufficient to meet demand.
Hence, consumers might turn away from the product, leaving it behind. This can be disastrous, especially for producing communities in the countries of origin, as a commercial flop might take away their livelihood.
4. Lack of consumer awareness
Consumer awareness of a new product (or ingredient), relevancy and trust are the most important factors when it comes to the adoption of novel food products from underutilized species. This calls for generic marketing to establish the product category in consumers’ minds.
Often, companies refrain from executing generic marketing campaigns. They fear costs and free rider effects. Consequently, the market might ignore a product, even if the novel food ingredient itself might be highly beneficial.
So is there a solution? How to overcome the challenges of marketing novel plant products?
A superfood in many ways: Moringa oleifera and its ability to serve as a source of income and nutrition
There is one plant whose recent and growing rise in popularity might suggest solutions to the above mentioned issues, and that is Moringa oleifera. Moringa is a bushy tree, originally from India, which nowadays grows throughout the tropics and subtropics. Interestingly, the regions where malnutrition is most prevalent are congruent with the regions where Moringa grows!
Moringa is different from other novel foods or underutilised species. Thanks to its nutritional and health benefits Moringa has been used for centuries by different groups around the world. Moringa leaves contain up to 30% protein and all essential amino-acids. It is high in iron and vitamin C at the same time. It also contains high values of antioxidants like cathechins, antioxidants that are also found in green tea and are supposed to have beneficial effects on the human body.
Additionally, scientific research conducted during the last 30-40 years has come to some interesting findings, such as suggesting that Moringa might be beneficial in the fight against some of the world’s most urgent diseases such as cancer. Plus, it’s a great source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and all essential amino acids, making it a true superfood.
As mentioned above, another obstacle are regulations such as the EU’s novel food regulation. In the case of Moringa, it could be proven that Moringa has been imported and consumed in the EU before 1997, thus making it a non-novel food.
In the case of Moringa, although at a small scale, production was already at a level to at least guarantee a continuous supply at the point of its introduction into the US and EU market over the last few years.
Moringa producers were in the fortunate situation that Moringa was already known to a number of consumers at this point, thus creating a certain demand. This demand has slowly picked up over the last couple of years and producers in the countries of origin can now scale up their production or even venture into this business without the fear of catastrophic failure that can be associated with staking everything on one card. This is very important, especially for smallholders and producers that work in out-grower schemes, for example in Africa.
Commercialisation of Moringa had started with the introduction of Moringa leaf powder a couple of years ago and we are now seeing Moringa being incorporated step-by-step into other consumer products.
Sure, awareness for Moringa powder and Moringa-based products is still low. However, thanks to the fact that the plant and the product name are the same, resistance to generic marketing to raise awareness is less relevant, as advertising the individual product is the same as generic advertising.
Interestingly, we are also seeing that users themselves, both through social media and within peer groups, are promoting Moringa making it easier for consumers to discover it.
So what’s the conclusion?
Commercialisation of innovative products or novel foods from underutilised species can be cumbersome for all parties involved. Moreover, in the case of failure, it can form a critical threat to the livelihoods of the producing communities in the countries of origin.
For this reason, it is vital to assess the above mentioned factors (barriers) before venturing into the commercialisation of underutilised species.
Moringa oleifera, as seen, can overcome these barriers and can provide a promising source of income to producers all over the world. Moringa is considered one of the fastest growing plants in the world, thus shortening the time span from seeding to harvest to a minimum. In addition, Moringa seeds are cheap relative to the value of leaves that can be harvested during the lifespan of a tree and the plant is undemanding making it suitable for all kinds of soils.
As a conclusion, successful development of sustainable income sources for producing communities around the world can be based on the commercialisation of neglected and underutilised species but this will not work for all plants. Success crucially depends on the characteristics of the plant chosen.
Sources and further reading:
 Villafuerte, L. R. (2009): Moringa – Malunggay Philippines, p. 89-135.
 Peter, K.V. (2008): Underutilized and Underexploited Horticultural Crops, Vol. 4, 2008, p. 11-123.