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Emily Cunningham of True Moringa

The co-founder on Ghana’s ‘miracle tree’, what surprises people most about moringa oil and ‘clean’ versus greenwashed products.

The story of how True Moringa, a skin and body care brand rooted in the moringa trees in Ghana, was founded is pretty amazing. Emily Cunningham and Kwami Williams were undergraduates (Emily was studying at Harvard; Kwami at MIT) when they met on a MIT D-Lab programme trip to Ghana. Their goal was to develop affordable technologies to rectify the area’s poverty challenges.

There, they came to know the moringa tree, which grew abundantly across the country and was commonly used to cure malnutrition, and as a medicinal ingredient. They were asked by local farmers if they could work together to introduce the tree to the global market.

Initially, the concept was to create an oil press technology to allow farmers to extract oil from the trees’ seeds and sell it. But access and support was needed, so Emily and Kwami began buying the oil directly and selling it wholesale to beauty companies. Then came a leap of faith to start their own skincare company in 2015. 

The brand’s signature product is a face, hair and body oil that nourishes and protects pretty much every surface and part on your self. Offerings have since expanded to body butters, body polishes, soaps and lip whips. To date, True Moringa has planted almost 300,000 moringa trees; empowered 2,500 farmers with food security, and multiplied their incomes ten-fold to not only meet their supply needs, but also cater to a demand greater than expected. 

Still, the plan is to go beyond the moringa tree, to discover the potential of more natural botanicals — and bring jobs and income to smallholder farmers. That’s what we call giving back.


“Gram for gram, moringa leaves contain more iron than spinach, more protein than yogurt, and more calcium than milk.”

True Moringa Pure Moringa Simplicity Facial Oil

We love roll-ons and these mini moringa ones are perfect for dry spots and under eye application

How did you personally discover moringa oil’s skincare benefits, and what are your favourite ways to use it?

While working with farming families in Ghana, my co-founder Kwami and I were drawn to the moringa tree. Aid organisations had planted moringa trees throughout West Africa for the nutritional benefits of moringa leaves. Gram for gram, moringa leaves contain more iron than spinach, more protein than yogurt, and more calcium than milk. Our vision was to help farmers earn a living wage by cultivating the trees at a commercial scale.

We went back to our labs at MIT and researched the cosmetic applications of the unused part of the tree — the seeds. After learning the many benefits of moringa for hair and skin, it quickly became a staple in my own personal beauty routine. I use it as a daily facial moisturiser, a hair conditioner, a gentle makeup remover and a cuticle oil.

Consumers are becoming increasingly sceptical about beauty products that claim to deal with every skincare issue. Which skin types are moringa oil best suited for, and roughly how soon can people see results?

The great thing about moringa oil is that its fatty acid composition mimics the skin’s natural oil. Therefore, it helps to balance oil production in oily skin and nourishes and hydrates dry skin. Most of our customers see noticeable improvements in hydration and elasticity immediately, and more even skin tone (reduced appearance of redness, fine lines, and wrinkles) within a week or two.

Tell us how the oil is obtained, from when trees are first planted, to the harvesting of the seeds and extraction process, right up till when they are bottled.

We work directly with 2,500 small farmers to provide the tools, organic seeds, fertiliser, and training they need to plant and grow moringa well. We have a dedicated agricultural extension officer in each region of Ghana committed to following up with these farmers and aggregating seeds. From here, the seeds are transported to our central processing facility where we cold-press our oil seeds into moringa oil. The oil is then loaded into jerry cans and shipped overseas to the US where it’s bottled and combined with other natural ingredients to create our body and lip care line.

“The great thing about moringa oil is that its fatty acid composition mimics the skin’s natural oil.”

True Moringa Mystery Burgundy Anise Lip Whip

True Moringa’s Mystery Burgundy Anise Lip Whip is one of three naturally coloured and flavoured lip care products

What are some other ingredients that have been added to True Moringa’s products which enhance their efficacy?

Our entire line is 100 per cent vegan, paraben-free and natural, and we are committed to using and sourcing ethical ingredients that serve the people who grow and cultivate them.

We’re particularly excited about the addition of Vega Nicaraguan coffee to our Rejuvenating Body Polish. They have a similar supply chain, working directly with small farmers and roasting and processing locally. Their coffee is the freshest, most unique we have come across.

We also work with our own farmers who cultivate shea on the side for use in our soaps and body butters.

When you and Kwami first launched the brand, what was the biggest challenge in reaching out to consumers and convincing sceptics about moringa oil’s powers?

Americans have been brainwashed by the “oil-free” movement — they’re afraid that putting oil on their hair and skin will leave it greasy or clogged. Once people try moringa, they are surprised by how dry and absorbent it is. The challenge has been getting it into as many hands as possible!

How have farmer incomes in Ghana increased through your proprietary extraction system by “adding value and jobs on the ground”?

We guarantee farmers a market for all of their moringa produce, which is a huge benefit for risk-averse farmers. Since moringa grows so quickly and can be integrated with existing subsistence crops to help them grow better, moringa farming increases family income by 4-10x and helps farmers break the cycle of poverty in five years.

To date, we’ve worked directly with 2,500 small farmers and planted over 500,000 trees to prevent deforestation and malnutrition in Ghana. By processing locally, we’ve also added over 50 supply chain jobs in Ghana — everything from administration, to processing, to management and sales.

What do you say to people who are doubtful that using most off-the-shelf beauty products have any real detrimental effect on our skin and in our bodies?

It’s honestly difficult to tell truly “clean” products apart from greenwashed products, precisely because there is such a market trend toward more natural, healthy products. Even if you’re sceptical about whether certain ingredients are harmful, there’s no denying that it’s important to give your skin the nourishment it needs. So many anti-acne or anti-wrinkle products use harsh, drying agents that actually exacerbate the problem you’re trying to treat!

There is nothing like natural oil to deliver lasting hydration to your skin.

What about the clean beauty revolution are you most excited about?

We’re excited about the shift of green beauty from niche/boutique stores to a more mainstream audience. We want to bring moringa to the masses, and ensure that this mass market shift to natural is done in a responsible and ethical manner.

What are your latest clean beauty discoveries?

I’m in love with Thorn & Bloom perfume! We don’t think about perfume when we try to green our beauty routine but Thorn & Bloom’s complex scents are expertly crafted and blended, and they use such unique, gorgeous ingredients.

Speaking of areas you don’t think about when switching to clean beauty — deodorant! Natural deodorant that works is hard to come by. I’m a huge fan of Piper Wai deodorant.

“Even if you’re sceptical about whether certain ingredients are harmful, there’s no denying that it’s important to give your skin the nourishment it needs. Many anti-acne or anti-wrinkle products use harsh, drying agents that actually exacerbate the problem!”

Finally, what does the idea of conscious living mean to you?

Voting with your dollars and daily actions for the kind of world you want to live in.

Images courtesy of True Moringa