Written by Noah Coleman, ECHO Intern
Rick and Jeri Kemmer’s journey with the moringa tree started in the year 2000 on an ECHO tour. Since then – with ECHO‘s resources and partnership – their passion has equipped thousands across 23 countries to help the hungry. Noah Coleman shares his recent Zoom conversation with Rick Kemmer about how ECHO has encouraged them along the way. Noah, a current ECHO intern, previously studied moringa in East Africa for his master’s degree.
There’s a lot of good reasons to get out of bed in the morning. For Rick Kemmer, it’s global hunger and malnutrition. He gets out of bed knowing that his daily efforts are actively reducing nutritionally-preventable child mortality around the world.
I grew up surrounded by hunger and malnutrition in rural Cameroon, Africa. Many of my childhood friends suffered from nutritionally-preventable diseases and were in desperate need of nutrients like iron, protein, and vitamins.
Rick’s journey towards combatting global hunger was circuitous. Raised in Allentown, PA, he spent 10 years in the restaurant industry, followed by a commercial/residential painting business, a photography business, and a life-changing missions trip to Haiti that eventually led him and his wife Jeri on a trajectory towards Tanzania.
During a season of pre-Tanzania cross-cultural training in the fall of 2000, the Kemmers took a tour of the ECHO Global Farm in North Fort Myers, Florida, and encountered moringa. The far-reaching impact of this visit would only begin to take root in the coming months.
It was in Cameroon, as a young teenager, that I came across moringa. The stories I heard about it and other plants from ECHO network members ignited a curiosity in me about what God is doing to meet people’s needs and how He uses unnoticed plants and unlikely people to accomplish unbelievable things.
Upon arrival in Tanzania, Rick’s assignment was to implement small-scale economic development projects that would specifically address the challenges faced by bi-vocational pastors. These local pastors were having to choose between ministry and feeding and providing for their families.
While he was conducting interviews with local leaders and pastors with several other projects in mind, he said that he was beginning to see that “the moringa tree that we’d just heard about at ECHO would grow here, and grow well. And it would address these things that they’re telling us are their biggest challenges.”
Speaking of big challenges, not all of us are born with a green thumb. Rick shared, “You do understand that God invented humor, right?…Not only do we not have an agricultural background, but between my wife and I, we can barely keep a houseplant alive…The only plants that live around us are the hardiest of plants…otherwise they die – but we can grow moringa! Which is a testimony that moringa is easy to grow. Even total amateurs can grow moringa.”
In Tanzania, Rick saw that this often overlooked moringa tree could help secure access to nutritious food, provide a reliable source of clean drinking water, aid in environmental preservation, retain groundwater, and provide a source of income for smallholder farming families and local entrepreneurs. Not only that, but people were hungry for the training. “Whenever we taught people about moringa, it just seemed to explode,” Rick said. “It was like we were able to put in 5 minutes worth of effort and get an hour’s worth of result!”
The moringa seed pod can be eaten when young as a vegetable, and the mature seeds can be used to purify water.
A small group of moringa trees can grow enough leaves for a family to use themselves and share with others.
Yet he continued with his other economic development initiatives and started promoting and distributing moringa as a side-project, recognizing that before moringa could actually take off as a commodity in a given area, there would need to be a significant amount of knowledge and experience growing and using it.
In 2007, upon returning to the United States, Rick and his wife Jeri refused to move on from addressing the needs of others around the world. They founded Strong Harvest International to empower developing-world families with knowledge on growing and using moringa for improved health, increased family income, and environmental care.
Strong Harvest collaborates with local leaders and organizations in Nicaragua, Togo, and Tanzania to consider what role moringa could play in their communities. Once local people have decided that moringa is a good fit, Strong Harvest teams up with schools, women’s groups, churches, and local governments to provide in-depth training, follow-up visits, and long-term training.
As I continued to chat with Rick, I began to see more vividly the effects of Strong Harvest’s focus on relationships and collaboration.
In 2017, Strong Harvest hosted two seminars at ECHO’s Impact Center in Arusha. Rick enthusiastically described how ECHO’s network connections broadened the reach of the seminars, “Because of ECHO we were able to bring this knowledge to a much larger area of East Africa than was our circle of influence.”
Throughout 2020 and into 2021, Strong Harvest Field Representatives are contacting the hundreds of Peer Educators that have been trained over the years and are encouraging them to share about moringa – especially now while people are focusing on health – and to find out what effects the training has had on their communities. The reports have been astounding: “improved eyesight”, “reduced diabetes issues”, “reduced high blood pressure”, “general health”, “general wellbeing”, “energy”, “anemia disappearing”, “kids not getting sick”, “we don’t go to the clinic anymore”, “we don’t get sick anymore”.
I have heard people talk about “Zoom fatigue” from being on extended conference calls, but seeing God provide for those we serve through partner organizations and the incredible moringa tree was inspiring. If there’s an opposite of Zoom fatigue – that’s what I had.
Rick and Jeri, and the Strong Harvest Team