NPG reporter Michael Wale travelled deep into the desert of the United Arab Emirates to meet with an extraordinary ‘natural grower’

The desert stretches as far as the eye can see around us. But Vijayan Pillai and I are sheltering from the afternoon heat of Al Ain near Abu Dhabi beneath a moringa tree with verdant greenery all around us.

We are not in an oasis but at the centre of a mere year’s ‘natural growing’ by Pillai, after he had had to leave another idyll he had created in the desert over the previous 30 years. At 73 years old, he attributes his astonishing fitness and good health to his use of the medicinal plants that he grows – as well as the more conventional herbs and vegetables he has nurtured.

Pillai lectures at Al Ain University on the benefits of medicinal plants, and welcomes a stream of visitors, especially school students, to his farm to explain why he grows medicinal plants – and why he believes in them with such a passion. Over the years he produced fresh food for sale to the local community, which he is about to start doing again.

It is apt that we were seeking shelter beneath a moringa tree, because it was the first thing he planted when, not so long ago, he arrived at what was to all intents and purposes a barren desert.

Although it was only planted eight months ago it is already tall, and flowering. It is known as the ‘miracle tree’ because of its multiple medicinal and nutritious attributes

The UN is trying to encourage African growers to plant it, because it takes just 90 days from seed to full growth . Lately it has become known as a superfood.

Pillai says that the moringa tree could solve many of the world’s problems, because not only is it drought resistant but it produces twelve times the amount of vitamin C found in oranges. It also produces seventeen times the amount of calcium compared to milk, nine times the protein of yoghourt, 15 times the potassium of bananas, and 25 times the iron of spinach. In fact every part of the tree, even its bark, is said to have beneficial properties. Pillai also enthuses about the moringa’s own modest needs, explaining that it requires little in the way of soil nutrients. He caresses the tree and says: “ I can grow this anywhere.”

At present most of the medicinal plant bushes he is growing are in pots since the growing season in the UAE is limited. Very little can be grown outdoors from the months of April until November due to the intense heat. Even the restaurants move all their outdoor tables and chairs inside to an air-conditioned world. Strange as it may seem, polytunnels also provide a cooler world for plants during this period.

He has also planted flowers alongside his rows of bushes, and already they are attracting bees. At present he relies on a minimal above-ground watering system, but confidently predicts : “ Very soon we won’t need that”. Within the next few months he intends to buy a cow explaining: “It will eat the grass I’m growing, and its dung will be its main use to us. I’ll give its milk away to the local community”.

Pillai himself was born in India, where he became an electrical engineer, but after working at this in the UAE for a few years he decided to give it all up to become a pioneering natural growth farmer in the desert. His interest in the medicinal uses of plants and botanicals came from his upbringing in India, where there is a wider awareness of he medicinal properties of herbs and plants than in the West. He believes good nutrition makes healthy humans.

The word ‘organic’ arises in our conversation as there is a booming market for organic food and health goods in Dubai. GM is banned in all seven states of the UAE. Al Ain is in the state of Abu Dhabi, and was the birthplace of its ruler Sheikh Zayed, a well-known environmentalist whose son continues his father’s practices. Despite all this, Pillai does not like the word ‘organic’. He reasons that he is a natural grower, and claims that organic growers have inputs and types of fertilisers, none of which he would use. Instead, he relies purely on nature itself.

“Pillai does not like the word ‘organic’. He reasons that he is a natural grower, and claims that organic growers have inputs and types of fertilisers, none of which he would use”

He shows me some of the medicinal plants he is growing. Their extracts are commonly used in commercial pharmaceuticals, as well as having homeopathic properties. He cites some examples. Lawsonia produces henna from its leaves to treat a variety of ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, headaches and ulcers. Ocimum sanctum has medicinal attributes to helping cure asthma, bronchitis and lumbago, and then there is Terminalia arjuna –effective in the treatment of wounds, haemorrhages and ulcers. Sesbaniawhich, meanwhile, can be used in the treatment of kidney stones. But I think the most important plant he showed me, setting aside the Moranga tree, was Jatropha, which has the ability to produce immense amounts of oil from its seeds to use in industry – between 27% and 40% of their weight – while being naturally resistant to drought and pests.

There is no doubt that Vijayan Pillai is a remarkable man, with visionary ideas that could benefit the wider world. He raises his arms to the evening sky above the desert he declares: “Here, utilizing the elements of the soil, I truly believe I can change the world.”