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Golden age: Turmeric brings healing for more than just the body

Turmeric is having a moment.

No longer confined to curry, the colorful, fragrant powder—derived from the root of a relative to ginger and cardamom—is popping up everywhere from golden lattes to face masks. Its active ingredient, curcumin, is touted for myriad potential health benefits, making turmeric the top-selling herbal dietary supplement in natural retail stores for the past four years, according to the American Botanical Council.

But to Hector Alila, turmeric is more than a trendy “superfood.” It’s a superhero that’s indirectly helping his hometown of Mika, Tanzania, rise from the depths of disease and poverty, thanks to the philanthropic focus of Avie Nutraceuticals, the Baton Rouge-based company he cofounded with local investors.

A portion of proceeds from sales of Avie’s product line—which began with ultramicronized curcumin capsules and now includes formulas for joint and gastrointestinal health, along with a pain-relief spray—supports the Mika Foundation, which Alila founded in 1998.

“That was around the peak of HIV and AIDS,” says Alila, who by then had moved to the United States, obtained a doctorate in physiology and immunology, and was working for a pharmaceutical company. “A lot of young people died, leaving many orphans. There was so much poverty and suffering, so the idea was to support programs to improve the quality of life and to help these vulnerable children.”

Alila came to Baton Rouge in 2006 as president of Esperance Pharmaceuticals, and it wasn’t long before he and a cadre of businesspeople including Michael Olinde and Jim Odom formed Avie Nutraceuticals. “I had seen the evidence that this dietary supplement worked, and I believed it could help people while also generating income to help people in need,” Alila says. “It had been used for many, many years in Asia for pain and inflammation, so we wanted to offer these products while making our core mission corporate social responsibility.”

Alila and the team, including scientist Carola Leuschner, found that grinding curcumin into extremely small particles through a proprietary process made it far more easily absorbable than other similar supplements. That enhanced bioavailability, Alila says, means improved results; studies show curcumin can aid in decreasing inflammation, help with joint mobility and digestion, improve brain function and memory, improve the appearance of skin and hair, and more, he says.

“When we started, very few people knew what turmeric was. Now everyone is talking about it,” Alila says, adding that a specialized formula for brain health is in the works. “We’re expecting to grow much more in the next few years, as turmeric has become a mainstream product.”

Meanwhile, the Mika Foundation is making great strides in the village, where a new well affords access to clean water and children are enjoying new educational and recreational opportunities. But Mika still has the highest HIV rate in the area, Alila says, which means many widows and orphans in need of basic resources like proper homes and clothing.

“I can look back and say tangible progress has been made,” Alila says. “I consider myself lucky because I have had so many opportunities, but I won’t give up on trying to help the people in my hometown.”