The Crunch: Lisa Curtis was growing weak and malnourished on a Peace Corps mission to Niger when a villager recommended she eat the leaves of the local moringa plant. Her strength and energy soon returned. Once she was back in the US, Lisa and a group of long-time friends co-founded Kuli Kuli to bring moringa to the masses and to empower and enrich women-led farming cooperatives in rural areas of Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. Today, some 6,000 stores nationwide carry Kuli Kuli products. Sales have generated $1.5 million in needed revenue for the villages and rural areas that supply the moringa. And, as the organic and health food market in the US continues to grow, Kuli Kuli is expanding its line of products derived from the “miracle tree” to include a new smoothie powder.
Lisa Curtis started out on a Peace Corps mission to Africa and ended up on a mission to improve the lives of women farmers in developing countries, while introducing a new health product to US consumers.
Lisa was volunteering with the Peace Corps in a small village in Niger when she experienced firsthand the nutritional benefits of the small but hearty drought-resistant moringa plant. When she returned to the US, she and a group of close friends developed nutrient-rich moringa products and founded Kuli Kuli to introduce American consumers to a new superfood by mounting a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to get the company off the ground.
Lisa’s background in leadership and collaboration — from the clubs she had started in college to her time as a United Nations youth program representative and her experience as a White House intern — helped her showcase Kuli Kuli’s social mission in a way that made others want to join the cause.
The company unveiled its vitamin and protein-rich products just as a growing consumer health consciousness propelled the US organic foods market into a $43 billion industry. Kuli Kuli attracted customer loyalty with its promise to improve the lives of farmers and families in developing countries like Niger and the village where Lisa had first discovered moringa. The company partners with women-led farming cooperatives in Ghana, Haiti, and Nicaragua to grow and process moringa. Kuli Kuli’s partnerships have generated $1.5 million in income to date for those communities, helping those families buy their children clothes and send them to school.
“It has been really cool to see how running a mission-driven business actually directly drove business growth,” Lisa said. “People get inspired by it, and they buy it on the shelf, tell their friends about it, and help us in various ways. They want to be part of what we’re creating.”
In less than five years, Kuli Kuli has gone from selling moringa at the local farmers market to distributing it to more than 6,000 stores across the country thanks to an initial partnership with Whole Foods locations in Northern California. Today, Sprouts, Lucky’s Market, Publix, Safeway, and CVS are among the major chains that carry Kuli Kuli products.
In April, Kuli Kuli won the Women-Led Entrepreneurship Whole Foods Supplier of the Year Award for “providing fair, sustainable wages to moringa farmers and women-led cooperatives around the world and growing a trusted moringa supply chain.”
Introducing a Little-Known Superfood to the Masses
The moringa tree is native to India but today grows in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In 2014, the plant, and its health benefits, were largely unknown in the US.
“When we launched, everybody was like ‘What’s moringa?’” Lisa recalled. “Now people say, ‘Oh, moringa, I heard it’s good for me. Why is it good for me again?’ It’s kind of an interesting evolution.”
Kuli Kuli grew into the leading moringa superfood company through determination and a true belief in the product. As a Peace Corps volunteer back in Niger, Lisa’s vegetarian diet of rice and millet left her sluggish and fatigued. But once she began regularly eating a mix of moringa leaves and kuli kuli, the local peanut snack from which the company would take its name, her energy and vigor returned.
Starting with a loyal base of customers in Northern California, Kuli Kuli set about bringing its positive experience with moringa to the masses. Consumer education was a key part of the effort.
“It is certainly a big focus for us, and we work on it from a couple of different angles,” Lisa said. “Our field marketing team is constantly in stores, passing out samples, talking to customers, and educating them about moringa. We also approach it from a marketing and social media perspective. We are always creating content around moringa, how to use it, and what is so exciting about it.”
The Kuli Kuli website features a wealth of information on moringa , including recipes for an herbal flu shot, a pumpkin spice latte, chocolate squares, almond milk, and even pizza. A blog details the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, explains the steps involved in organic certification, and delves into the therapeutic and nutritional benefits of the different parts of the moringa tree, including the seeds, roots, leaves, and bark.
The site also compares moringa’s nutritional value to that of bananas, spinach, carrots, yogurt, and the vegetable that has received much of the attention in the superfood movement, kale.
Recently, a segment on Good Morning America named moringa as one of the three “buzziest” health and wellness trends to watch for in 2018.
The combination of education, outreach, marketing, and press coverage has landed Kuli Kuli products on the shelves of mainstream stores like CVS that are not known for natural foods, which has helped increase moringa’s reach.
Built to Empower and Improve Farming Communities
Kuli Kuli’s ambitious mission aims to leverage moringa to improve nutrition as well as livelihoods worldwide.
By working with women-led farming cooperatives across the globe, Kuli Kuli drives economic growth, women’s empowerment, and sustainable agricultural development.
The company’s 2016 Annual Impact Report shared some of its impressive results: In Ghana, Kuli Kuli created sustainable livelihoods for hundreds of women farmers, funded nonprofit programs to train farmers on how to grow moringa and effectively use it to boost nutrition, and planted 100,000 moringa trees.
In Haiti, Kuli Kuli partnered with the Clinton Foundation on a reforestation effort that planted 65,000 moringa trees. While 73% of the moringa farmers in Haiti are women, they weren’t always taken seriously until they formed a partnership with Kuli Kuli.
Marie Dorcelus, who leads a 900-member rural women’s farming association known as AFASDASH, said that, since the agreement to supply moringa for Kuli Kuli, the organization’s members are now respected for their leadership, work ethic, and business skills.
The women in AFASDASH, including Marie, a single mother-of-three, are also now able to support their families.
In Nicaragua, where three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 a day, Kuli Kuli partnered with a certified organic, family-owned farm to create 126 jobs and generate $300,000 for family farms in 2016.
Kuli Kuli has planted more than 1 million moringa trees to date to protect the environment, partnered with more than 1,000 farmers, and generated $1.5 million in revenue for women-led farming cooperatives and family farms.
Kuli Kuli Thriving Beyond the Niche Health Food Market
Lisa and her fellow co-founders started Kuli Kuli as a passion project, and, in less than five years, it has grown into a successful, nationwide brand that reaches consumers beyond the niche health food market. And they’ve achieved this without ever compromising their mission to improve livelihoods, empower women growers, and protect the rural farm land in developing countries.
This year will bring continued growth and a significant addition to the Kuli Kuli product line with the launch of a green smoothie mix.
“We interviewed some of our top customers to find out what they like about moringa,” Lisa said. “They loved the purity of moringa, the simplicity, its nutritional benefits, the fact that it makes them feel really good, and the medicinal benefits. But they found preparing moringa can be more time-consuming because it’s not something you just mix with water but rather adding it into a smoothie or put it with other things to balance out the green, earthy nature of it. We took that feedback and created these green and protein smoothie mix powders that you can mix with water and they taste great.”
The new smoothie powders first launched in Sprouts and will roll out to Whole Foods nationwide in the summer.
“We are really excited to see what the consumer thinks of these new products and how they will use it in their lives,” Lisa said.