By Maureen Smith Martindale
Seven months into her Peace Corps service in Niger, Lisa Curtis had just hatched a plan to help village women sell moringa, a green even more nutritious than kale, but then came the unthinkable: a terrorist attack.
The 2011 attack included the kidnapping and murder of two French men, led to evacuation of all 98 Peace Corps volunteers from Niger, and brought her plan to an abrupt halt. At least so she thought. She left, and eventually returned to Oakland, California, her childhood home.
“I kept thinking about Niger and the plant. I felt like I had been given so much by that community, but like I didn’t give anything back,” she said. “I was shopping with my mom at a Whole Foods. In the U.S. we love all our superfoods. Nobody used to know what chia seeds were, why not moringa?”
Several years later after spending many weekends creating and selling moringa product samples, Lisa Curtis founded and became CEO of Kuli Kuli Foods, a company that sells moringa products. The company has expanded from moringa powders and energy bars to teas, smoothie mixes, and soon, various flavors of dark chocolate bark. In 2018, Curtis was featured in the Forbes list of 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs.
Since it began, Kuli Kuli Foods has paid more than $5 million to small farmers and planted more than 24 million trees in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As a B-corporation, it meets high social and environmental standards. It also relies on organic, regenerative agriculture, and a recent study showed it is likely carbon neutral.
I asked Curtis to tell her story, from her days as a community development volunteer in Niger up to the present.
Q. Can you describe your Peace Corps service and how you first came across the moringa tree?
A. I was actually a municipal and community development volunteer in Niger. Like a lot of Peace Corps volunteers, I did a needs assessment, and I ended up helping out at my village’s health center. One of the things I started doing was measuring the upper arms of babies to tell how malnourished they were and recording that data. I’m a vegetarian, and I was just basically eating a lot of millet and rice. It was a diet that left me pretty tired. I was asking the nurses, what can I eat to give me more energy? They literally pulled these leaves off of trees nearby. I had never heard of moringa.
Q. What was the biggest factor that motivated you to market moringa in the United States?
A. It seemed like an amazing plant. I went from my village to a nearby city and did a bunch of research. This tree is incredible--it grows all over the tropics. It’s one of the most nutritious plants in the world. I started asking some of the women in my village, how can we grow more of this plant? They said, we’re not going to grow a crop we can’t sell, so why don’t you help sell it? That was the original plan. I was putting the final touches on the plan when we got evacuated.
Q. Where does the name Kuli Kuli come from?
A. It’s a peanut snack. They mix it with moringa. They separate peanut oil from resin or powder, make them into peanut balls and mix with moringa and cook. The kuli kuli snacks are crunchy on the outside, and chewy on the inside. I thought, why don’t we use that same idea and create products in the U.S.?
Q. Prior to Peace Corps, did you have a marketing background, and did you ever envision yourself starting your own company?
A. I was a politics and environmental studies major in college and joined Peace Corps right after college. The thing I knew was the American market, and that it could be an asset for small African farmers. I thought I could help them unlock it. It’s been eleven years. It’s been quite the journey, a kind of learning under fire.
Q. What were the biggest deterrents in forming your own company here to market moringa?
A. Probably the biggest challenge I had was getting anyone to take me seriously. I was 23 years old. A lot of people told me, you have no business experience, and you’re trying to do something that’s fundamentally hard, with a new product, sourced with women farmers in Africa. I pitched to a ton of people, a ton of investors, to try to get this idea off the ground. Ninety-nine percent of them said, no, this is too crazy.
Curtis samples moringa at an organic farm in Nicaragua in 2016.
Q. How did you get the company off the ground in the beginning?
A. I ended up starting really, really small. I got a few of my childhood friends together to start a side project with me. Nights and weekends I spent building Kuli Kuli. Initially I just wanted to test the idea, to see if I could get Americans to eat moringa products. Instead of peanuts, we used almonds, and made moringa energy bars. Basically, we would spend all of Saturday in a commercial kitchen making these bars by hand and then spend Sundays selling them in farmers markets.
Q. What benefits is the company providing to women farmers?
A. We have an impact page, a full summary, our 2020 impact report. We source from small farmers primarily on the African continent, and also some from other places like Mexico and Cambodia. We evaluate all our suppliers. There are over 3,000 farmers. We’ve put over $5 million directly in the hands of small farmers through moringa purchases. We’ve been able to plant over 24 million trees.
Q. Did you explore the possibility of forming a nonprofit rather than for-profit corporation?
A. I saw a lot of nonprofits come and go in Niger, and funding ran out. Why not try to build something that can sustain itself, that’s not reliant on outside grant funding, kind of a market-based solution? After Peace Corps instead of coming straight home, I ended up staying and working in India for five months for this social impact investment firm. That really was what opened my eyes to social enterprise. I worked at a social enterprise for about three years, trying to figure out how to do Kuli Kuli on the side.
Q. How is the rest of the company structured in developing countries? Your web site mentions trade, not aid.
A. They are their own organizations, generally social enterprises or non-profits started by people from there to support sustainable farming. They also sell moringa locally and that’s something we really encourage. We want people there to sell and benefit from moringa. We’ve sponsored school feeding programs, like adding it to the kids’ porridge, doing a lot of nutritional education . . . cooking classes, showing people how you can add moringa powder to different local dishes. . . and fresh leaves cooked into sauces.
Curtis and colleagues meet with women moringa farmers at a USAID project in Niger in 2018.
Q. Do the products you sell have fair trade status?
A. There isn’t yet a fair trade certification for moringa, unlike chocolate or coffee where there’s an established fair trade certification process. It’s about $20,000 per group to invest in fair trade certification. We work with many different groups. We do follow fair trade practices. We’re sourcing directly from many small farmers. We visit them, we talk to them all the time. We do pay quite a bit above the local average wage. And we try to really invest in the communities we source from and support them in other ways.
Q. Your company now has U.S. staff. Do you ever feel frustration that living wages here are based on a much higher standard of living than that of farmers in developing countries?
A. It’s a huge gap, and that’s part of the reason why we pay above market and why we think it’s so important to be investing directly with small farmers. We can pay more and get it directly into their hands. Many of the farmers are getting three or four times more than they would get selling other crops. Moringa is also very easy to grow, low maintenance and low water.
Q. You mentioned a study showing that the company is likely carbon neutral because of all the moringa trees planted? Can you also talk about other environmentally friendly practices?
A. We haven’t had a full-on third party audit, but we worked with a team at UC Berkeley that does carbon analyses. Their calculation was because we were planting so many moringa trees in sustainable ways, we were likely carbon neutral. What was the biggest use of carbon? I thought it would be shipping containers full of moringa going from Uganda to California. It ended up being the packaging. We have just switched our pure moringa line to post-consumer recycled plastic, so about 30 percent to 50 percent of the bag is now made with recycled plastic. It saves the equivalent of 40,000 water bottles per year. And 100 percent of our moringa is certified organic. We provide free financing to achieve organic status. One farmer has powered his entire facility with solar. A lot of them are using solar powered dryers to make the moringa powder.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to tell me?
A. The last thing we just launched we’re really excited about is our superbark--a dark chocolate superfood snack, flavored with baobab, hibiscus and breadfruit. These different flavors have environmental and social impacts as well, since we are using more specialty crops. We’re hoping there’s a market for those in the same way we’ve built the market for moringa.
For more information, visit www.kulikulifoods.com.
Maureen Smith Martindale is a journalist and former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Cameroon from 1987 to 1989.