Lisa Curtis founded Kuli Kuli after volunteering with the Peace Corps in Niger where she witnessed and experienced first-hand the detrimental effects of malnutrition and the health saving benefits of moringa tree leaves, which became the key ingredient in Kuli Kuli’s bars.
Gram for gram the moringa tree’s leaves offer two times the protein of yogurt, four times the vitamin A of carrots, three times the potassium of bananas, four times the calcium of milk and seven times the vitamin C of organs, according to Curtis, who joked that moringa is “an all in one green.”
“We like to talk about this as the plant you can almost live off,” she added.
Yet, despite its highly nutritious profile, its ability to help relieve malnutrition in West Africa and the fact it “grows like a weed,” Curtis said very few villagers where she volunteered grew the trees and harvested the leaves to eat because there is not a market demand or financial incentive.
So when Curtis returned to the U.S. she set out to create a market demand for moringa to encourage more villagers to grow the ingredient in an effort to help improve their physical and financial health.
“Kuli Kuli’s mission is to provide everyone who wants to access the nutritional power of moringa with the knowledge and resources to do so,” according to the company’s website.
The young company does this by partnering with nonprofits in West Africa that help organize local women into co-ops that grow moringa in exchange for fair wages and a donation of 10% of sales that are reinvested in their communities to improve local nutrition through educational and school feeding programs.
Curtis is in the process of taking this mission to the next level by having the co-ops certified as Fair Trade.
“Hopefully we will get it done this year” by finding a grant “so we can show the world these are our values and what we stand for,” Curtis said.
New products on the way
Slightly more than a year after launching the Kuli Kuli Bars, which come in three flavors, the company is expanding its product line to include tea and powder.
The protein rich, vegan, raw and gluten-free Moringa Powder will launch in 8-ounce containers in retail stores this June, Curtis said.
She explained that while the powder is easier to make and more versatile to use than the bars, Kuli Kuli waited to launch it in retail stores until Americans were more familiar with the ingredient, its benefits and how to use it. The bars were a more approachable and familiar format for introducing a new ingredient, she added.
Sales from the powder are promising given that within a month of its soft launch online, it quickly sold out and the company had to struggle to meet demand, Curtis said.
More recently, the firm launched online an Organic Moringa Tea, which the company’s website describes as “earthy and full-bodied.”
Curtis also noted the firm has a “couple of more products” in the pipeline, as well, that it will announce over the course of the next year.
Best advice: Keep your day job
While encouraged by the success of her company, Curtis remains level-headed in her approach to the food and beverage industry in the U.S.,noting the best and worst advice she ever received was: “Hang on to your day job for a while to test the market and to make sure your product will sell.”
She only recently gave up her day job, which she said was “really scary” because she didn’t know when her next paycheck would come.
“We have made it this far, though, which is really exciting,” especially given the deep competition, Curtis said, adding that other start-ups will know when it is time to go all in when they have enough stores distributing their products that the business requires more than their full attention.