“The landscape for moringa has definitely changed,” since Kuli Kuli launched in 2013 with some of the first moringa-forward products on the US market, company founder Lisa Curtis told FoodNavigator-USA at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City this month.
“In a lot of ways that change is awesome. The category is growing. We are still the leading brand in the category and as the category grows, we grow, and it is great. A champagne problem! But, there are some challenges now in that not all moringa is created equal,” Curtis said.
She explained that Kuli Kuli has “incredibly high standards for quality,” requiring the soil in which the moringa it sells is grown has no heavy metals, the finished product is not contaminated in any way and it is organic. The company also collaborates directly with farmers to control how the product is grown and to ensure that they are paid a fair wage.
As a result, Kuli Kuli’s products demand a premium price, Curtis said.
“With so many people entering the market quickly, you get product that is not as high quality and sells for less,” Curtis said. “So, the thing we are trying to communicate now is why moringa shouldn’t be $6 a pouch. Why it is actually a more expensive crop to do right and why our moringa is worth paying for. We find a lot of our consumers who try it and taste it, they get it. It is very apparent. But I think to newer consumers who hear of moringa and they buy the cheapest thing on the shelf, it is not always clear why they should pay more for Kuli Kuli’s moringa.”
To fight this, Curtis said Kuli Kuli is focusing on better story telling.
“We are doing a really big marketing push this year to get our products in front of consumers, to help them understand how to use them and experiment with them. And as part of this, we recognize the industry has changed, so we let go of our brokers on the West Coast and we have been doing it all with our own field marketing team,” she explained.
The decision to bring the marketing in house “has been awesome,” Curtis said. “The people we work with are so passionate about moringa. They are so passionate about the company’s mission” to improve the nutrition and livelihoods worldwide through moringa and to work with women-led farming cooperatives to drive economic growth and empower women in a sustainable way.
This passion rubs off on store employees so that when shoppers ask about moringa the store staff is more willing to push them towards Kuli Kuli as a premium product, Curtis said.
New and improved products
The strategy is working as illustrated by Kuli Kuli sourcing and selling more moringa this year to date than it did all of last year, and its “whirlwind” expansion into different countries, Curtis said.
“This summer we are going to start exploring working in Niger, which is where I did the Peace Corps” and first discovered moringa, she said. “I am very excited to go back and see how our growth has expanded to different farmers and to have this opportunity to tell every moringa farmer that we meet that they hit our quality standards, we will purchase everything they grow and we will guarantee it, so they can get a bank loan against it – which is a cool place to be.”
The company also is expanding its portfolio and refining existing products, thanks in part to help from Kellogg, which led a $4.35 million fundraise through its eighteen94 venture capital fund in 2017.
As part of that partnership, Kuli Kuli worked with Kellogg’s R&D team to reformulate its existing moringa snack bars for broader appeal, which they achieved by adding super seeds such as chia and pumpkin seeds as well as cinnamon for a refined flavor.
“I can’t tell you the difference between us making a bar in our home kitchen and their team making a bar in their food science kitchen. It is very different! We gave them very clear parameters: We didn’t want any flavors. We didn’t want any artificial anything. We wanted a very, very short ingredient list. And they worked some magic,” Curtis said.
To underscore the new formula, the bars also have new packaging that is streamlined and better calls out the value proposition of the bars.
In addition to the bars, Kuli Kuli is launching next month in Whole Foods nationwide a new line of green smoothie mixes.
“This is our latest and greatest idea. It is an instant green smoothie. You just add water and shake and you get half a cup of leafy greens from moringa and then plant protein and it tastes great on its own,” Curtis said.
She explained the inspiration for the product came from consumers who said that while they love the purity and medicinal benefits of moringa, they don’t always have time to make a smoothie and they wanted something more convenient.
Given that moringa is still new to many consumers, Kuli Kuli stuck with basic flavors for its smoothie line, including chocolate, vanilla, chocolate peanut butter and original.
Additional plants on the horizon
While Kuli Kuli’s focus so far has been on bringing moringa to consumers, Curtis says in the next few years the company will explore “some other exciting plants from around the world.”
She explained that while moringa will still be the primary focus, “we don’t think it ends there. We think there is a lot of potential that we can become a brand that really stands for sustainably sourced, value added super food products that nourish the communities where they are sourced.”