While a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, Lisa Curtis told local smallholder farmers there that she would help them produce and sell high-quality moringa regionally and internationally as a way to create a steady income for the deeply impoverished community as well as provide them with the trees' other nutritional and environmental benefits. However, a terrorist attack in 2011 forced her to unexpectedly evacuate Niger before she could make good on promise. Since then, other logistical and operational challenges have continued to hold her back.
Now, Curtis is able to pick back up in Niger where she left off with help from a grant from the US foreign aid agency the Millennial Challenge Corporation, combined with the best practices she has developed while building Kuli Kuli into one of the world’s largest moringa company.
Through a competitive bidding process, the Millennial Challenge Corporation awarded Kuli Kuli an initial grant of $30,000 with up to $500,000 to help Nigerian women’s cooperatives and other smallholder farmers expand and improve their moringa growing and processing methodologies and secure access to the international moringa market.
The initial grant will allow Kuli Kuli to visit Niger and select its moringa partners, with whom the company will develop a second more detailed proposal on how to allocate the remaining funds to ensure that the moringa they produce meets international sanitation standards.
This grant is part of a much larger $437 million grant from the US government to the government of Niger through the Millennium Challenge Corporation to increase agriculture and livestock productivity and facilitate market access for smallholder producers.
“MCC and their Nigerien partners identified moringa as a key climate-smart crop for Niger and reached out to Kuli Kuli last November, inviting us to apply for a grant to help Nigerien moringa farmers meet international export quality standards,” Curtis explained to FoodNavigator-USA.
“Given my history in Niger, we jumped at the opportunity,” she added.
Curtis explained that the grant will help Kuli Kuli tackle two of the main challenges that so far have hindered her ability to fulfill her promise to her friends in Niger: quality and transportation.
“We tested two sample of moringa from Niger back in 2014, and found it to have bacterial contamination. We spoke with the moringa women’s group and found that they were processing it outside because they didn’t have a processing center. At the time, they didn’t have the resources to build one and we didn’t have any way to finance it,” Curits said.
Now, she said, with the grant from MCC, Kuli Kuli’s team is “excited for the opportunity to build a model moringa processing operation in Niger that can also serve as an example to many of the other farmers we work with” around the globe.
The second challenge that Curtis says she hopes the grant will help address is transportation.
“Niger is a landlocked country. However, as part of this grant, the government of Niger is going to be improving the roads significantly, so access to a port should be much easier,” she explained.
A play for peace
Although a bit more nebulous and significantly more ambitious, Curtis says she is hopeful that the program also could help promote peace in Niger, which has grappled with multiple terrorist attacks since the first one in January 2011 that led to her early evacuation as a Peace Corps volunteer.
“Niger became infamous in October 2017 when four US soldiers were killed in an extremist ambush. Regional threats include al-Qaida-linked fighters in Mali and Burkina Faso, Islamic State-affiliated fighters in Niger and Nigeria and the Nigeria-based Boko Haram,” Curtis explained.
She added that US officials attribute some of extremism and recruitment of ‘future terrorists’ from the region to the exploitation of the region’s underdevelopment and poverty. But by providing another option for income, moringa farming could provide an alternative lifestyle as well.
A boost for business
While grounded partially in altruism, Kuli Kuli’s efforts to help develop a reliable, high quality supply of moringa in Niger is also based on a business need.
“Kuli Kuli’s business is on-track to more than double this year. That means we’re going to need a lot more moringa,” Curtis said. “Our future growth is dependent on our ability to partner with financing organizations like the US State Department in order to unlock the US moringa market for small, high-impact moringa farmers around the world. We hope this will be the first of many such partnerships.”