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Will Social Startup Kuli Kuli be the TOMS of the Food Industry?
Will Social Startup Kuli Kuli be the TOMS of the Food Industry?

Will Social Startup Kuli Kuli be the TOMS of the Food Industry?

April 9, 2014

Think of an agriculture system that leads to better nutrition, higher wages, fair global trade, and more security for each person along the supply chain. Now, think if just one plant could make that a reality for many.

Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, is harnessing the power of the next super-food to bring nutrition, business, and sustainability to both the developed and developing worlds. Creating a raw snack bar made with crushed moringa, which is fairly sourced from women’s cooperatives in West Africa, Kuli Kuli is the first moringa snack company to hit the retail market in the US. With the bar already available in 40 stores, including Whole Foods, since its launch in late November, Kuli Kuli has created a business model a la TOMS that is not only nutritious for the buyer, but also sustainable for the seller.

The moringa plant is what many are calling the next superfood. Otherwise known as the “miracle tree,” moringa oleifera is native to the sub-Himalayans in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and is now widely grown in a majority of Africa, South America and Asia.

Moringa’s leaves are some of the most nutrition-packed greens on the planet, with 7 times as much Vitamin C as in oranges and 4 times as much calcium as in milk. (Check out the chart for the full nutrition stats.) Plus, the plants are easy to grow, even in harsh conditions.

Moringa is nothing new to those in West Africa. The plant is widely used for medicinal, nutritional and industrial applications, and it packs a punch against malnutrition, especially in children. A new entrant to the high-demand world super-foods like açaí or quinoa, moringa’s qualities are only now becoming widely understood by the western world.

“The nutritional and medicinal benefits have been known to indigenous populations for thousands of years,” said Kyla Hagedorn, co-founder of one of Kuli Kuli’s moringa suppliers, Fair Harvest, “and all of a sudden, it takes off.”

And to say that Kuli Kuli’s reception has “taken off” is an understatement. The company received $50,000 in on IndieGogo, the platform’s second most popular food campaign, and in four months, Kuli Kuli has found its way into forty stores. Curtis said that the first round of funding allowed them to establish their team, and now they are looking ramp up commercial production.

“Within the next 5 years, we hope to do for moringa what companies like Sambazon did for acai and Guayaki did for yerba mate,” she said. “We want to introduce it into the US market as a new household staple, and use the market as a catalyst to improve health and livelihoods around the world.”

0HgWRoxU2tlTktDFnBwx8weRLmid0EXyGmcGy6JZr-8-300x209Above all, it is the company’s business model that sets Kuli Kuli apart from other super-food companies.

“We partner with nonprofits that work with women to educate them on how to best prepare it, and how to grow it,” she said. “We make sure we’re only sourcing as much as they can afford to give away.” Because moringa is so commonly used to fight malnutrition, Curtis said a huge part of her mission is to make sure the farmers keep enough moringa to feed their own

communities, while making a profit on the surplus crops. By contrast, quinoa, for which demand spiked almost overnight, was outsourced in a way that didn’t leave anything for growers, according to Curtis.

The quality of the company’s moringa is tested in-country, and then tested again in the US to ensure that it is up to US standards – a combination that has allowed Kuli Kuli launch well ahead of other moriga-based products.

“Quality control is a big issue,” Lisa said. “We had to work with suppliers to get them to the point where they could meet US health standards… We’ve tested other moringa [found in the US] and a lot of it isn’t good.”

9bvWmCXB3x448p2sZiUuRI8BhfLJ3qRDQgf5npAiNlMAs women grow about 80 percent of crops grown in Africa, Kuli Kuli sources solely from farming women cooperatives. Working with about 500 women in Ghana and about 50 women in Nigeria, Curtis said she is developing more connections with current non-profits in various countries.

“I think women’s cooperatives are where we’d like to continue,” she said. “When you invest in women, you invest in an entire community.”

The majority of people living in Northern Ghana and Niger live in absolute poverty, which means an individual’s income is $1-$1.25 a day. Some of the women who produce moringa for Kuli Kuli sources make up to $30 a day, making it by far one of the most profitable opportunities for many women.

“There’s no American outside telling them what to do,” Curtis said. “We help with the necessary resources and knowledge, but at the end of the day, they are running the organization themselves. We are ultimately paying for a product.”

Kuli Kuli’s model is one that demands a dedication both to the communities it employs, and those it serves. If Curtis can make the bars taste as good as they feel to buy, she’ll be in business for a while longer.


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