She was bold, determined, and touched. And these facts have changed more than a thousand lives of female farmers all over West Africa, South America, and parts of Asia. The success of Lisa Curtis, founder of Kuli Kuli, America’s leading moringa company, started with the tale of a single African mom who had five kids and was left with no home and no income. She was the first person to be affected by Lisa’s dream of using the nutritious leaves of the moringa tree to improve the lives of women on the African continent. At the age of 23, with zero knowledge of the food industry, but led by a wish to make a change, Lisa managed to form a team of food, technology, and design experts and develop her startup. Today, seven years later, her company counts more than 1.5 million dollars of income given to family farms on three different continents. Read more about the moving story of blue flip-flops, Pierrette and Ayele, courage, vision, and having the guts to carve out the path that allowed an eager volunteer to become a widely recognized businesswoman with a place on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List of Social Entrepreneurs 2018.
It all started in a small village in Niger, in Western Africa, where you volunteered as part of a Peace Corps team. And one day, you realized you couldn’t eat only rice and millet anymore, because you were too hungry and weak. Share with our readers what happened next, when local women reached out and gave you a special treat?
Working as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, I was introduced to moringa—one of the most nutritious plants on the planet. In West Africa, 18 million people are malnourished, and 55% of the whole population live on less than $1 per day. Moringa is a food that could help, but few benefit from it. The women in my village saw no reason to grow moringa with no demand. In the US there are millions looking for all-natural products, just as there are a billion people around the world looking for nourishment to survive. I started Kuli Kuli to drive economic growth and women’s empowerment and help fix our broken food system.
By working in the Peace Corps organization, you knew you were about to gain a unique experience, by living with locals authentically, adapting to their everyday lifestyle. What is the greatest life lesson this trip gave you?
One of the greatest lessons I learned was generosity, from a man with blue flip-flops. I was walking down the street in my village and all of a sudden both of my shoes got stuck in the mud and my flip-flops broke. I looked around, despondent, not wanting to walk back to my house barefooted through all of the mud, manure, and trash on the street. A man I had never met before walked over to me and handed me the shoes off of his feet. He told me that he was happy to let me borrow his flip-flops while I went back to my house to get my shoes and that he would patiently wait by the side of the road for me. I had never seen such generosity from a total stranger. It is a generosity of spirit that I aspire to.
Your business story starts with the tale of Pierrette, a single mom from West Africa who was kicked out of her home with no income and 5 children to take care of. Your idea saved her life and the lives of her kids. How many other women with similar stories are part of Kuli Kuli’s happy endings today?
Pierrette’s story affirms moringa’s potential, particularly when used as a business tool to empower women. We work with women farmers like Pierrette to improve the quality of their moringa and strengthen the capacity of their farms to become future Kuli Kuli suppliers. We recently partnered with The Whole Planet Foundation, which works with microfinance institutions in the developing world to help entrepreneurs with little to no access to capital. Most of the entrepreneurs who receive microloans are women, who traditionally have fewer resources and less access to financial services. A recipient of this loan was a women farmer named Ayele, from Togo, who showed us that even a microloan can make a difference in generating income and growing a business. From a $110 business loan from WPF partner Entrepreneurs du Monde, Ayele was able to buy two 100 kg bags of maize that have allowed her to make up to $42 a day and slowly pay back her loan every two weeks. Ayele and Pierrette are leaders in their community and examples of how small businesses can make a difference. Supporting women to have access to quality and decent work and improve their livelihoods is vital for reducing poverty, eliminating gender inequality, and fulfilling women’s rights. Companies like Kuli Kuli can offer impactful support to the women entrepreneurs who need it most.
Kuli Kuli is actually a local African term for a mini snack?
Kuli Kul iis actually a very popular Nigerian Snack.It is made from dry roasted peanuts or groundnuts, which are ground into a paste, mixed with various spices, and fried. This is how I first began eating moringa in the Peace Corps, and it is what inspired me to start a company that would make moringa delicious and accessible to everyone.
Why is moringa cool?
Moringa is cool because it is one of the most nutrient dense plants on the planet. It has twice the amount of protein, calcium, fiber, and iron of kale and contains all nine amino acids. It has some amazing health benefits to it as well. For example, it is a great source of iron if you are iron deficient, a natural anti-inflammatory, and helps with overall cardiovascular health. It’s such a versatile superfood because you can add it to any meal and gain a boost in nutritional benefits.
You were only 23 when starting this business. Tell us more about the way you managed to establish the company’s foundations – what were the baby steps like, and who helped you the most, who was a part of the magical team that made all this come true?
My experiences and observations as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, followed by my time evaluating social enterprises for an angel investment firm in India, formed the seed for my company. Upon returning to the US, I knew that I wanted to use moringa as a tool to help the women I had met during my time in Africa, but I wasn’t sure how to do so or where to start. Starting a company at 23 was definitely an eye-opening experience because I had no knowledge of the food industry or experience in it. All I knew was that I was determined and motivated to help these women out. Eventually, I was able to bring together a multidisciplinary team including food, technology, and design experts. We started out small, testing out our idea in farmers markets and finding mentors to give us feedback on our business plan. If you believe in something enough and have enough grit to do anything needed to make it happen, anything is possible.
The company has operated since 2014. What has been your biggest business challenge so far?
As a startup, there are always several challenges that you encounter. While we have developed a successful foundation for growth, we have two major ongoing challenges. The first challenge is that when we began, and even now, not many Americans were familiar with moringa. We have had to spend a lot of resources and effort in educating the market on the wonders of this superfood. The second challenge is on the supply chain side – there are simply not enough farmers growing high-quality moringa, and so we are constantly helping small farmers scale and meet our quality standards.
Do you have a plan to spread the awareness of moringa benefits all over the world? Update us on some future plans or projects you are working on at the moment?
Yes, through Kuli Kuli, we hope that moringa will become well-recognized as a nutrient-rich superfood in the United States and serve as a catalyst to improve nutrition and livelihoods worldwide. Our goals are to reach over $10M in sales by 2020. As the leading moringa brand, Kuli Kuli is well positioned to capture and benefit from the 10% annual growth of the moringa market as well as the strong demand for organic food. We aim to support over 2,000 female farmers. As a result of the demand for moringa, Kuli Kuli will expand to support women’s groups and family farms to grow and harvest moringa. We also plan to document our impact on livelihoods, both in income and in overall life outcomes, specifically for the women on the farms. One of the plans for the future is to reduce malnutrition, too. As moringa’s nutritional intervention success has been tested and proven, Kuli Kuli will ensure that the impact on malnutrition is carefully documented through research at the communities in which we work.
How do small farmers access the US market, what is the procedure?
Kuli Kuli supports farmers through capacity building in the form of technical assistance, financial guarantees, and ongoing partnership. Our purchases enable farmers to plant additional acreage of moringa with the security of guaranteed purchases. Farmers can also use our purchase orders to receive local bank financing. Our expert staff assists suppliers every step along the way from farm management to post-harvest processing, quality assurance, and export guidelines. By going the extra mile with our suppliers, we are able to build security in our own supply chain while also supporting these local businesses to grow and achieve greater financial security.
Who are your most numerous moringa suppliers in the USA?
We partner with farmers all around the world though we primarily source from West Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. Moringa prefers tropical climates, and so it doesn’t grow very well here in the US. However, we have seen some Americans growing it in Hawaii.
How often do you visit Africa and Haiti in order to establish partnerships with local farmers, do you have agents or mediators who connect local farming collectives with US customers? Who does that part of a business?
Our goal is to visit our farmers every year and to communicate with them twice a month. We don’t yet have the resources to make annual trips to 11 different countries, and so we prioritize them based on how much we’ve sourced from them. We try to work as directly with the farmers as possible, though in some cases we work through nonprofits or other organizations who can help facilitate our discussions.
Do you educate yourself about the terms of entrepreneurship, and if so, how? Does someone help you to learn how to manage the business better and gain new skills?
Yes, one of our core values is to be a sponge. I believe that learning is an important key when it comes to personal growth, and without it, we risk purpose and motivation. I believe in not just doing, but learning. As I continue to grow my company, I have to constantly adapt and learn new skills as an entrepreneur. Acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and that you’re growing and learning yourself should make you open to being wrong and learning from your mistakes and not being embarrassed by them. Mistakes are great opportunities to learn and grow and better yourself.I constantly surround myself with advisors and mentors who are impactful leaders not only in the food and beverage industry, but who are also successful social entrepreneurs. I also look to see how I’m connected to certain female entrepreneurs I admire through other professional or personal connections. Sometimes I wait for an intro, but often I just reach out via LinkedIn with a personal message. Female entrepreneurs have an understanding of how tough it can be out there, and most are very willing to meet. I don’t go into any meeting directly looking for mentorship, but rather just for advice or to swap stories. Then, if I connect with a person, a mentor/mentee relationship forms naturally. The main thing is you have to be bold, introduce yourself, and meet as many people as you can! You never know what might come of it.
What is the best business advice you have gained so far?
The best piece of business advice I received was to see each no as a gift. Every time an investor, buyer or customer tells me no, I quickly evaluate it to see if there is something I can learn from it and then move on. Starting a company involves a lot of rejection and I’ve found embracing that rejection to be tremendously helpful.
Managing a company that is starting to have a worldwide impact must be a huge stress sometimes. What are your ways to stay healthy and to simply switch off?
Managing a company can definitely be stressful at times, but finding a balance between your work/personal life to stay healthy can be super beneficial for yourself as well as your company. I firmly believe that taking care of your health is the best productivity hack that has ever been created. Even on weeks when I’m feeling overwhelmed and buried with work, I still take the time to eat healthy meals, exercise for an hour and meditate for ten minutes each morning, and sleep for a full eight hours. This means that I’m normally in bed by 10 pm and up at 6 am. I’ve learned the hard way that when I’m not in a good place health-wise, I’m unable to be as productive or efficient as I otherwise would be.
Lisa discovered moringa, an edible nutrient-dense plant, while a member of the Peace Corps in Niger. Inspired by the power of the tree to provide both nutrition and a sustainable livelihood for smallholder farmers, she founded Kuli Kuli, which partners with over 1,000 farmers across West Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. Enabling these farmers to enter the American market has provided more than $1.5 million in income to women-led farming cooperatives, nonprofits, and family farms. Her courage, vision, and hard work put Lisa Curtis on the prestigious Forbes List of 30 Under 30 – Social Entrepreneurs 2018.