The moringa tree is common in West Africa. So is hunger. In 2010, Lisa Curtis, a young Peace Corps worker in Niger, made a connection between the two that would lead to a superfood startup called Kuli Kuli. Leaves from Moringa oleifera are nutrient-dense, a virtue Curtis discovered when villagers recommended munching moringa leaves after she told them she was feeling weak. She did. "I have never eaten anything that has such a powerful and immediate effect on my body as moringa does," she says.
With the energy boost came the realization that raising moringa as a crop could not only improve local nutrition but also provide sustainable livelihoods. To fulfill that vision, Curtis and three colleagues started Kuli Kuli to sell moringa-based energy bars and shots, herbal tea, and powder supplements. "I knew that introducing moringa to the U.S. market was a venture that would be successful," she says. "I just wanted to make sure it was done in a way that helps support women moringa farmers around the world."
1. At Raintree Farms in Masindi, Uganda, women gather to cut branches. The moringa tree grows quickly, is drought-resistant, and can be harvested every five to six weeks.
2. Kuli Kuli sources moringa from more than 1,500 women-led farming cooperatives and family farms across 11 countries in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. Farmers get three to five times more income from moringa than from other crops, says Curtis. Kuli Kuli has planted more than one million trees globally.
3. Moringa can be eaten raw, but to make it a commercial product that can be shipped, it's converted to powder form. First comes a bath in saline solution and then a rinse.
4. The brined and rinsed moringa branches are taken to a drying area and hung in the sun. Next, the dried leaves are ground into a powder.
5. The finished product. "I knew that Kuli Kuli was going to make it when the CEO of Kellogg's sat down with me for an hour and asked me how we've managed to build a new sustainable supply chain from scratch and pioneer a new ingredient in the U.S. so quickly," says Curtis.
6. Curtis and three co-founders used Indiegogo and AgFunder for startup money and last year scored $4.25 million in Series A funding from Eighteen94 Capital, the VC arm of Kellogg's. Kuli Kuli products are now in more than 7,000 stores.