By Lisa Curtis, founder & CEO of Kuli Kuli.
Nearly a decade after a trip to West Africa sparked what turned out to be a multi-million dollar idea, I was back. While passing through the villages of Ghana and Benin, I was reminded of how much living in a small West African village had taught me about business fundamentals.
The Art of Small Talk
My village in Niger was tiny, home to just 2,000 people. Geographically, it should have taken no more than ten minutes to cross it, and yet it always took forty. Every couple of feet, I would stop to speak with a neighbor or friend, asking about their health, family and farm. While this might sound like a terrible waste of time, it built incredibly strong relationships.
The foundation of any relationship is trust. Yet, trust takes time to build over the course of every interaction, short or extensive. Recently I was in a sales meeting with a notoriously tough young buyer. She immediately lightened up when we began discussing our shared annoyance at how often older people asked our age. It was an uncommon way to start a sales meeting but resulted in an extremely positive sales result.
Move Away From a Scarcity Mindset
One day I was walking in my village when I came across two little boys pushing toy cars down the street. Upon closer look, I saw that the cars were homemade and crafted entirely of trash. I’ve never seen anything like that in the U.S. When products are just a single click away, such resourcefulness is kicked to the curb.
I constantly challenge my team to find creative ways to use our small size to our advantage. For example, Whole Foods told us that they wanted to launch a new product of ours but they wanted us to deliver it within just a few months. At first, we thought we couldn't do it -- most food companies take over a year to launch a new product. But the opportunity was too big to pass up and so we put everything we had into hitting the deadline. We hit it, and hit a good lesson in our own resourcefulness.
Know Your Values
While in Benin, I met an incredible entrepreneur named Pierrette who had pulled herself and her children out of poverty with her business. She told me that she was guided every day by her desire to help more struggling women in her community. At my company, we all work towards the same goal of creating and selling superfood moringa products. But more importantly, we are guided by our core values and shared interest in using moringa to improve nutrition and livelihoods worldwide. Small villages survive off the support that neighbors offer each other when hard times hit. Placing concern for people on an equal footing as concern for profit has been a guiding star for our growth.
In a village, it’s impossible to keep anything secret. This type of radical transparency is something I now use in my business. Transparency is integral to building community as it helps everyone feel like they understand and are contributing towards the broader goals. We have a monthly team huddle where we disclose all of our financials and talk through what they mean for the company. We also undergo an annual audit and publish the results online. I try my best to lower the barriers of communication so that everyone -- from our customers to our leadership team -- feels comfortable asking hard questions and knows that they will get honest answers.
Although the complexities of West African villages are profound, there is something to be learned from contributing to and drawing from a tight-knit community. A village mindset prioritizes communal living -- shared ideas, customs and connection. My business was started in my parents’ kitchen, a place where I had come together with my own village over the years to share food, exchange ideas and find support. Although we now sell our products nationwide, the shared space and origins of who we are are not forgotten and have become integral to who we are today.
Lisa Curtis is the Founder & CEO of Kuli Kuli, the first company to introduce moringa, a nutrient-rich superfood to the US.