Lisa Curtis is the Founder & CEO of Kuli Kuli, the first brand to introduce the green superfood moringa to the US market. Lisa founded Kuli Kuli after working with moringa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Lisa has grown Kuli Kuli from a Peace Corps dream into a multi-million dollar social enterprise that sells delicious moringa products in over 6,000 stores. Lisa and Kuli Kuli have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and hundreds of other publications.
Prior to Kuli Kuli, Lisa served as the Communications Director at Mosaic where she managed a team of six to grow the company from zero to over $5M invested in solar through Mosaic’s online marketplace. Previously, Lisa wrote political briefings for President Obama in the White House, served as a United Nations Environment Programme Youth Advisor and worked at an impact investment firm in India.
She writes for a variety of outlets including Forbes and The Huffington Post. Lisa has been recognized as a StartingBloc Fellow, a Wild Gift Better World Entrepreneur, an Ashoka Emerging Innovator and a Udall Scholar. She was honored as a 30 Under 30 Leader by Forbes, GreenBiz and the University of California. She was also named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 "Top of the Class" for Social Entrepreneurship. Lisa is a frequent speaker at social impact and natural food conferences on topics such as supply chain transparency, building buzz, fundraising and millennial entrepreneurship.
Sophie: What inspired you to found Kuli Kuli?
Lisa: After experiencing malnutrition as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, I turned to moringa to regain my strength. Moringa is a local superfood that helps with malnutrition, but few people benefit from it. I found that the women in my village saw no reason to grow moringa when there was no market demand. In the US, there are millions of health-conscious people looking for all-natural ways to nourish their busy lifestyles, just as there are a billion people around the world just looking for nourishment to survive. Investing in agriculture is, hands down, the most effective method of reducing poverty, but investment in agriculture has been declining for the past two decades.
Upon my return from the Peace Corps, I co-founded Kuli Kuli to drive economic growth, women’s empowerment and sustainable agricultural development by utilizing moringa as a tool for nutritional security. Together with my childhood friends Jordan, Anne and Valerie, I launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise money to manufacture Moringa Superfood Bars. The crowdfunding campaign was the most popular food campaign Indiegogo had ever had and enabled Kuli Kuli to launch onto the market in 2014. Whole Foods Market was the first retailer to pick up our Superfood Bars! Then in 2016, we partnered with the Clinton Foundation, Whole Foods Market and a nonprofit in Haiti to help reforest Haiti with moringa trees and develop the Moringa Green Energy shots made with Haitian moringa. To date, we have planted over 1 million moringa trees and partnered with over 1,000 farmers, providing more $1.5M in income to women-led farming cooperatives and family farms.
Sophie: What has been most challenging about this endeavor?
Lisa: Kuli Kuli is effectively building two businesses — we’re partnering with small farmers to build a high-quality moringa supply chain from scratch while also creating a market for moringa in the US. And we’re doing both of these with a 10-person team. We’re constantly challenged to figure out how we can maximize every minute of the workday to create a healthy, thriving and impactful moringa business and supply chain.
Sophie: Do you have any advice for women looking to start companies in the health food space?
Lisa: My advice for all food entrepreneurs is to utilize your small size to your advantage in the early days. When you’re small and making product by hand, you can quickly test it out in farmers markets, iterate and then test again. We did this for nearly six months before launching Kuli Kuli’s first product, our Moringa Superfood Bars, and it helped a lot. My advice for women entrepreneurs, in particular, is to revel in your femininity. Too often I hear women tell me that they are worried about starting companies because of all the stories of harassment that have come out. That is the worst possible outcome of the #MeToo movement. I firmly believe that women make even better CEOs than men. I want every woman who has a dream business to know that she is 100% qualified to be CEO, no matter what sort of education or business experience she has.
Sophie: Can you tell us about the nutritional and other benefits of moringa?
Lisa: Moringa is one of the most nutrient-dense plants on the planet. The leaves of the Moringa tree are packed with protein, essential amino acids, 27 vitamins and 46 antioxidants. Recent research has shown that moringa contains a multitude of medicinal benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties that rival those of turmeric. Named the top wellness trend of 2018 by Good Morning America and the Sterling Rice Group, moringa is an extremely versatile and nutritious super green that can be blended into smoothies, baked into cookies and cakes; sprinkled over savory dishes, or mixed into sauces and soups.
Sophie: I love your focus on leveraging moringa to help the locals harvesting your crop. Can you tell us about how you’re doing this?
Lisa: We believe investing in the nutritional power of plants like moringa nourishes communities where these plants are sourced. Kuli Kuli supports farming groups that teach women to grow, process and incorporate nutrient-rich moringa into their families’ diets, reducing malnutrition. By carefully managing our supply chain to source only a portion of each harvest for Western consumption and by paying fair wages, we can ensure that superfoods like moringa benefit those who need them the most.
By importing a portion of the moringa to the US for our products, we’ve created an international market for moringa and a sustainable livelihood for farming communities around the world. With a rise in demand for moringa, an increase in production and consequential consumption is occurring in the villages where moringa is grown. We incentivize communities that struggle with malnutrition to invest in a nutrient-dense plant that will nourish their community, both nutritionally and economically.
Kuli Kuli has three overarching impact objectives for the communities where we work: to end malnutrition, empower women to achieve gender equality and plant a tree for every household. We produce an annual impact report tracking our progress towards these goals and also undergo a third party impact audit through B Lab. Kuli Kuli is a full-fledged Benefit Corporation, meaning that our social purpose is embedded into our legal DNA. In 2017, we were selected as a B Corp Best for the World Honoree, chosen out of more than 2,000 companies. To date, we have planted over 1 million moringa trees and partnered with over 1,000 farmers, providing more $1.5M in income to women-led farming cooperatives and family farms. Additionally, Kuli Kuli has invested over $20,000 in supporting nonprofits in the communities where we work.
Kuli Kuli partners with female moringa farmers whose moringa may not yet be up to exporting standards to get their farms on the fast track to meeting the requirements. Farmers like Pierrette, an incredible woman running a moringa farm in Benin, inspire us with their stories, and affirm the impact moringa can have on the lives of women worldwide.
Sophie: I think we’re all now pretty familiar with the concept that nutrition and what we put in our body has an impact on overall health and happiness, but could you take us a step further and talk about your personal philosophy around nutrition/health and how you nourish yourself?
Lisa: I’m a firm believer that food is medicine. It’s not that I don’t believe in Western medicine but I do think often we pop pills to fix any ailment without understanding how the things we eat and the way we treat our body can be the root causes of those ailments. I’m pretty militant about what I eat and how much I exercise. I make a superfood oatmeal every morning with moringa, maca, chia seeds, baobab, almond butter and whatever berries I have on-hand. For lunch and dinner, I often have veggies with pasta or rice, taking care to make sure there are more veggies on my plate than carbs. I travel a lot and so I always carry instant oatmeal and moringa powder with me since I often travel to places without many vegetarian options. I generally run for 45 minutes every morning and then bike 20 minutes to and from work. I also meditate every morning for 10 minutes. These activities keep me operating at 100% almost every day, which is the space I need to be in to show up for my team and my family.
Sophie: Aside from moringa, do you have any favorite foods and brands?
Lisa: I’m a huge tea drinker. I love Numi Organic Tea and mate from Guayaki. I also LOVE chocolate. Alter Eco and Madecasse are my two favorite brands, both for the quality of the chocolate and for their positive impact on the world.
Sophie: Can you share some of your favorite health and beauty products?
Lisa: I used to hate wearing makeup. Then I worked with this incredible makeup artist who made me up for my wedding. She did such a great job of making me look natural that I asked her to share all the products with me. My favorites are:
- Dr. Jart Dis-A-Pore BB Cream
- Mac Blot Powder
- Hourglass “Dim Light” Ambient Lighting Powder
- Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Whiz in Medium Brown
- Burt's Bees Lip Tint in "Rose"
Sophie: How can people best support you?
Lisa: We like to say “no market, no mission.” If we can’t sustain a market for moringa in the US, then we can’t continue to support amazing farmers all over the world. One of the best things people can do to support us right now is to purchase our products on Amazon and, if you like them, leave a good review. We’re trying to grow our e-commerce business and the more 5-star reviews we have, the higher we’ll appear in search results. Another way to support us is to follow us on social media @KuliKuliFoods on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and share out any posts that you find compelling.
About the author:
Anne-Sophie Bousset ("Sophie" to English-speaking friends), is a freelance marketer and community builder. She helps companies build their brand, attract clients, and build a community around their product. Her favorite things include sunshine, yoga, reading, and lazy Sundays in with her cat, Phelps. She can be found on Twitter @Sophie_Bousset.