My name is Lisa Curtis and I’m the founder of Kuli Kuli, the moringa superfood company.
Moringa is a naturally energizing leafy green packed with protein, antioxidants, and vitamins. Moringa was named the top wellness trend by Good Morning America. Kuli Kuli’s Moringa Superfood Bars, Pure Organic Moringa Powder, Moringa Green Tea Wellness Shots and Organic Green Smoothie Mixes are made with moringa sourced directly from small family farmers around the world and sold in over 11,000 stores across the US.
In less than six years on the market, Kuli Kuli has grown from an idea dreamed up in the Peace Corps into a multi-million dollar social enterprise. We’ve worked hard to pioneer a global moringa supply chain with high safety and impact standards. Kuli Kuli’s moringa products have won multiple awards and are sold in thousands of retail locations including Whole Foods Market, Sprouts, and CVS.
Kuli Kuli has formed partnerships with leaders in the field, including Whole Foods Market, the Clinton Foundation, Timberland, Indiegogo, and Kellogg. Our Pure Organic Moringa Powder is in the top 2% of all supplements sold by the largest natural food distributor in the country. Kuli Kuli has received investment from the top food companies and venture capital firms in the world, including Kellogg, Griffith Foods, S2G Ventures, Rocana Ventures, and others. Kuli Kuli has been featured in over 300 media publications, including Forbes, MSNBC, and The Wall Street Journal.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I’ve always been interested in how developing economies can achieve a high quality of life for their citizens without wrecking the environment in the way that the US and Europe developed. I spent my early career as an environmental activist and even had the opportunity to represent the voices of North American youth at international sustainable development conferences. When I graduated college, I decided that I wanted to understand sustainable development firsthand and so joined the Peace Corps as a Volunteer in Niger, West Africa.
I truly believe that anyone can start anything if they have enough passion and grit to make it happen.
I’m a vegetarian, and while in Niger found myself feeling weak and tired off a diet of mostly rice. A few friends in my village recommended that I try a local plant called moringa. They pulled small, green leaves off a tree and mixed them into a popular peanut snack called Kuli Kuli. I started eating this Kuli Kuli moringa snack every day and felt my strength and energy return.
I did some research and learned that moringa is one of the most nutritious plants on the planet. It’s packed with protein, calcium, iron, and tons of vitamins. It also grows naturally in hot, dry climates and thrives without much water. Despite the many benefits of this local superfood, very few people in my village were eating 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 founded Kuli Kuli, a mission-driven business, to drive economic growth, women’s empowerment, and sustainable agricultural development by selling sustainably-grown moringa products in the US.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
Upon returning to the US, my first step was to reach out to a few childhood friends with skills in food, technology, and design. They joined me as co-founders and we decided to name the company Kuli Kuli after the power of the moringa snack I’d experienced in Niger. We knew it was going to be a while before Kuli Kuli could support anyone’s salary, and so we all had day jobs for the first few years and worked on the business on evenings and weekends.
We made moringa bars by hand in a commercial kitchen and tested them at local Bay Area farmer’s markets. We received a lot of positive feedback, and so decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise money to manufacture Moringa Energy Bars. The crowdfunding campaign was the most popular food campaign Indiegogo had ever had, enabling Kuli Kuli to launch onto the market in 2014.
Whole Foods Market was the first retailer to pick up Kuli Kuli’s Moringa Superfood Bars, starting in Northern California. Kuli Kuli then launched the Pure Organic Moringa Powder in 2015 and expanded to over 2,000 retail locations. In 2016, Kuli Kuli 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.
By creating partnerships with small farming cooperatives in Ghana and Haiti, private foundations like the Clinton Foundation and major retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Kuli Kuli created a truly sustainable and philanthropic business model. In 2017, Kuli Kuli was one of the first Benefit Corporations to receive investment from a Fortune 500 company, Kellogg via its venture capital arm eighteen94 capital.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Kuli Kuli has quickly expanded since launching our Moringa Energy Bars onto the market in 2014. We’ve expanded to four different product lines: bars, smoothie mixes, pure moringa powder, and wellness shots. Though few people had heard of moringa when we launched, we’ve since had both Good Morning America and The Today Show call out moringa as a top wellness trend.
Moringa provides a nutritious, caffeine-free energy boost that thousands of Americans enjoy. Kuli Kuli's delicious moringa products make it easy for Americans to get nutrition-powered energy while supporting small farmers around the world. To date, Kuli Kuli has planted over 24 million moringa trees, partnered with over 3,000 farmers, and has provided $5M in income to women-led farming cooperatives and family farms.
Though navigating COVID-19 has been a challenge, the future is bright. We’re excited to continue to grow and introduce Americans to amazing new superfoods that improve nutrition and livelihoods around the world.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the amazing parts of running a startup is that you learn something new every day. There are three big lessons that I’ve taken from my journey thus far:
- People are everything. You might think that the success of your company will be determined by your product or your funding. Those are certainly contributing factors, but the key thing that will determine your success is your team. If you surround yourself with amazing people and motivate them appropriately, you can truly accomplish anything.
- Ask for help. I came into the food industry not knowing the first thing about running a food company. After just five years, I received one of the food industry’s highest honors, a Leadership Award from the Specialty Food Industry. My success in navigating this entirely new industry came directly from my ability to ask for help from other food industry leaders. Whenever someone asked me how my business was going, I didn’t just say “good”, I gave them a real answer to what was going well and where I was struggling.
- Form unexpected partnerships. A few years ago I could have never imagined that the largest investor in my green African-focused superfood company would be Kellogg’s venture capital arm. But it has truly been an unbelievably good partnership. They’ve helped us grow in so many ways, and, in turn, they’ve told us that we’ve inspired their employees with our mission and startup mentality.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My co-founder, Jordan, has been incredible at finding all sorts of great productivity tools.
We also use Asana for project management and to organize our workflow. For shipping, we use Shipstation, and for our email, we use MailChimp. We’ve found so many easy ways to simplify our business and make it easier for a small startup like ours to thrive.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The book that truly got me hooked on the idea of starting a social enterprise was Building a Social Business by Muhammad Yunus. I read that book while I was still living abroad and it was one of the driving factors that made me believe it was possible to start a business that created profits alongside social change.
In addition to many of the classic business books like Good to Great and Art of the Start, I’ve also benefited a lot by reading books by entrepreneurs in my industry, such as Killing It, Fully Alive, and High-Hanging Fruit.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
As someone who started a food company at age 23 with zero experience in food or business, I truly believe that anyone can start anything if they have enough passion and grit to make it happen. So many people told me I was crazy to believe that I could source a high-quality food ingredient from small African farmers and introduce it to Americans. Dozens of investors told me that Kuli Kuli would never be “investable.” We’ve now raised over $10 million and our products are sold in 11,000 stores across the US.
My best piece of advice is to embrace rejection. To this day, I still track every investor conversation I have, whether it's a sit-down meeting or a casual meeting at a happy hour. I log all of these conversations in a spreadsheet, and if the investor seems like someone I’d be interested in working with, I send them a quarterly update. In this update, I describe Kuli Kuli’s successes, as well as our key learnings and challenges.
One of the investors who told me years ago that Kuli Kuli wasn’t a fit for his firm recently invested over a million dollars in our last round. It just goes to show that a rejection isn’t necessarily the end of the story!
Where can we go to learn more?
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