Oct 30th, 2014, 10:28 PM

Fighting Malnutrition From the U.S. to West Africa

By Marc Feustel
West African women showing moringa seeds. Credit : Kuli Kuli Foods.
Written by Savannah Jenkins

A recent graduate from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, Lisa Curtis relocated to a remote village in the Western African country of Niger. While volunteering as a member of the Peace Corps in 2010, Curtis discovered the almost miraculous effects of a locally grown plant called moringa. One of the few edible plants that can survive the harsh and arid climate of Niger, especially during times of famine, the moringa plant is also rich with vitamins, iron and calcium necessary to combat malnutrition.

The problem for Curtis however, was creating an incentive for locals to cultivate moringa. The self-proclaimed “social entrepreneur”, preferring to avoid the label environmentalist, took it upon herself to come up with a way to incentivize the production of the potentially life-saving moringa while also introducing it to the U.S. market —a country in no way lacking access to food, but in need of healthier alternatives. Upon moving back to the U.S., Curtis, along with the help of three close friends, launched her sustainable business, Kuli Kuli Foods.

The name of the company was actually taken from the name of a common dish that locals ate in Niger. The main ingredient of this dish? Moringa. The mission of Kuli Kuli is to supply this highly-rich in vitamins plant, to people in the United States while simultaneously supporting women cultivating the moringa in developing countries like Niger and Ghana. 

While working in Niger, you saw, first-hand, the effects of malnutrition. Did you experience the onset of malnutrition yourself?

I was not suffering in any way as badly as the locals in the village where I worked, but I was feeling really weak and really tired. I wasn’t getting a lot of different nutrients in my diet, I was just eating a lot of beans and rice and millet. I was working in the village hospital centre, and several nurses told me to look into moringa. They told me it was really nutritious and that I should start eating it. I began including it in my diet and very quickly began to feel better. I couldn’t help but think, “oh my god, this plant is amazing, everybody should be eating this!”

I started working with some women in my village to try to grow more moringa. However, the biggest incentive to grow was if they could earn an income from it somehow.

Was it not being cultivated before?

It was mainly in people’s backyards. That’s really only where I could get it, and in the city. USAID had just done a big project to try and get more people to grow and eat it, but a lot of people still considered it to be a poor people’s crop as it grows during the hunger season —which is when the last harvest is running out, before the new harvest arrives. It’s the main time when people often go hungry.

Moringa was really the only thing growing during the hunger season but now, by promoting the benefits of the plant, people are starting to see the value in eating it. It’s sort of like how Brussels sprouts use to be thought of in the U.S. —now they’re a little more popular. People saw a lot of value in growing it when they realized they could make a profit.

When did you first begin thinking about cultivating moringa as a sustainable business?

I actually didn’t end up staying the entire time in Niger, where I was stationed. There was a terrorist attack about seven months in, so the volunteers ended up being evacuated to Morocco. They didn’t really know what to do with us there. We were 100. Niger was one of the largest Peace Corps countries in the world. So I ended up moving temporarily to India on a whim. My parents were going to a family friend’s wedding there, so I went and joined them. That’s where I really got into the social enterprise world.

India has a large mass of moringa growing there as well, is that right?

Yes, but I didn’t work with it there. I did work with an organization called Start up India, that works with many Indian social entrepreneurs and helps them scale up. That’s where I put together the first plan for Kuli Kuli. I then went back to the U.S., where I teamed up with some of my good friends. One, Valerie Popelka, had been doing consumer packaging consulting for five years so she knows the food world. Jordan Moncharmont, our CTO, has worked for Facebook and Tesla. She’s very interested in the idea of how we connect people across continents.

After getting the moringa plant to the U.S., how did you guys start? What was it like in the early stages of developing the product and the company?

We started really small. We all had day jobs. We started out by discussing how to get the moringa over here, so we worked that out, and then experimented with the product. Eventually, we ended up deciding on bars as our first product because they’re really easy to make and produce. From there, we spent a lot of time working with Farmers’ Markets and then launched a crowdfunding campaign in June 2013.

It was taking three of us six hours to make 200 bars, which isn’t sustainable at all. It was pretty exhausting —all of Saturday making them and then all of Sunday testing them. The funds from that crowdfunding campaign enabled us to do our first manufacturing run.

Are you still working exclusively with women in Niger, or has it expanded over North Africa?

We’re actually mostly working in Ghana right now. I started out in Niger, which, as a landlocked desert, made it really hard to export moringa to the U.S. It ended up costing me more in shipping than growing the moringa itself. We ended up finding a non-profit organization in Ghana and teamed up with them, to start working together and exporting moringa from a region called Tamale, in the northern part of the country. I’m going back there next month. I talk to the non-profit organization pretty much every week, we have a really good relationship with them.

Can you explain how the heavily subsidized food promoted by the U.S. government affects villages like the one you worked in in Niger, during times of famine?

Even in Niger, when there are famines, and people are malnourished, it’s often not because there isn’t any food. There is still food, people are still eating around two meals a day, however the micro-nutrients is severely lacking. They’re just eating the only thing they have left. One of the problems that arises from importing large amounts of crops from richer nations to poorer countries, is that it hurts the farmers at the local level. In the U.S., we’ve really developed this procedure where a lot of farmers produce solely corn, that we then just export as subsidized food to other countries.

We take all of this corn and send it to places like Niger. But the local farmer that did have crops can no longer sell them, because now there is free food in the markets, making it impossible to compete. The bottom drops out of market and the people that would have been doing fine have to rely on food imported from countries like the U.S. There’s less of an incentive to improve their field —farmers have less money to make any agricultural progress because they’re not getting compensated for their work.

It seems like you’ve always had an interest in the environment, or at least, have always been very aware of the effects that peoples’ behaviors have on the world.

I’ve always been really interested in environmental and social justice, and how to just leave the world a little better than the way I found it.

What would be some advice you’d give yourself five years ago?

One of my favourite quotes is “Shoot for the moon, because even if you fail you’ll land among the stars.” A lot of people don’t think they can do something —they think, “Oh, I’ll never meet the president” or “Oh, I’ll never start a company”. I know about this because I have those thoughts all the time. But just let yourself try and even if you fail you will have accomplished a lot.

What is one big change you’d like to see in the next decade?

Certainly moving over to sustainable sources of energy and establishing sustainable practices. A huge portion of the world’s population got really rich from the industrial revolution, which was great —it pulled a lot of people out of poverty— but now we’re realizing that this rapid industrialization, and the lifestyles we’re accustomed to, are rapidly heating up our climate. The Earth will be fine! The Earth will recover —it’s humanity that I’m worried about.

We’re adjusted to a certain temperature and a certain way of living on this planet, but we’re reaching a tipping point where things just won’t be the same anymore if we keep on as we are now.

That being said, we are heading towards more sustainable ways of living. I see a lot of young people nowadays who don’t want a big house with two cars, the “McMansion” in the suburbs. They’d rather live downtown where they can walk everywhere. We have made so much progress and we can make it so that everyone has enough to eat, has a shelter and is living in a way that is compatible with the other seven billion people on the planet.

What is your next big goal for Kuli Kuli?

After the Agfunder campaign closed, we raised around $500,000 which has given us a salary and some breathing room for the foreseeable future. We’d like to scale up our supply team and company. Right now, we have 200 stores across the West Coast. We want to release new products, but our North Star Goal would definitely be to have one million women employed as a result of Kuli Kuli!