OAKLAND, CALIF. — Lisa Curtis discovered moringa while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. Malnourished from a scant diet of rice, beans and millet, she was offered kuli-kuli, a peanut snack made with the nutritious leaves of the locally grown moringa tree.
“I started eating it, and it made me feel a lot better and gave me a lot more energy,” Ms. Curtis said. “And then I did a little research and was amazed by all of moringa’s benefits.”
After returning to the United States, Ms. Curtis launched Kuli Kuli in 2013 to grow awareness of the ingredient, which is rich in protein, potassium, calcium and vitamin A, while supporting its farmers through sustainable sourcing practices.
Products feature the ingredient in nutrition bars, green powder, smoothie mixes and wellness shots that are available at 9,500 retail outlets nationwide.
The company was named on the latest Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing food and beverage businesses, posting three-year growth of 820% and generating revenue of $4.5 million in 2018. Investors in the business include Kellogg Co.’s eighteen94 capital and Griffith Foods.
Planting roots: “When I came back to the U.S., I had $2,000, and I put all of that into Kuli Kuli. Sometimes people ask, ‘Why did you fundraise so much or so early?’ I was 22. I didn’t have any connections or capital to put in it. I was just doing everything as scrappy as possible.”
Business 101: “I honestly think I Googled my way to a million dollars in sales. ‘What is a co-packer?’ ‘How does that work?’ ‘How do you pay them?’ Now we have amazing advisers and investors and more experienced team, and there’s a lot more people around me who know what they’re doing.”
Chasing capital: “We quickly realized that everything was going to cost more money. We obviously had to do more manufacturing runs. There’s also marketing and trade spend fees and distributor fees. So, then I started raising equity money, which was very hard. At the time I think most people took one look at me and said, ‘You’re 23 years old, you’ve never worked in food or business, you’re going to introduce this plant that no one has ever heard of, and you’re going to source it from a continent that’s not known for quality products. How is this going to work?’”
Partnering with Kellogg: “I think if you had told me three years ago that our biggest investor and best supporter is going to be the maker of Pop-Tarts, I’d say, ‘You’re crazy. Why would they invest in us?’ We found them to be unbelievably helpful, mission-driven… They really care about what we’re doing and go above and beyond constantly to help us make it happen. They’ve been so great to work with.”
What is moringa?
Derived from the dried leaves of a plant native to parts of Africa and Asia, moringa is rich in protein, fiber, potassium, calcium and vitamin A. With an earthy green flavor, similar to that of matcha, moringa may be used in seasonings, baked foods, vegetable chips or crisps, dressings and beverages