OAKLAND, CALIF. — Food manufacturers are in hot pursuit of the next acai berry, chia seed or baobab. Lisa Curtis believes she found it.
The Oakland-based entrepreneur first discovered moringa while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. Malnourished from a scant diet of rice, beans and millet, Ms. Curtis 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.”
Rich in protein, potassium, calcium and vitamin A, moringa is the superfood star in a line of snack bars from Kuli Kuli, the company Ms. Curtis founded with friends after returning to the United States.
“My childhood best friend had been doing consumer packaged goods consulting for a number of years, so we wanted to see what we could put moringa into and whether people would eat it,” Ms. Curtis said. “We put moringa in everything — moringa pesto, moringa hummus, moringa brownies — and tested it out on friends and family.”
Ms. Curtis, who is Kuli Kuli’s chief executive officer, and her friend Valerie Popelka, the company’s chief marketing officer, eventually developed nutrition bars in three flavors selected through consumer trials at a local farmers market. With six ingredients or fewer, varieties include black cherry, crunchy almond, and dark chocolate. Kuli Kuli bars are vegan, raw and gluten-free with 5 grams of protein.
“I think because people associate bars with nutrition, it was a relatively easy first product to launch, but it’s also a crowded category,” Ms. Curtis said. “But we found it was unique. Nobody was selling products made with moringa.”
Sweetness from a touch of agave and dates helps offset moringa’s grassy taste.
“Moringa is not as bitter as kale and not as spicy as arugula, but it does have a strong earthy flavor,” Ms. Curtis said. “So we had to think about how to work with that flavor and make something that still tastes good to a bunch of people.”
Kuli Kuli sources moringa from women’s cooperatives in Northern Ghana. To date, the company has planted 60,000 moringa trees and supported 500 women farmers to earn a sustainable living. Through its Moringa Partners Program, Kuli Kuli funds moringa projects across the globe with 10% of sales.
Kuli Kuli bars are sold at 300 stores along the West coast, including Whole Foods Market, Kroger and Fred Meyer locations, as well as on-line at KuliKuliFoods.com and Amazon.com. The company plans to expand into Colorado, Southern California and mid-Atlantic markets by the end of the year.
“We have a lot of education to do as a part of our supply chain, so we need to be careful about growing into new markets where we can really support it in terms of brand awareness and explaining what moringa is,” Ms. Curtis said.
To explain the ingredient to new consumers, the company often compares it with kale.
“The hook is, ‘This is a new superfood, or a super nutritious green, more nutritious than kale,’” Ms. Curtis said. “That’s one people really latch on to. They say, ‘More nutritious than kale? But I thought kale was the most nutritious thing out there!’ That gives us a chance to explain what moringa is, that it’s a vegan source of protein, calcium and iron.”
Coming to retail shelves in June is Kuli Kuli Moringa Powder, made from dried moringa leaves, with 30 calories and 3 grams of protein per tablespoon. Consumers have used the powder in smoothies, soups, sauces and desserts, Ms. Curtis said.
“When we decided to do a bar as our first product, we thought it was more accessible than doing a straight raw moringa powder, but we’re actually finding people are more excited about the powder than the bars,” she said.
While other companies sell moringa powders and supplements, Ms. Curtis said Kuli Kuli was the first to offer food products featuring the plant.
However, more businesses may be barking up the moringa tree.
“Last year at (Natural Products) Expo West, we were the only moringa company out there,” Ms. Curtis said. “This year, there were four companies doing stuff with moringa. That was really interesting.“Now we’ve got to work quickly and grow quickly and make sure we maintain that edge.”