Lisa Curtis, entrepreneur and relentless optimist, has alchemized her passion for sustainable development into Kuli Kuli: America’s leading moringa brand, changing the world one small farm at a time.
Moringa is a plant — also called the drumstick tree or the miracle tree — that has nutrient-rich leaves that have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. It has an earthy, green taste that is less strong than wheatgrass or spirulina, making it an ideal addition to smoothies, pesto, guacamole and even margaritas!
Lisa first discovered the benefits of moringa as a volunteer for the Peace Corps in Niger where she was suffering the early signs of malnutrition due to a vegetarian diet consisting mostly of millet and rice. The local women gave her moringa leaves to eat, and within a week she could feel the difference.
She returned to the U.S. and co-founded Kuli Kuli with Valerie Popelka, Jordan Moncharmont, and Anne Tsuei in 2011. We sat down with Lisa to ask her a few questions about building a sustainable supply chain and what makes moringa such a super superfood.
Public Goods: What first drove you to work in sustainable development?
Lisa Curtis: I had a cool opportunity in college to be UN Environment Program youth representative for North America. As part of that role, I attended several conferences on sustainable development and could feel how challenging it was for countries in the developed world to tell countries in the developing world that they can’t pollute rivers or cut forests when this was something they had all done during their own industrial revolutions.
The nations of the developing world, meanwhile, were struggling with how to pull their people out of poverty. It got me very fired up to work on sustainable development. I joined the Peace Corps to gain a better understanding of what living in poverty meant so that I could work on solutions that spoke to both sides of the equation.
PG: Did Kuli Kuli create the secondary market for moringa?
LC: When we first started, there was no market for high quality moringa. There were a couple of people selling it online, but we tested it and there were traces of e. coli. Nobody was doing it at the quality and quantity we needed to run a business. We realized that we needed to do this ourselves if we were going to do it right.
PG: How did Kuli Kuli find its farmers?
LC: For the first two years we sourced from a women’s co-op in Ghana, but just as we were preparing to launch at Whole Foods, we got the terrible news that a wildfire had devastated the farm, burning 60,000 trees.
So we began to comb through our network, looking for alternate suppliers. We revisited a family farm in Nicaragua that we had initially turned down because our focus at that time had been exclusively on West Africa and women. We discussed as a team whether that was still our criteria. The farm was paying fair wages and healthcare and benefits to its workers. We decided to add them on.
Since then we’ve partnered with 19 different farming groups across 11 different countries. A lot of companies only want to work with small farms when they have all of their certifications.
Sometimes we work with farmers who come to us with only a field and a strong desire to build a sustainable farm. We provide all the resources and education they need to grow moringa. Other farms, like our Haiti reforestation project with The Clinton Foundation, we found as a result of partnering with an NGO or the U.S. State Department.
PG: How does Kuli Kuli help create stability for farmers?
LC: We guarantee purchase at a fixed price, which for a lot of these farmers is the only thing they can count on. When you are a subsistence farmer, so much is out of your control. You don’t know when the rains are going to come. Or when your children will require medical care.
We partner with our farmers by asking how much moringa do you think can grow? When do you think you can harvest and process it? What is the right price that builds a sustainable life for you and creates a sustainable margin for us?
PG: Are you introducing moringa to any of the countries where you work?
LC: Moringa is already present in all of the countries where we work. How much is grown and how it is utilized are what vary per country. Moringa is the backyard kale of the tropics.
10 years ago here in the U.S., the largest consumer of kale was Pizza Hut, and they weren’t using it for their pizza. They were using it as garnish for their salad bars! In Haiti, moringa was being used to feed the goats!
PG: Are the health benefits of moringa known in the countries in which you’re working?
LC: In many countries where we work, the benefits are not known, but there is a growing curiosity from local communities given this “American company’s” interest in moringa! We’re partnering with our farmers to do nutritional outreach in their communities to help more people understand why they should eat it; how to best cook it to preserve nutrients; and how to add it to their kids’ porridges.
This plant is a multivitamin in a leaf — it’s rich in protein, iron, B vitamins and calcium — providing an instantaneous energy boost. The benefits are so abundant that it would make a great impact, especially for children, if we could just get them to eat it.
PG: What is the environmental impact when creating more moringa forests?
LC: Living moringa forests help provide shade for other crops and create a great ecosystem for more birds. When we harvest those trees, the forest keeps growing and keeps sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.
PG: How do you define a conscious company?
LC: A company for which the impact it is having on the world is so core to its business that if you took that away, it would cease to exist. For example, if you took away our moringa supply chain, Kuli Kuli would cease to exist. Creating environmentally-friendly opportunities for small-scale farmers is integral to our business.
PG: How do you think a social enterprise is uniquely positioned to fill the gaps left by NGOs and governments?
LC: A self-sustaining social enterprise that is generating enough revenue to continue having a social impact is the most exciting thing about a strong social enterprise. A lot of organizations have amazing intentions and great plans to help out faraway communities. They might build a school somewhere, but then a few years down the road, funding runs out for teachers to teach in that beautiful new schoolhouse. When you build something that pays for itself, you don’t have to rely on donations.
PG: In your wildest dreams, what do you hope to achieve for Kuli Kuli?
LC: We spent five years figuring out how to build a supply chain that puts the environment and people at its core. Now we’d love to leverage that to introduce other new nutrient-rich plants like moringa to the U.S. while providing more economic opportunities for small-scale farmers around the world.
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