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The Power of Plants

Moringa trees
A Moringa tree orchard in Haiti. Photo courtesy Lisa Curtis.

Written by Sierra Dickey '15

Recent Forbes "30 Under 30" honoree Lisa Curtis '10 harnesses the health food market to fight global hunger.

Silicon Valley's startup culture has long come under fire for a perceived lack of focus on "real world" issues.

That's why it's so refreshing to listen to founder and CEO Lisa Curtis '10 describe her business, Kuli Kuli. Founded in 2011, the Oakland-based company supports sustainable farming in places like West Africa by supplying energy bars, supplement powders and juice shots derived from the Moringa plant to more than 2,000 stores across the United States.

Described as a "supergreen" and more nutritious than kale, Moringa is rich in iron, calcium, vitamins and amino acids, and can thrive in dry, unforgiving environments, making it a climate-smart crop that also appeals to health-conscious consumers.

Social entrepreneurship is key to Kuli Kuli's mission, which is to offset subtropical deforestation while elevating the economic status of Moringa farmers, many of whom are West African women.

"For us, if you take away the supply chain that we built with these farmers, we don't exist," Curtis said.

Lisa CurtisShe and her colleagues are committed to leveraging the domestic demand for health food products into better livelihoods for Moringa farmers. And they're using the startup world's unprecedented access to wealth to make it happen: Kuli Kuli is just about to enter Series A, the first round of significant venture capital fundraising for any startup. Kuli Kuli products can already be found on the shelves of supermarkets such as Safeway, Sprouts and Whole Foods.

"I've actually always been interested in starting a business," Curtis said. (In fact, she and co-founder Valerie Popelka have been business partners since dog-walking and lemonade stand days—"Valerie and I joke that this is the sixth business we've started.")

"I didn't know the term social enterprise when I was younger," but she knew that anything she did would likely be mission-based.

At Whitman, Curtis recalled that "sometimes, in the college activist world, it's really easy to get written off as ‘you're young, you're idealistic, it's cool for you to say all these things about carbon.' But at the end of the day, a business owner needs to make money."

Determined to be taken seriously, Curtis pushed herself harder. As part of Campus Climate Challenge, she focused on reducing carbon emissions locally. She created competition between residence halls on campus with energy saving challenges, and contributed time and energy to Whitman's Sustainability Revolving Loan Fund.

After lobbying other North American colleges and universities to reduce their carbon impacts in Washington, D.C., Curtis turned towards international environmental politics. Her experiences in the policy realm helped her connect with the United Nations Environmental Program.

"I worked there for a semester as a sort of domestic study abroad," she said. "I eventually became the representative for North America, representing the voices of North American youth at all these UNEP conferences, so I got to go to Copenhagen, South Korea, Rio and a few other places."

Cutting her teeth in the nation's capital and joining a global governing body as a youth representative gave her the confidence to take on more responsibilities. During her senior year, Curtis served as the campus Sustainability Coordinator, a position so demanding it is now filled by a full-time Whitman staff member.

Moringa farmers in West Africa.

Her two-year term as an UNEP representative would also become critical to Kuli Kuli's guiding principles, by showing her how geopolitics intersects with the environment. In other words, the struggle to reduce carbon emissions and build green economies is different depending on where it takes place. Perhaps most importantly, UNEP brought Curtis into contact with what she calls "the developing country response," which she paraphrased as this:

"You Western power players have been doing this [industrializing and burning carbon] for a hundred years, and that's what has gotten you to the development level you're at. We're just trying to pull our people out of poverty. We need people to have enough to live on."

Curtis conceded, "their argument is pretty compelling."

Drawing on her experiences from Campus Climate Challenge, where resistance to her calls for reduced emissions no matter what forced her to find "win-win arguments," and inspired by her time at UNEP, she focused her approach going forward. The question became: "how do you create initiatives that pull people out of poverty while creating a positive impact on the environment?"

Since entering college, Curtis had gone from general environmental awareness to full-on problem-solving: "I think I came in with an environmental bent, but Whitman bent that farther." During her joint baccalaureate speech with Camila Thorndike '10, Curtis shared her postgraduate plans:

"As a politics major, I'm going to be spending the next two years in the Peace Corps trying to find ways of creating prosperity in developing countries without reinforcing the scary words of my discipline such as ‘neoliberal hegemony.'"

"That is how I got hooked on Moringa and hooked on what I'm doing now," she explained later.

Moringa taking root

Curtis first encountered Moringa in Niger when her eyes were peeled for just such a win-win initiative. However, it would take insight and familiarity with market forces to harness the plant's power for positive social and environmental ends. Used for centuries in South Asian cooking, Moringa is well known in traditions like Ayurveda, an ancient holistic healing method, but relatively unfamiliar to most Westerners.

That's where Kuli Kuli's official origin story starts. While volunteering abroad, Curtis didn't have a wide range of food options available to support her vegetarian diet. After endless meals of rice and millet, she became sluggish and started to show signs of early nutritional deficiency. The women at the local health center directed her to the Moringa tree and told her to eat its leaves for a boost of energy. She tried it, her system revitalized, and she was sold.

"I thought that plant could help solve some of the many challenges I was witnessing: If more people grew it, and found a way to make an income off selling it, then they'd be more likely to eat it, and it's so nutritious that if they ate it, that would help their nutrition significantly," she said.

Moringa the ingredient was well poised to improve lives and livelihoods in Niger and across West Africa, but Moringa the crop would require some maneuvering.

Less than a year into Curtis' two-year volunteer commitment, Niger suffered a terrorist attack and the Peace Corps evacuated all of their volunteers stationed there. After taking months to complete a community needs assessment, Curtis was just putting the finishing touches on her project proposal—the document which contained the preliminary business plan for a Moringa company—and was devastated to leave.

"When I got back to the U.S., my immediate thought was: I never got a chance to give back to these people who had given me so much; what as an American are my assets, and what can I leverage to help them?"

Moringa remained at the top of her mind: "I'm in the largest market for superfoods in the world. It's a pretty easy step from there, to thinking: well, instead of helping them sell it in a local market, I can help them sell it here in the U.S.," Curtis said.

Plenty of social enterprises have to walk the line between positive social impact and making enough profit to keep their organization alive. The amount of thought (and sometimes even geopolitical theory) that keeps Kuli Kuli competitive is often invisible to the average consumer.

What was the hardest part about keeping her business goals clear?

"I think there's a thing that happens in the social enterprise world where they're really cute when they're very small, and as they scale, things change," Curtis said. "So it's explaining that change without people saying that you're selling out."

That's difficult to pull off in centimeters on a package, or on the limited real estate of your commercial website. So, to tell that longer story, Kuli Kuli has an active and growing blog as well as highly trafficked social media profiles. Curtis also does a fair share of writing online about the company's efforts, and the big ideas guiding their growth.

Eloquent writing and speaking are two liberal arts skills that Curtis keeps sharpened in her entrepreneurial toolbox, and her published titles include "Happiness Is The New Success: Why Millennials Are Reprioritizing" for Forbes, and "Could the Popularity of Superfoods Actually be a Good Thing for the Planet?" for The Huffington Post. "In introducing a new ingredient to the market, you really need something that's going to pull people to the shelf and make them excited about buying it," she said.

Kuli Kuli's Moringa root products.

Healthy supply chains

Moringa, largely unknown to the mass market before Kuli Kuli introduced their bars, is far from a default purchase, and Curtis' company has had to do considerable work educating American consumers about the ingredient's uses and benefits. "Writing and storytelling skills that I honed at Whitman are something that has served Kuli Kuli very well," she said, adding: "It doesn't sound that great, but I think there is an art to crafting emails when you're trying to teach buyers about why they should purchase your product."

Visit kulikulifoods.com and Curtis' words take on even more meaning. The company's blog is where the majority of its storytelling takes place. Listicles, opinion pieces and a steady stream of Moringa recipes intermix with lifestyle tips that come in fives: "5 Steps for Staying Healthy on a Night Out" or "5 Sustainable Fashion Brands to Get Behind."

"It's kind of about the lifestyle of the company, which comes from the mission," said Carolyn Erving '16, a former Kuli Kuli intern who founded and still contributes to the blog. What principles guide the Kuli Kuli consumer lifestyle? "Being globally aware, and concerned with public health, as well as your own health."

She added, "Most of the energy that I witnessed was put into the social entrepreneurship side of things. Being in the office, I would forget that we were selling a food product. It was only when I was in the store actually sampling products with customers that would I remember, oh yeah, this is what it all boils down to."

While there are many health blogs out there, there are few that combine healthy living tips with a global consciousness and a public health mission. Perhaps because of this, health nuts and clean eating devotees are often taken to task for shortsightedness. At its most extreme, critics of "the wellness ideology" point to an obsession with bodily health among upper-class Westerners as the cause of apathy in other realms. Activist Laurie Penny summarizes the stance for The Baffler: "obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life."

So it's bold for Kuli Kuli to take a consumer's interest in their body and slowly turn that into concern for other bodies elsewhere. Even beyond their blog's storytelling, it seems clear that Kuli Kuli is succeeding: meet a Black Cherry Moringa bar on the shelf, enjoy the high protein snack, ponder the packaging, visit the website and then get introduced to issues of sustainable agriculture and ethical supply chains. And yet, funneling customers from product to purpose like this is an uncommon approach amongst Curtis' competitors in the startup industry.

Think for instance of TOMS or Warby Parker-two accessory companies that promote their "purpose" as part of their brand in order to get people interested (perhaps secondarily) in the product. Curtis contrasted Kuli Kuli's impact strategy with the "one-to-one" model that TOMS is built on: "with every product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need. One for One."

"People are forever asking me: okay, if I buy this energy shot, what happens? Do you plant a tree in Haiti?" Curtis said. However neatly they appeal to consumers, simple models like this are less impactful.

Curtis shared her litmus test for sincerity in the industry, and it's comprised of just one question: "If you take the social out of the enterprise, does the enterprise still exist?" In that equation, both TOMS and Warby Parker would go on selling shoes and eyeglasses if you removed their social element. Not Kuli Kuli.

"That's hard to explain," Curtis said. "There is no section in the grocery aisle for mission-driven businesses, and I don't know that there ever necessarily will be."

Complexity does not easily convert into a catchphrase.

Likewise, the years of relationship building that went into Kuli Kuli's supply chain aren't immediately translatable. And, as the company grows, these important elements get increasingly harder to explain. Kuli Kuli sourced almost exclusively from women-led cooperative farms in Ghana when they first launched. At one point, a key farm suffered a fire. Naturally, they had to pick up other suppliers. But tweaking a brand narrative is challenging, especially when your market is accustomed to easily digestible stories.

In a world so dominated by one-for-one models, the growing pains of a dedicated social enterprise are hard to communicate to the public, how "we're sourcing from Ghana, Nicaragua, Haiti and how that all works. When it's not as simple as I buy this, you give this. It's not that direct. We're paying fair wages, we're working with nonprofits, but we want something that's long-lasting and isn't just instant gratification," Curtis said.

Laboring for something long-lasting is also where Kuli Kuli sets itself apart from other pro-social businesses: "We don't quantify it in a one-to-one scenario, because that limits what our partners can do. If we plant a tree for every shot, what happens when they've planted more trees than they can take care of?"

It's incisive questions like these that allow Curtis to avoid the "neoliberal hegemony" she decried in her Whitman graduation speech:

"I still don't really think of myself as running a food company," she said. "I realize that I do run one, but we tend to think of ourselves as more of a social enterprise, and food is the mechanism that we're using to create change."

Published on Jan 20, 2017
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