The Miraculous Benefits of Moringa with Kuli Kuli Foods’ Lisa Curtis

October 17, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited and honored to have with us today Lisa Curtis. She’s the founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli Foods. Welcome to Green is Good, Lisa. LISA CURTIS: Thank you. Thanks for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Lisa, before we get talking about your great new food company and your new products, I want you to share a little bit about your fascinating and wonderful journey leading up to the founding of Kuli Kuli, all the cool and great things and important things you’ve done in your young life. LISA CURTIS: Yeah. So, I’ve done quite a few different things. It hasn’t been a straight journey. I’ve just been trying out a lot of different things, trying to figure out where I can best make an impact. So, I worked in the White House for a little bit when President Obama first got elected. I worked for the United Nations Environment Program, and then decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps. So, I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Niger, West Africa, and that was where I first heard of moringa. I was in a rural village without much fruits or vegetables, and was actually starting to feel a little malnourished myself, and people in my village told me that I should start eating moringa. I did a little research, and realized that moringa is one of the most nutritious plants in the world, more nutritious than kale, and it grows naturally in a lot of countries that suffer from malnutrition. So, I started eating it. I started feeling better and started thinking to myself that we need more people to be eating this and more people should know about it, especially there is an opportunity to sell this product in the U.S. and support farmers over there to increase incomes and help them earn a sustainable livelihood from moringa. So, that’s when I came back to the U.S. and stated Kuli Kuli out of that vision. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What I love about your story — I read your history — and you know my core business is in the recycling business. I love that at 12 years old, that was the first time in the green industry, you wrote an essay about recycling and won a local contest. So, your fate was already set at 12, wasn’t it, Lisa? LISA CURTIS: Yeah, pretty much. I’ve been an eco-child for quite a while. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so wonderful. Before we even get talking about moringa — and for our listeners out there that want to follow along on Lisa’s beautiful and one of the greenest websites I have ever been on in my life, you got to go to kulikulifoods.com. I’m on the website right now, and we’re going to talk about moringa in a minute, but talk a little bit about that whole interaction. You found the moringa while you were in the Peace Corps, and now you decide to put it into a product. So, let’s go into the moringa. It’s better than kale. Kale is one of the greatest superfoods on the planet. Talk a little bit now about how moringa even trumps kale, and why it’s really one of the new superfoods that we all have to learn about. LISA CURTIS: Yeah. So, moringa, like I said, is one of the most nutritious plants. It’s from a tree and it’s the leaves that more nutritious than kale. One of the really exciting things about it is that it’s a complete protein, meaning it has all your essential amino acids, similar to the protein found in quinoa, and then also in meat proteins. But it’s pretty kale for a plant to have that. It also has really high amounts of calcium, iron, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C. So, it’s kind of like a multivitamin in a leaf, but it’s delicious. We’re the first company to sell it in a food product in the U.S. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. When you started taking this when you were back in the Peace Corps, how did it make you feel in terms of what were the health benefits that you started feeling personally, and then when you started sharing with friends and relatives, what was the difference it made in their health? LISA CURTIS: It’s amazing. For me, I was just feeling really tired all the time, and so I started eating it and it rejuvenated me, really. It gave me a lot more energy, and I think I had been lacking a lot of vitamins, which is one thing you’re in the developing world, but as we’ve grown, have heard stories from people all over the U.S. who bought our moringa products and have been using them, and have said that it’s helped them in lots of different ways. There haven’t been a ton of human trials with moringa, but there’s just some that are starting to come out on rats, that are showing that moringa is cardio-protective, so it’s good for your health, that it can be cancer preventative, so it’s all emerging research, but all the signs are pointing that this is a really good thing for people to be eating. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your website now, and I’m reading the gram per gram nutrition in moringa. Two times the protein of yogurt, four times the Vitamin A of carrots, four times the calcium of milk, three times the potassium of bananas, three times the Vitamin B of kale, and seven times the Vitamin C of oranges. Talk about a superfood. Holy Toledo. LISA CURTIS: Yeah. Sometimes we don’t even like using the word superfood because I think it’s overused and people have gotten sick of that, but this is truly a miraculous plant. I think anyone who’s worked with moringa or studied moringa often will talk to researchers at Johns Hopkins, and will say, “We don’t know why more Americans aren’t eating this. This is an amazing food.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: As a new entrepreneur, Lisa, why, when you think about this and think about what you’ve just embarked on as now the founder and CEO and eco-preneur of Kuli Kuli Foods, why do you think other people haven’t put into foods before, like why are you the first? LISA CURTIS: I think one of the big things has been that there’s not an established supply chain for moringa. I’ve been working on this for three years, and most of that, up until December, was actually when we hit stores in the U.S., so those first two years were really just kind of establishing a supply chain, working on getting the moringa here, making sure it was really high-quality, testing everything. It’s been a lot of work to get to where we are now. I think for a lot of people, that’s a big endeavor, particularly if you haven’t heard of moringa if you don’t really have any kind of connection to people who are growing it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you found this moringa, and now how did you decide to do what you did with it? I mean, you could have put it in a lot of different products. Why did you decide the Kuli Kuli bars that I see here online, the black cherry, the crunchy almond, the dark chocolate, and the moringa powder? Did you talk to food people? Did you study trends in food and where the whole health and the whole rise and explosion of veganism and vegetarianism is going? What were you thinking about when you came up with these products, and who did you work with to create these products? LISA CURTIS: Yeah. That’s a great question. So, my co-founder’s name is Valerie Popelka, and she’s been doing consumer packaged good consulting for five years, so her whole job is to work with General Mills or Hershey or those big companies come up with a new product, do all the research, and test it out in a certain market, and then from there get consumer feedback, and then General Mills will launch it nationally. So, that’s really the process that we followed, doing a lot of research. In the bar market, there’s a lot of people in it, but is also growing. It’s a huge market. It’s about $4 billion a year, growing at 9% annually, and it’s a really easy market to enter. For us, we thought this is fast turnover. We can get quick market feedback. We wanted something that fit well with the nutrition of moringa and people look for nutrition in bars, so that’s where we started. Then the powder actually, we just launched a couple of months ago, and it’s been incredible. Our online sales of the powder has been outperforming our bars by far, so now we’re working on launching the powder into retail. I think there’s a lot of demand for that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What can people do with the powder? How will they consume the powder? LISA CURTIS: Yeah. So, I love putting it in my morning smoothie. I really like making green smoothies, so you can add it in with banana, or you can even put some kale in, or all sorts of ideas there. I’ve also made moringa pesto. It’s really good. It has a light green flavor, so it works well in a lot of savory dishes. It just adds a ton of nutrients to whatever you’re eating. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful. Right now, where can our listeners buy your great moringa powder or the black cherry, crunchy almond, or dark chocolate bars? Where are they being sold, or is it all online on your great website, www.kulikulifoods.com? LISA CURTIS: Yeah. So, kulikulifoods.com for sure, you can get everything there. We’re also sold in Whole Foods in Northern California, and in Fred Meyers in the Northwest. We’ve got a bunch of other smaller natural food grocery stores across the West Coast, so we’re a small company growing quickly, and hope to be over in New York and down in Southern California pretty soon, but for now the best option is to purchase everything online, or if you’re near a store, check out our store locator page, and you can find the closest store in NorCal or the Northwest. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, I’ve got Lisa Curtis on with us. She’s the founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli Foods. You can look at all their great products at kulikulifoods.com. Lisa, you have created a fascinating business model here, though. You’re not only selling a revolutionary great new plant-based product that’s so healthy for us, but there’s also benefits to the planet. Can you explain how your business model, by buying your products, really does other great things for the planet as well? LISA CURTIS: Yeah. Definitely. We are definitely at our core a mission-driven socially and environmentally conscious business, so we work with nonprofits in West Africa. We source from Ghana and Niger, work with nonprofits there to plant these moringa trees. We’ve planted about 60,000 trees, and that’s just in the past eight months. We work with the nonprofits to do a lot of nutritional education on the ground, really helping people to use moringa locally, making sure they understand what the benefits are and how to incorporate it into their diet, and then selling it to us. We pay above market wages, so we’re going to be Fair Trade Certified by the end of the year, basically meaning that we’re paying a really sustainable living wage for these women. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When people support your company and eat this great product, which is only going to benefit them personally as well, they’re also doing a greater good in terms of the environment and also in terms of world entrepreneurship and other types of benefits that the domino effect is massive in what you’ve created here at Kuli Kuli Foods. LISA CURTIS: Yeah, exactly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What else are you dreaming about? What other products can you put this moringa into and that you think would get adopted by the new generation of vegans and entrepreneurs and athletes that are trying to get more nutritious food in a better and more accessible way? What other things are you dreaming of? LISA CURTIS: So many things. We’ve got lots of dreams. We haven’t done all the market research yet, but a couple different areas we’re interested in just getting more into the snack market, of on-the-go superfood clusters, as opposed to chips, something a lot healthier, provides a lot more energy. Then, at some point, we’d love to get into the drink market as well, and having little energy boosters of moringa and maybe a little bit of guayusa or mate, or like another interesting kind of caffeine superfood. I think it would be much tastier than wheatgrass, and probably a lot more delicious, and give you a good boost of energy. So, lots of products in the pipeline, but for now, we’re pretty excited about just getting our bars and our powder out there more. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What entrepreneurs learn, the hard lesson, is to execute on visions, we need capital. You took a unique approach to raising capital to get your vision and dream off of the ground. Can you talk a little bit about how you took money in to get Kuli Kuli Foods off the ground, and where you are now in terms of your fundraising, in terms of growing your brand and your company? LISA CURTIS: Yeah. So, we took a very unique approach. We launched last June in 2013 with a crowdfunding campaign. We were one of the highest food campaigns on Indiegogo. We raised $53,000 from 800 people. It was really exciting. So, that launched us, gave us the capital we needed to do a bigger manufacturing run and start hitting stores. Then a couple months ago, we did a crowdfunding equity campaign, where people were actually investing money in our company. We raised $350,000. We still have a little bit more room. We’re talking to a few last investors who might come in on this round, so if you’re interested in that, definitely shoot me an email at lisa@kulikulifoods.com. We’re really excited about this whole movement of democratized capital and raising capital from the crowd and from people who are your customers and your supporters and want to see you move forward. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. So, you raised $53,000 in your first campaign, and now you’ve raised already $350,000 in your last campaign, and you’re raising a little bit more? LISA CURTIS: Yeah, so we can go up to $500,000. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What increments are you raising that second half of the money in? Is it in $50 increments, $5,000 increments? How are you raising that, and what platform is that again, Lisa? LISA CURTIS: So, the campaigns have closed on the platform, but we can still take some on the side. The platform is called Agfunder. If you go to agfunder.com, you can check out our campaign. It’s an investment, so it’s a little bit of a bigger deal, so the minimum is $15,000. So, it’s not like everybody is throwing in $5 like it was for Indiegogo, but I think for people who are in a place where they can make investments and are interested in startups, it’s a pretty reasonable amount. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Yeah, that is. Now, we’re down to the last four minutes or so. Now that you’ve gone from being a climate activist, really – which you still really are in many ways; you don’t change from being a great climate activist, but now you’re really a food eco-preneur as well – what advice would you give to other people who are listening to you around the world that want to wake up every morning and feel like they’re really changing the world for the better by being on the commercial side of business, by being an eco-preneur entrepreneur? What advice and pearls of wisdom can you share with them so you could bring more people along on this journey with you? LISA CURTIS: I would say figure out what you’re passionate about, and then just start small. For us, we started in farmers’ markets, just selling there, and that was really where we tested out is this a viable business idea? I think before you get overwhelmed with starting the whole business and doing all these millions of things, start small and figure out if this idea you have is something that the market is interested and ready for. If it’s something you want to pursue, as long as you don’t get too overwhelmed at first and just start going and making it happen, you’d be surprised at how far you can get. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s wonderful advice. With regards to taking your history in climate and nonprofits and government in the White House to business, what were you expecting that hasn’t happened, and what were you not expecting as an entrepreneur that you’ve been faced with? Share some of the unexpected challenges and the unexpected rewards that have bestowed you in this new role. LISA CURTIS: I think the thing that I did not expect is just the roller coaster that is entrepreneurship, where one minute you’re on the top of the world. A couple weeks ago, we were on a morning show on national television; it was amazing. And then the next week our moringa shipment of our powders, we had all these customers waiting, it was delayed by two weeks. So, we had to send out e-mails telling all these customers I’m so sorry, but it’s not going to get there for a couple of weeks. So, it’s a really high, and the highs are so great. It’s yours, and you feel it, but you also feel the lows. I think that’s something that I really didn’t know until I got into it, what that would feel like. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last minute. How big can this be? What’s your vision today? Obviously, it changes over time, we all change, businesses evolve. How big are you going to get Kuli Kuli Foods you feel? LISA CURTIS: Well, I mean, the market for superfoods in the U.S. is a $30-billion market. We love our superfoods. So, I think the sky is really the limit here. We’d love to start with moringa and a whole line of products there, and then find some other unique African superfoods and start getting those in the hands of U.S. consumers, and really use the market as a catalyst to improve people’s lives in places in the developing world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful. That’s a great mission. For our listeners out there that want to buy Lisa’s great food, the Kuli Kuli bars or the moringa powder, please go to www.kulikulifoods.com. It’s a great story. The moringa powder is a new superfood that people should be looking for and look for Lisa’s products, the Kuli Kuli bars or the moringa powder, at your local Whole Foods as she expands her brand across America. Thank you, Lisa, for being an inspiring sustainability activist and visionary food eco-preneur. You are truly living proof that green is good.