Kuli Kuli: The Next Superfood, and a Way to Support Women in West Africa

Kuli_SamplePostcardNutrition bar startup Kuli Kuli has been on quite the ride over the past six months: launching on indiegogo in May, raising over $50K via the campaign, enlisting a co-manufacturer and perfecting the product, shipping over 9,000 bars to over 800 customers last month, and gaining approval to sell in Whole Foods Northern California. Pretty impressive for such a short time period.

I’ve tried the product, it’s delicious, and has a really awesome story behind it. Here’s why everyone should be excited about this startup’s rapid growth trajectory.

Moringa powder, the superfood ingredient in Kuli Kuli bars

Moringa powder, the superfood ingredient in Kuli Kuli bars

First, on the product: What makes the Kuli Kuli bar special? There’s a ton of product proliferation in the natural and organic packaged food world, in no aisle more prominent than the nutrition bar section. So why care about Kuli Kuli? Its claim to fame is a unique superfood ingredient: moringa. Currently available primarily in powder or capsule form, moringa seems to have what it takes to join goji berries, acai, and chia seeds in the superfood hall of fame. Right now, Kuli Kuli is the only significant food company incorporating moringa into a food product (full disclosure: through my googling I did find one other company putting moringa into bars: Dru, a London-based international organic food chain and yoga center, which has added moringa to its Dru Miracle Bar, though isn’t retailing its bars in the US).

Moringa powder comes from the leaves of a tree which grows natively in Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Its nutrient-packed leaves contain, per serving, (get ready for it):

  • 7 times the vitamin C of oranges
  • 4 times the vitamin A of carrots
  • 4 times the calcium of milk
  • 3 times the potassium of bananas
  • 2 times the protein of yogurt
Kuli Kuli ingredients: dried cherries, moringa leaves, almonds, dates, and chocolate (depending on the flavor)

Kuli Kuli ingredients: dried cherries, moringa leaves, almonds, dates, and chocolate (depending on the flavor)

Combining moringa, dates, almonds, dried cherries, and chocolate (depending on the flavor), yields the gluten-free, vegan Kuli Kuli bar with 190 calories and some awesome stats: ~5 grams of protein, ~15% of your daily recommended dietary fiber, ~25% of calcium, ~25-30% of vitamin A, ~8% of vitamin C, and ~20% of iron. I compared its nutrition facts to those of Larabar (also gluten-free, vegan, and based on similar ingredients) and it seems like Kuli Kuli has two main advantages: 1) way more nutrients (Larabars average ~3% calcium, 1% vitamin A, 0% vitamin C, and 7% iron) and 2) 10% fewer calories, for a comparable amount of protein (Larabars average 210 calories).

Second, on the story: After college, founder and CEO Lisa Curtis headed to Niger with the Peace Corps, witnessed malnutrition firsthand, and fell victim to early malnutrition herself. She found her solution to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in the nutritious leaves of the Moringa oleifera tree. Her Nigerien friends advised her to combine moringa with kuli-kuli, a peanut snack eaten by the Hausa people, the largest ethnic group in West Africa. Lisa wandered around her village looking for kuli-kuli until finally one woman understood her broken Hausa and handed her a huge sack of kuli-kuli and refused to let her pay for it. The experience of having a total stranger give her food in one of the most malnourished countries in the world stuck with her.

Founder and CEO, Lisa Curtis

Founder and CEO, Lisa Curtis

Lisa incorporated the kuli-kuli moringa mix into her diet and regained her strength. Upon returning to the U.S., she founded Kuli Kuli to improve nutrition and livelihoods by purchasing moringa from women’s cooperatives in West Africa and partnering with organizations there to boost local consumption. Lisa notes that she limits the amount of moringa she buys from any one supplier to ensure adequate domestic supply of this nutrient-packed food.

On Kuli Kuli’s mission, Lisa elaborates, “Our mission is to provide everyone with the knowledge and resources to access the nutritional power of moringa. We work closely with our partners in West Africa to ensure that all of our moringa is of the highest quality and makes a significant positive impact on the local communities.”

Coverage of the company in the San Francisco Chronicle made much of the fact that Lisa’s not donating bars to feed the hungry. Instead she’s targeting West African development by building demand for a product which the region is equipped to serve. By raising awareness about moringa and creating a market for it in the US, Lisa will be able to become a significant customer for her current suppliers—coalitions of women from Nigeria and Ghana—and enrich their communities through employment. I love the approach because it relies on market economics to create a sustainable impact, as opposed to donation-based companies like Two Degrees Food which mimics Toms by donating a meal for every bar sold.

Lisa remarks on her approach, “I worked in my village’s health center and watched USAID pull up every week with flag-stamped American corn. There’s a lot of research that has shown that food aid doesn’t help with actual agricultural development and may even be detrimental in some cases. As the adage goes ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.’ We want every woman in West Africa to have a Moringa oleifera tree in her yard and the knowledge to harness its nutrients.”

So what’s next for Kuli Kuli? Having secured approval from the Northern California Whole Foods region, Kuli Kuli distribution now rests on individual store stocking decisions. Lisa and her team are focused on driving grassroots demand for their product. You can order the bars via the Kuli Kuli website, try them, love them, then ask your local Whole Foods to get them on the shelves.

On next steps, Lisa adds, “We’ve had such an amazing outpouring of support over the past six months. Now we’re facing the final test: will people purchase our product? If you believe in our idea and our product, consider purchasing some Kuli Kuli bars for yourself, your friends or to make some delicious superfood stocking stuffers!”

About Michelle Paratore

Management consultant obsessed with food justice, food politics, food start-ups, food sustainability, and eating food too...
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19 Responses to Kuli Kuli: The Next Superfood, and a Way to Support Women in West Africa

  1. Gina Willis says:

    Terrific to learn about this specialty food product that has a great story, a genuine social mission, and brings something entirely new to the overcrowded nutrition bar category.

    Whole Foods authorization in the NorCal region is a great vote of confidence. But this is where the manufacturer’s struggle to get onto the shelf (and stay there) really begins.

    Will a manufacturer and/or her startup staff be able to personally lug samples to all 40-some stores in the region? Once there, will they be able to catch and interest a busy Grocery Team Leader at a time and day of the week when he or she happens to be there? Even when the store might want to try the product, it could only be merchandised in whatever space might be available after the store has filled all its planogrammed (required) slots. Is the product set up in an authorized Whole Foods distributor? Is the manufacturer prepared and does she have the margin to pay for the warehouse setup fees, free fill (1 case per SKU per store placement), quarterly promotions, and demo activity that would be necessary to get the product noticed and selling at the velocity Whole Foods expects?

    I’m not saying any of this to be a Debbie Downer — but I’ve seen many great specialty food dreams founder on the rocks of a jaded, bureaucratic, and dollar-driven grocery industry. Too many manufacturers overlook these tough questions in their excitement over getting an encouraging wink from a major retailer like Whole Foods. The smart and efficient way to do it is to plan the full wholesale and distribution strategy first, build the costs into your price structure, and use brokers and distributors to help you reach your goals. Some impassioned artisan producers have done it on shoe-leather and charm, slot by slot, store by store, year by year, and counted on their product “catching fire” with the public to generate such great demand that the stores agree to bring it in. Very romantic — but sadly, about as realistic a strategy as buying lottery tickets.

    • Lisa Curtis says:

      Hi Gina,

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful response. I agree that the food world is challenging, which is why I’m fortunate to have two co-founders and some great advisors who understand it a whole lot better than I do. We actually have a great distribution partner (Renaissance) and have the backing of the regional buyer for our category such that we actually have stores requesting our product. Free fills, warehouse fees, demos and promotions are all very expensive but we’ve built them into our budget and are confident that we’ll be able to handle them. We are very passionate but aren’t blinded by our idealism, we’re going into this industry with our eyes open.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and feel free to contact me at lisa@kulikulibar.com if you have other sage advice 🙂


  2. A very well written article! Steamed Moringa leaves are part of standard diet in the South Asian region where I grew up. I was amazed to learn of the nutritional benefits of Moringa after watching a video on NGC on how effective it had become to combat malnutrition in Africa. Thereafter, In my case, I had to learn eat steamed Moringa leaves (not the tastiest food on the food table) with a little more cheer (I was in high school I think) than the usual gloom. Congratulations to Lisa Curtis on growing Kuli-Kuli and making Moringa-nutrition available to people in Norcal in a conveniently edible format. And wish her luck in further growing Kuli-Kuli and helping improve lives of African women!

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  8. Nels Reynolds says:

    Lisa: I have a 12 pack bars. I really like the taste of the black cherry. I will buy more when its out. THANKS Nels

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