Nutrition 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.
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
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.
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!”