In the Limelight with Clarissa Burt interviews Lisa Curtis: Founder of Kuli Kuli Inc.
Clarissa: Hey everybody, it’s Clarissa here In the Limelight! Today I’ve got another spectacular entrepreneur for you to meet, but before we do that, I would like to remind you that anywhere you can, please like, subscribe, and share. Get the word out about the amazing people that I am interviewing because I really go far and wide to find the people that I think you’re going to learn the most from. Today we’ve got a lady who, if I say she’s an alpha female, I don’t think that’s a stretch. Let me just give you a little bit of a background here. She’s the founder of Kuli Kuli Foods. It’s moringa, a superfood I know and love. She found moringa when she was working for the Peace Corps as a volunteer. And of all things, she’s gotten her brand into Wal-Mart! So I want to know how you go from the Peace Corps through to the White House. By the way, she also wrote speeches or something along those lines for President Obama, I don’t know when the lady sleeps. Welcome, Lisa, and congratulations on all this amazing success! Just give me a little idea as to how and where it all started, and what was the light bulb moment?
Lisa Curtis: It all started in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. I’m a vegetarian and found there wasn’t a lot for me to eat in my village. I started asking some of the women I was working with, “What can I eat that would make me feel better? Give me more energy and the nutrients I need?” And they told me about moringa. They pulled these leaves off a tree, mixed it into this West African snack, called Kuli Kuli, and said, “Here, eat this. It’ll make you feel better.” It did. It made me feel a lot better. I wanted to find a way to help them grow more in Niger and also help them sell it here in the U.S. That was 2010 so it’s been a journey. I got back to the U.S. fired up by this idea, but coming out of the Peace Corps, I had no money to start a business. I ended up working in tech at another startup for a couple of years that took up my nights and weekends. Then, almost exactly six years ago, I quit my day job.
Clarissa: What were your first steps? Did you go after funding work?
Lisa Curtis: The first step was getting funding to do manufacturing rent. But I would say before that, it was about testing out the product. Is there a market for moringa in the U.S.? Are consumers going to buy it? So, I roped in some friends and made moringa bars in commercial kitchens. We surveyed a bunch of people at farmers’ markets and tested, “What did they like? What did they not like? How much they bought versus how many samples we gave out? How many of those people who sampled, purchased?” That gave us a sense of, we really do have something here. That’s when we did an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise money for our first manufacturing run.
Clarissa: Let me back up a second. What was it about moringa, that made you feel so much better that you said, “This stuff has changed my life. Now I need to go change the lives of a lot of Americans.”
Lisa Curtis: Moringa is one of the most nutritious plants in the world. Most plants are 90% water which leaves little room for nutrients. Moringa is 80% water which leaves double the room for nutrients. It offers a complete plant protein, calcium, iron, B vitamins, and antioxidants. It’s a good natural energy and gives you what your body needs.
Clarissa: How did how were you ingesting the Kuli Kuli? Did you eat it? Did you steep it and drink it?
Lisa Curtis: Our name, Kuli Kuli, comes from the peanut snack they had mixed with moringa to eat. They gave it to me and I felt great. I wanted to create some version of this in America. And I wanted to do it in a way that helps support women in West Africa. We ended up launching it as a bar, which was our version of that snack. That was their first foray into the US market.
Clarissa: Did you have problems with the FDA? Did you have to get approval to get this into the country? Was it the first time that the United States had ever seen or heard of moringa?
Lisa Curtis: Good question. The FDA had a list of all common foods, like bananas. Everybody knows bananas are safe for consumption because we eat them all the time. Then, they have certain foods that aren’t common to us and you have to prove why they’re safe for Americans. We worked with the toxicologists and scientists to put together what’s known as an FDA GRAS notice to prove that it is safe for Americans to consume, even though it’s eaten all over the world.
Clarissa: All right, first you said you went around to different stores and you were doing samplings. Did you go to trade shows? What was next?
Lisa Curtis: The farmer’s markets gave us good momentum. We got some money together for a crowdfunding campaign and even launched in Whole Foods, all from one single store initially and it grew from there. My very glamorous job for the first year of Kuli Kuli was driving around store to store, begging each natural food buyer to bring in our product. I would stand there for hours, sampling it out, talking to consumers, going to trade shows. But we got some momentum and things started to take off.
Clarissa: Moringa, as I know it, is a powder. It’s a green powder, much like matcha. What are the different uses and ways that you can prepare moringa?
Lisa Curtis: We sell the powder and you can make a moringa latte. I use almond milk and a little bit of agave, I also add it to my oatmeal every morning. We sell them in bars and smoothie mixes and wellness shots so we’ve got a whole sampling of moringa products.
Clarissa: I came about moringa because I was starting to have difficulties with arthritis. A friend of mine who was starting to manifest some visual, crippling effects in her hands from arthritis had said, “Listen, you have got to try this stuff it has been a godsend for me.” I was in New York City about five or six years ago and I went up to many different health stores and nobody knew what I was talking about. I went ahead and ordered the gel caps and the gel cap maker. Now, I make the gel caps myself from the powder and that’s how I ingest it. But, I can’t wait to try the latte next.
Now, you’re doing your samplings and things are starting to take off and the stores are starting to buy your product. Then what?
Lisa Curtis: Then we got some investment. It’s expensive getting in stores and making sure it sells. It started out with me as the only full-time worker, then I brought in some friends as co-founders and slowly convinced them to come on board with me. We got our first big investment round with our series A. Believe it or not, our major investor was Kellogg.
Lisa Curtis: A lot of people looked at us and they’re thinking “This green superfood for women in West Africa, what are you doing with Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts?” What we found is that Kellogg is incredibly mission-oriented. They do so much work through their foundation and in their supply chain to really improve nutrition. They love the idea of this nutrient-dense plant. They invested in us and helped us get into other more conventional retailers. Since we launched onto the market in 2014, we are now in ten thousand stores across the country.
Clarissa: Congratulations! Just give me an idea of what the excitement level is like each step you take. By the way, nine years may seem like a lot of time, but for the amount of work that you’ve done and the amount of success that you’ve had, from the first time you ate a leaf to be in Walmart, it’s not a long time.
Lisa Curtis: It’s been it’s been an amazing journey. I’m very fortunate to have an incredible team. I couldn’t have done this myself. We’ve got great people who work day and night to make it look good.
Clarissa: Why don’t you tell us a few of the amazing things it does again.
Lisa Curtis: It’s a natural anti-inflammatory and great for detoxification. Many people take it first thing in the morning or if they’ve been eating too much junk. It has great B vitamins which give you natural energy. Our main product is just pure raw organic moringa powder. You can add it to your lattes or to your smoothies. I love mixing in my oatmeal, it has kind of a green, earthy flavor similar to matcha, but it’s really easy to mix into whatever you’re cooking. Just one tablespoon is a full serving of vegetables so a little bit goes a long way.
Clarissa: I am excited to learn these things. I’m sure you have recipes on your site?
Lisa Curtis: If you go to KuliKuli.com/recipes you’ll see everything.
Clarissa: Are you in all Wal-Marts?
Lisa Curtis: Not all. We’re at about twenty-five hundred Wal-Mart’s.
Clarissa: Where are you located?
Lisa Curtis: We’re located in Oakland, California.
Clarissa: Is that where you can find the products, in California now?
Lisa Curtis: We are nationwide. You can find us all over the country at 10,000 stores. Everywhere from Whole Foods to Safeway to Walmart to CVS.
Clarissa: That’s really great! So what’s next? This is an extraordinary story with phenomenal success in a very short amount of time. Where do you want to be in five years?
Lisa Curtis: The thing that I’m most excited about is how we continue to build our brand as a platform for introducing sustainably sourced, nutrient-rich, tasty ingredients to the U.S. market and doing in a way that makes consumers fall in love with it. Out of thirty thousand edible plants that exist, the majority in society only eats three plants, wheat, rice, and corn.
Clarissa: All three of them aren’t the greatest for you. A lot of carbs are in there and I’m gluten-free because gluten almost killed me quite a few times. I lived in Italy for 30 years and the pizza, pasta, and pane almost killed me because of the gluten content. Rice is all carbs. So, you’re right there are plenty more we could be eating.
Lisa Curtis: Exactly. Another thing I’m really excited about is we just launched these new wellness shots. One’s called Focus and another is Get Well. They’re pairing moringa with other functional plants that really complement it. We paired it with Lion’s Mane, which helps you focus, brings mental clarity. Also, Camu Camu which helps the immunity support. We’re excited to expose consumers to all the different plants and those plants as medicine.
Clarissa: Is that the five-year plan? To bring in more plant ideas?
Lisa Curtis: The five-year plan is to start incorporating other nutrient-rich, climate-smart ingredients into our products and into our supply chain. We source from over two thousand farmers, primarily African women, and to go deeper with them, help them grow more of these plants and sell them here in the U.S.
Clarissa: That’s extraordinary. When I lived in Italy, I was asked to be the ambassador for the United States to campaign for “Walking Africa”. It was a campaign to get African women to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2011, they won. While living in Italy, I was in Africa many times and I got a lot of information from CNN International. So, the plight of the African woman is really something that touched my heart. It did on so many different levels that I went to the European Parliament and I spoke alongside them to benefit the cause so that they might win. In fact, the Nobel Peace Prize had two hundred and eleven candidates that year. I knew our girls were going to win and they did. I love you even more for the work that you’re doing and the charitable works that you’re doing with Kuli Kuli. I wish you again, all of the very best. Let’s circle back around real soon to see what else is going on over at Kuli Kuli.
Lisa Curtis: Thank you so much for having me!
Clarissa: You’re so welcome. Now, everybody please like, share, and subscribe to all the things you’re supposed to do when you want to follow more great interviews like Lisa Curtis’s. We’ll see you again next time. ✧