18 Questions With Kuli Kuli

by Sue Taggart

1. What is your name?

Lisa Curtis

2.  What is your occupation?

Founder & CEO of Kuli Kuli Foods

3.   What was your favorite green ( Eco ) memory growing up?

Growing up, my family always took every opportunity to get outside – whether it was camping in Yosemite National Park or trips up to our rustic cabin in Northern California. From these adventures, I credit many parts of my personality and some of my fondest memories. One of my favorite repeated memories would be when myself, my sisters and a few of the neighbors kids would build an elaborate fort, using only materials we were able to pick up off the forest floor. We would spend hours outside, running around nature, to create this home we were all so proud of. I try to channel the same energy, creativity and passion for protecting the natural world when building my company. 

4.   What did you do before Kuli Kuli?

The inspiration behind Kuli Kuli came while I was serving in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. I was evacuated following a terrorist attack and my moringa project was cut short. Out of that experience I moved to India and worked at an impact investment firm. I then moved back to California to serve as the Communications Director at Mosaic where I managed a team of six to grow the company from zero to over $5M invested in solar through Mosaic’s online marketplace. It was simultaneous with my year working at Mosaic that I began Kuli Kuli. Previous to my Peace Corps service, I wrote political briefings for President Obama in the White House and served as a United Nations Environment Program Youth Advisor, representing the voice of North American youth at UN conferences around the world.

5.   How is Kuli Kuli increasing sustainable awareness ?

Kuli Kuli is drawing attention to some of the most intrinsically linked challenges of global malnutrition, poverty and deforestation. Every time a consumer purchases one of Kuli Kuli’s moringa products, they are directly supporting farmers in developing nations who are battling all three of these problems. Kuli Kuli also maintains a very active blog where we present content on the role moringa can play in encouraging a more sustainable world. 

6.   What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job?

Nearly every part of my job is both rewarding and challenging. I created this company to lift up those vulnerable to economic insecurity, malnutrition and the early effects of climate change. Creating a company that can meet the needs of our millions of customers in the United States while remaining true to Kuli Kuli’s mission of creating sustainable links with small scale women’s cooperatives in developing nations, is no cake walk. Getting our farmers to a point where their moringa can be exported and accepted by the U.S. market when more often than not, their country does not have the infrastructure to support their growth, can be extremely frustrating. On the other hand, the fact that this is all somehow working and we’ve built a business that sells millions of dollars of moringa products in the US while supporting farmers in the developing world makes it all worth it. 

7.   What is one environmental/sustainable change you vow to make this year?

This year, we are vowing as an office to go greener. We compost, recycle and many of us bike to work, but there is room for improvement. Personally, I recently bought a house with a small backyard and am incredibly excited to begin growing some of my own food.

8.   Can you tell us what inspired you to start Kuli  Kuli?

In West Africa, 18 million people are malnourished (Save the Children) and 55% of the population lives on less than $1 per day (World Bank). As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, I conducted a needs assessment and identified two challenges: widespread malnutrition and a lack of economic opportunity for women. Moringa is an abundant local superfood that thrives in hot climates, but few people benefit from it. While this “miracle tree” is packed with protein, essential amino acids, 27 vitamins and 46 antioxidants, its rarely eaten and is viewed as a low-value crop.

I started Kuli Kuli to change this. Kuli Kuli sells moringa superfood products in the US made with moringa imported from West Africa and other areas where moringa thrives. We support farming cooperatives that teach women to grow, process and incorporate nutrient-rich moringa into their families’ diets, reducing malnutrition. Through importing our moringa from small moringa farmers around the globe, we have created an international market for moringa and a livelihood for our farmers. Many of the farmers we work with make 5 -10x the average income in their region.  

9.  If there was one industry/product that you could make more eco-friendly, what would it be?

The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry is growing at tremendous speed. Fortunately there are companies who are channeling this movement towards making social impact. A problem I have noticed is that as the CPG movement grows, it is not matched with a movement towards more sustainable packaging. I would love to see a revolution to the point where non-recyclable / non-compostable packing was impossible to find on the market. Kuli Kuli has partnered up with other food companies to help make this vision a reality.

10. What’s next for you and Kuli Kuli?

We had an incredible year in 2018 where we more than doubled our sales and quadrupled the number of moringa partner farms. We’ve put in place a great foundation to grow our business and impact in 2019. Now that we’ve proven success in 7,000 stores, we’re turning our attention to e-commerce. We’re putting a lot of focus on growing our Amazon business, and particularly are hoping to get lots more good Amazon reviews. We’re also excited that we’ve gotten our supply chain to the point where we can begin selling moringa to other manufacturers. Last but not least, we are beginning a project that is dear to my heart in partnering with the US State Department to Millennium Corporation Challenge to create a moringa supply chain in Niger, West Africa. Niger is where I did Peace Corps where the story of Kuli Kuli all began. I am thrilled at the prospect of working with my village again and providing them with the capacity to grow their income through moringa cultivation. 

11. What’s your favorite book?

A book that has been highlighted, scribbled in, and will always remain on my bookshelf, is Building Social Business by Muhammad Yunus. Yunus redefines social business and encourages a new way of looking at economic organization that combines a social, ethical, or environmental objective with a commercial or financial one. 

12. Where do you turn for your news?

I’m a New York Times fanatic and a big NPR listener. I also occasionally watch Fox News to understand the right-wing perspective. 

13. Where on the green scale do you fall?

As a Bay Area native and founder of a social impact company, I fall high on the green scale. I have vowed to never own a car, relying on public transportation and my bike instead. I do not consume meat and I shop in the bulk section of my local supermarket and farmers market. I do whatever I can to limit my carbon footprint and encourage those around me to do the same. The biggest thing that brings me down is that I fly almost every other week for sales, investor or press meetings.

14. Do you lead a vegan lifestyle?

I have dabbled in veganism in the past but I have found my body and lifestyle fit best as a pescatarian, which has been my diet the past 15 years. It is also a happy balance as I am married to a fervent carnivore who has been slowly cutting his meat consumption over the past decade that we’ve been together. 

15. Who would you want to have a conversation with past or present?

I would love to have a conversation with Muhammad Yunus about what is next for the social entrepreneurial space. He pioneered the concept of microfinance. Out of that sprang social entrepreneurship. I am eager to hear his perspective on what is next.

16. What is one thing we can all do to make a difference in the world?

Research your brands! Your dollar is your vote. Through purchasing from ethically focused brands, you can make an incredible impact in the world. 

17. How does Kuli  Kuli positively impact the environment?

Since our creation in 2011, Kuli Kuli has planted 2.5 million moringa trees across the globe. These moringa trees are actively removing carbon from the atmosphere, and because Kuli Kuli only uses the leaves, they continue to grow for many years.  

18. What do you want your personal legacy to be?

I want Kuli Kuli to make a huge dent in reducing malnutrition, deforestation and poverty. I want us to be a model for how to use business as a tool to create social change. I actively support up and coming entrepreneurs with socially responsible businesses. I also want to model ethical leadership and help other women succeed in running businesses and raising capital. I hope that a whole new generation can imagine a world without hunger or want, where a woman who is just as qualified as a man, can be a leader. 

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