Partway into a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, Lisa Curtis started to feel the effects of poor nutrition. But instead of popping more vitamins, she started eating a local, leafy tree called moringa. With seven times as much vitamin C as oranges, twice the protein of yogurt, and three times the calcium of milk, it did the trick.
It was popular locally in Niger, but Curtis realized that it might also do well in the U.S.—and it could be a much-needed source of new income for local farmers in Africa. When she came home, the 27-year-old made plans for a new food company.
"We want to make Americans adopt moringa the same way that they latched onto quinoa 10 years ago, acai six years ago, and chia seeds three years ago," she says.
Kuli Kuli, her startup, sells the leaves in nutrition bars, ground up into powder, and in the form of tea. "Moringa leaves have a green, earthy flavor, slightly smokey, but not as bitter as kale or as spicy as arugula," she says. "A lot of people substitute moringa powder for kale in smoothies—it's a lot easier to add a scoop of moringa powder to your smoothie as opposed to spending your morning ripping up kale leaves, and it's actually more nutritious."
Compared to kale, gram for gram, moringa leaves have twice the protein, six times the iron, and 97 times the vitamin B2. So the startup is hoping that the same crowd that embraced kale will create a new market for the little-known African plant.
Though some have experimented with growing moringa in Southern California and Arizona, it grows best in tropical climates. In Ghana, where Kuli Kuli is working with a nonprofit moringa-growing cooperative of 500 women, the plant can thrive with little water or care. A seedling can grow 15 feet in a single year. So as the export market grows, it's a chance for new income.
"Last year, our first year on the market, we put over $50,000 back into the hands of the women farmers," Curtis says. "This translates into the women making five to ten times the average income in their villages." As the trees spread—the project planted 60,000 seedlings last year—it also helps fight desertification. Part of the harvest is also still used locally to boost nutrition in nearby villages. The seeds also double as water purifiers that kill bacteria.
If moringa is still far from gaining the status of kale, it's quickly growing. Since last year, distribution has grown more than 1,000%. In the next two months, the company will double the number of states it supplies. The company is also bringing in new investment.
So far, the startup has run entirely on money from an Indiegogo campaign, Kiva loans, and some additional crowd-chosen grants. "We've raised all the capital we've received to date from the crowd," Curtis says. "We take the fact that we're built by the crowd very seriously and base many major company decisions on consumer feedback."
When the company launched a new product, it asked its supporters to vote on what they should make; the winner was a moringa powder. "The crowd hasn't led us wrong yet," she says. "Our Pure Moringa Powder has already been outselling our bars."
The new superfood been successful enough that the company is expanding to a new continent: Now they're working on building a new moringa supply chain in Haiti.