Ep #027: Lisa Curtis, Founder of Kuli Kuli
Lisa Curtis was working on a big project with her local women’s group to grow moringa trees for nutritional trainings, but she was evacuated from Peace Corps Niger after a terrorist attack before the project could be completed. Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Lisa went on to found Kuli Kuli, America’s leading moringa superfood brand, as a way to continue the project.
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On this Episode:
- How Kuli Kuli created a market for moringa
- Building a nationally recognized brand from a business idea everyone laughed at
- Lisa Curtis’s plan to grow Kuli Kuli and develop it into a model for other superfoods
Photos from Lisa’s Story
Lisa Curtis’s Peace Corps Story
Where and when did you serve? What did you do?
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, West Africa I worked in the local health clinic and conducted a three-month needs assessment and identified two challenges: widespread malnutrition and a lack of economic opportunity for women. As a volunteer, I was introduced to moringa—one of the most nutritious plants on the planet—and began working with women in my village to grow more moringa. I had planned a big project with a women’s group in my village to grow moringa trees around the health center, use them for nutritional trainings and then sell some of the powdered leaves into the local city. However, there was a terrorist attack and Peace Corps Niger was evacuated before the project could be completed. I was forced to return to the US and ended up starting Kuli Kuli as a way to continue the project.
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
One day after a big rainfall I was walking down the dirt road in my village when my sandals both broke, one right after the other. I stood there looking at the dirty road in dismay, not wanting to walk through the mud and manure barefoot. A man across the street saw what happened and came over to me. He’d never met me before but he offered me the shoes off of his feet so that I could go back to my house and get a new pair while he waited by the side of the road barefoot. Things like that were a common occurrence in Niger — everyone was incredibly generous and friendly.
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
It was late in at night and I was drinking tea with friends from my Peace Corps village. A small child approached, stumbling out of the darkness and collapsing at our feet. The boy had left his family to search for food and had not eaten in three days. All of the village women had put out their cooking fires, but I was known for eating packaged foods. That morning, a care package had come from my mother, full of nutritional bars. I grabbed a few, stuffing them into the hands of the child and praying that it was enough. However, I knew that it was not.
We have been stuffing food in the hands of Africans for decades with little improvement for those we are purportedly trying to help. To put a new spin on the classic fisherman adage, “Give a Nigerian woman a sack of American-grown corn, and she will eat for a day. Teach her how to grow nutritious food, and she will feed her entire community.
What do you miss about the Peace Corps?
My village in Niger was tiny, home to just 2,000 people. Geographically, it should have taken no more than ten minutes to cross it, and yet it always took forty. Every couple of feet, I would stop to speak with a neighbor or friend, asking about their health, family, and farm. I miss the people I met there, and the incredibly close relationships I formed in a short amount of time.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
In West Africa, 18 million people are malnourished (Save the Children) and 55% of people live on less than $1 per day (World Bank). Moringa is a food that could help, but few benefit from it.
The women in my village saw no reason to grow moringa with no demand. In the US there are millions looking for all-natural products, just as there are a billion around the world looking for nourishment to survive.
I started Kuli Kuli to drive economic growth and women’s empowerment. By importing a portion of the moringa for our products, we’ve created a market and a livelihood 5-10x the average for the farmers we work with.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying?
“Kina shaw wooaiya” meaning “you drink pain” was a phrase that my neighbors in Niger would often tell me when they saw me running in the mornings and trying to work during the hot sun.
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