Sixty thousand people descended on the Anaheim Convention Center on Friday, all looking for the next acai, the next coconut water, the next goji berry, the next chia seed, and the ever-elusive next quinoa. There were suit-and-tied buyers from multibillion-dollar retail chains deciding which flax meal would fly off shelves the fastest next to tie-dyed, crunchy, granola-type dudes who were there because, well, they just really dig granola. Welcome to the 29th annual Natural Products Expo West—the largest natural food convention in the world.
The main exhibit floor featured more than 2,500 natural product vendors, each one armed to the teeth with samples, informational packets, and branded souvenirs. Because of the complete stimulation overload, you’re forced to view the event in its gestalt—a whirlwind of anonymous products using similar language to claim more or less similar benefits.
But then you come across a product so unique that it wakes you from your cynical daydream; it makes you realize that each company’s impact is felt far beyond the effects of sample cups and toothpicks. For me, that was Kuli Kuli Foods.
The booth looked like any other—smiling people handing out little bits of oddly colored nutrition bars behind a semi–official-looking card table—but the main ingredient in the product was completely new to me: moringa, the leaf of a tree native to Africa and South Asia.
Gram for gram, moringa has two times the protein of plain yogurt, four times the calcium of milk, 25 times the iron of spinach, four times the vitamin A of carrots, and seven times the vitamin C of oranges. Simply speaking, it’s the superfood of superfoods. Kuli Kuli founder and CEO Lisa Curtis ran me through the nutrition specs while I downed a sample cup of yogurt smoothie tinged pale green with moringa powder.
Last year at the expo, Kuli Kuli was the only company selling moringa, but this year four more competitors burst on the scene to try for a piece of that sweet superfood pie. The real thing that sets Kuli Kuli apart isn’t the product itself—though Curtis insists it has better quality control than anyone else in the game—but the story and mission behind it.
After graduating from college in 2010, Curtis entered the Peace Corps and found herself in Niger, one of Africa’s hottest countries. After just a few months, she fell ill from malnutrition, a condition that affects 18 million children across West Africa. One day, a friend dropped by the hospital and gave her a bag of kuli kuli—a popular African snack made from peanuts—and some moringa, and told her she’d feel better after getting some nutrients into her system. Not only did the remedy work, but she recovered more quickly than expected.
She was evacuated from Niger after a terrorist attack only seven months into her Peace Corps service, but that was more than enough time to realize that moringa could find a market in the superfood-obsessed United States. Curtis, along with her longtime best friend and a few old high school classmates, teamed up to start Kuli Kuli in 2013. They currently sell eight-ounce bottles of powdered moringa—great for mixing into both sweet and savory dishes—for $19.99, and nutrition bars that come in dark chocolate, black cherry, and crunchy almond flavors, which retail for $2.50 each.
“We found this nonprofit in northern Ghana called Air Harvest that works with women cooperatives to grow moringa, and they were just starting to sell it a bit online.” Curtis told me over the phone a few days after the expo. “We wanted to support the work they’re doing by providing them with a much, much bigger market.”
Not only did Kuli Kuli provide a bigger market for the nonprofit, but the company also kept with the original goal to source it in the most responsible, sustainable way possible. Rather than paying bottom-dollar for moringa from plantations, Kuli Kuli, along with its nonprofit partners, is providing capital for local women farmers in West Africa and have created more than 500 sustainable jobs.
“There’s a lot of research that shows when you invest in women—when you empower women economically—they’re more likely to spend that extra income sending their kids to school and uplifting the whole community,” Curtis said.
Kuli Kuli pays an extra 10 percent over wholesale value to make sure its farms operate within fair labor practices. It also takes 10 percent of its profits and invests the money in local nutrition programs—many of which involve teaching young children how to cook and eat moringa.
But this wonder plant’s utility goes far beyond its nutritional content and deliciousness in a bowl of Greek yogurt and honey. One shelled seed from the moringa tree can be used to purify a liter of drinking water, and energy companies have been harvesting the seed’s oil as a drought-resistant solution to creating sustainable biofuel.
Curtis said the hardest part about the business model, especially as new competitors emerge in the market, is getting the consumer to understand where their extra dollars are going and why it’s so worth it. But the company has been incredibly successful in conveying that message thus far: Kuli Kuli raised more than $50,000 in an Indiegogo campaign for its first production run and continues to believe in crowdsourcing both funds and ideas.
I know what you’re all wondering: How does it taste? Curtis, in true Kuli Kuli fashion, crowd sourced her answer: “Most people describe it as just tasting, well, green.”