kuli kuli

Carrying Water in NigerI never thought I would start a food company. I’d always liked food, but then again who doesn’t? It wasn’t until I lived in a country where having a meal wasn’t a given that I began to really think about food.

The strangest thing about living in Niger was that people were constantly giving me food. It didn’t seem to make sense. Here I was in one of the poorest, most malnourished countries in the world receiving an opulent Peace Corps salary of $75 per month (double the country average). Shouldn’t I be giving them food?

And then one night I did in an event that I’ll never forget. I was sitting around the campfire with my tea group — a hilarious group of young Nigerien men who drank sugary sweet tea boiled over a small coal fire. This qualified as nightlife in a village with no electricity. I have to say that I enjoyed it far more than any bar in San Francisco.

My friend Ilya had just finished telling a story that had everyone doubled over in laughter when a small form entered into the light of our small fire and promptly collapsed. Chaos ensued with all of the men crowding around the child that had just entered our circle.

Ilya restored order, speaking in rapid Hausa. I didn’t catch much but I gathered that the boy was extremely malnourished. The men brainstormed, trying to figure out where to get food but all of the women had put out their fires and none of the shops were open this late.

No one kept ready-to-eat food on hand. No one, that is, except for me.

Kuli Kuli Peanut Balls

“Laila, kina da kuli-kuli?” Ilya realized this and asked me if I had any kuli-kuli, a form of lightly fried peanut balls that I ate constantly to get protein.

“I, ina tsammani.” I think so, I told him. I ran back towards my little mud home. Crap. I’d eaten all the kuli-kuli the day before…I spied a box on my floor with a white letter shining under the light of my flashlight.

It was a letter from my mom, describing how she’d managed to lose twenty pounds through her new diet. At the end of the letter, she’d expressed concern that I was looking too skinny in the two pictures I’d managed to post on Facebook. Hence she’d sent me a plethora of nutrition bars.

I grabbed as many as I could carry and ran back towards the tea circle, stuffing the brightly wrapped bars into Ilya’s arms.

Empowering Women Through Moringa

That was three years ago. Now I’m back in the U.S. and am the founder of a mission-driven company called Kuli Kuli. We sell gluten-free nutrition bars made with moringa, a superfood sourced from women’s cooperatives in West Africa. Moringa is one the most nutritious plants in the world and grows naturally in many parts of the world that suffer from malnutrition. Our goal is to enable more women to grow moringa; use it to nourish their families and communities and then sell a portion of their harvest to us in order to turning growing moringa into a sustainable livelihood. We want to ensure that no child ever collapses from malnutrition again.

Starting a food company is hard! As my team and I quickly discovered, its nearly impossible to do everything yourself and once you grow to the level of having a co-manufacturer, distributor and a retailer (like Whole Foods), all of those entities take a big chunk of the profits, leaving you with little to work with.

It’s hard but its not impossible. We’ve had an incredible outpouring of support from people who believe in our vision and have pre-sold over 9,000 Kuli Kuli Moringa Superfood Bars. Our manufacturing run of 18,000 bars will be completed next week and then we’ll be launching with Whole Foods shortly after that.

I never thought I would start a food company, but I’m so glad that I did!


Lisa Curtis is the Founder & CEO of Kuli Kuli. She began working on Kuli Kuli while in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. As a volunteer in her village’s health center, she gained a first-hand understanding of the common nutritional challenges faced in West African villages and how moringa can play a role in helping to address a few of those challenges. For more about Kuli Kuli, please visit www.kulikulibar.com.