The journey to Niger felt like traveling back in time. As the hot wind whipped red dust across the tarmac of the Niamey airport I felt as though I was 22 again, fresh out of college and bouncing with idealistic anticipation of my Peace Corps service. When that service was cut short following a terrorist attack, I told all of my Nigerien family and friends “Zan dawo,” I will come back. But even in my wildest dreams I could never have imagined that eight years later I would be returning as the CEO of a multi-million dollar moringa company on a US government sponsored trip to collaborate with farmers in Niger.
I wasn’t the only one who felt like I’d stepped back into a different era. As Kuli Kuli’s Moringa Supply Chain Manager Mandy remarked, Niger feels strangely untouched by the outside world. It isn’t just the lack of McDonalds or skyscrapers, it’s the oxcarts driving on Niger’s most highly trafficked highway. It’s the mud homes and woven millet storage huts that line the one main road. You can see it in the wrinkle-lined faces of the thirty-year-old women who have birthed seven children, though statistically only five will make it to adulthood. It’s in the gnarled hands of the men who spend fourteen-hour days cultivating millet and maize, only to have their entire crop wiped out with yet another drought.
Niger is one of the poorest, hottest places on the planet. But I believe it is also one of the most remarkable.
Whether bound together by poverty, Islam or culture, I’m not sure, but I’ve never seen such tight-knit, generous communities as I continually find across Niger. The vibrancy of those communities and the extent to which people help each other leaves me in awe.
Kuli Kuli’s ten day moringa market assessment was a whirlwind trip through multiple communities and countless meetings with inspiring moringa entrepreneurs. It was an incredible reminder of why I started this company.
Kuli Kuli’s namesake is a peanut snack that my Nigerien friends mixed with moringa to nourish me when my Peace Corps diet of millet and rice left me feeling weak. Feeling my strength return, I got hooked on moringa and was just starting a moringa project in my village when the Peace Corps evacuated Niger. One of the things I had noticed while I was in Peace Corps was that moringa had a reputation as a poor persons crop and when people did eat it, they often boiled the moringa leaves multiple times, leaching them of their incredible nutritional powder.
I was excited to see that moringa had become much more popular in Niger since I’d left. There also seemed to be a lot more knowledge about the benefits of powdering moringa, and of drinking the water that its boiled in to recoup the nutrients. We met with over twenty moringa entrepreneurs, from processors to large growers to women’s groups doing both growing and processing. We found that our challenge wasn’t finding moringa entrepreneurs, it was determining which groups would most greatly benefit from scaling up their operation and processing quality in order to be able to sell to Kuli Kuli.
Over the next few months, we plan to work closely with those partners and the Millennium Corporation Challenge in Niger to share our findings and identify how we can best support moringa groups in Niger. I know that sourcing high-quality moringa from Niger will not be easy. But I feel as though I’ve spent the past eight years preparing for this challenge.