Specialty Food Magazine

SUMMER 2015

Specialty Food Magazine is the leading publication for retailers, manufacturers and foodservice professionals in the specialty food trade. It provides news, trends and business-building insights that help readers keep their businesses competitive.

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for the company name. "I was pushing this moringa snack on everyone. It's so much better than boiling the leaves," Curtis says. To convince the community to grow the plant, she realized she'd need to prove its economic viability. "If they were going to make space in their fields for moringa, I had to create a market for them," Curtis says, which, she adds, is how she came to the idea to bring the product to the U.S. From Farmers Markets to National Markets... Testing and sampling were integral to creating a compelling moringa- based product. "There were a lot of experi- ments in our kitchen to make the first products," Curtis notes. "Valerie had been working in food product development, so that was her side of the project." Curtis and Popelka tried a variety of recipes, including brownies and hum- mus, eventually deciding on snack bars. "Particularly since I'm a vegetarian, getting 25 percent of my daily calcium and iron requirements in a convenient snack solved a personal challenge," Curtis says. Further validation from friends and family con- vinced them they were on the right track. The team moved to larger-scale testing at the Old Oakland and Montclair farmers markets. "Valerie used a metric in which you measure conversion rates by how many people sampled and then bought. If it's more than 7 percent, you have a good market," Curtis explains. "Ours was 16 to 20 percent." The encouraging results brought them to find a co-manufacturer. Soon after, Curtis' Indiegogo campaign delivered a sec- ond big payoff. "Whole Foods heard of us during the crowdfunding campaign," she recalls. "I got an email saying they loved moringa and wanted to take on our entire product line before we even launched." Importing Challenges... In 2011 and 2012, getting the prized ingredient state- side was Kuli Kuli's biggest challenge and expense. The business had started off sourc- ing in Niger, an extremely poor, landlocked desert region with unreliable roads. "We were spending more money on transporta- tion than on the product. There wasn't a huge amount of production either," Curtis admits. Her team eventually came across Fair Harvest Women, a nonprofit organiza- tion based in Ghana. "They were growing moringa and selling locally and had just started selling online in the U.S.," she says. "It was perfect." Other challenges have emerged, namely education about a plant virtually unknown in the Western world. "It's nutri- tious with a distinctive taste, green and earthy. Some people immediately love it and others are lukewarm," Curtis notes. "So we're educating women in Ghana about why to grow it and eat it, but we have to continue the education [in the U.S.] as well." Paying It Forward... At its heart, Kuli Kuli's mission is to help create enduring economic opportunities for the women who grow moringa in West Africa. "We pay 10 percent above the market price for the leaves. The money goes into a community fund, and the women decide how to spend it," Curtis says. Further, the company is working with local schools and the communities to build awareness about moringa's nutritional value in regions with widespread malnour- ishment. "We educate them on the best ways to eat it, and we're working with local schools so [children's] morning porridge is mixed with powdered moringa," she explains. "That's where our marketing line, 'Nourishing you, nourishing the world,' comes from." Curtis and her team are continually seeking other ways to help. "We're constant- ly hearing from Peace Corps volunteers and nonprofits doing great work with mor- inga," she says. To show support, Kuli Kuli donates 10 percent of online sales to vari- ous projects encouraging use of moringa in West Africa. The company is in talks with the Peace Corps to establish a program to work directly with volunteers on moringa- related projects. A Foundation for Success... "The key thing in running a business like this is you have to have a lot of trust and strong rela- tionships with local people," Curtis muses. "We work with Ghanaians who have agri- cultural degrees and talk to them every week about developments and what's happening on the farms. Our goal is to build a big market here." The seats on Kuli Kuli's board of directors are filled with an impressive group of food industry and sustainability leaders, including Ahmed Rahim, co-founder of Numi Organic Tea, and Wood Turner, vice president of sustainability innovation at Stonyfield Farm. "We're reaching for the stars and had a lot of people offer their help," Curtis says. "One thing I love about the food industry is that on the shelves it's so competitive, but in person so many people want to help and are so generous with their time and knowledge. Like Ahmed Rahim at Numi Tea. If I could build a company half as great as his, that would be my dream." Future Plans... In the short term, Kuli Kuli is aiming to catch the eyes of new retailers in the Southern California, Rocky Mountain, and Mid-Atlantic regions. The snack bars recently earned organic certifica- tion, and Curtis hopes to regularly introduce new offerings and make moringa a house- hold name. "We have a big 10-year goal," Curtis reveals. Product extensions and a continued focus on supporting malnourished commu- nities through sustainable business will be a mainstay of the company. "We want a whole line around individual superfoods and will make sure they benefit the people who need them the most." Denise Shoukas is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine. SUMMER 2015 135

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