The term “super food” has become trite in today’s health-crazed dietary marketplace — used to describe everything from kale to blueberries. The word is rarely used by dietitians or nutrition scientists because few foods pack enough of a nutritional punch to merit “super” status.
But there still are a few deserving of the title — and a plant called moringa is one of them. The moringa tree is a plant native to parts of Africa and Asia renowned for its nutritional value — each leaf contains seven times the vitamin C of oranges, four times the vitamin A of carrots, four times the calcium of milk, three times the potassium of bananas and twice the protein of yogurt.
Moringa oleifera is the most widely cultivated species of moringa — a multipurpose tree native to the Himalayan foothills in northwestern India. According to the ancient Indian medicinal tradition, the leaves of the Moringa tree can prevent 300 diseases — and modern science has found merit to these claims.
Although the tree is not much to look at, it grows fast, is resistant to drought and almost all of its parts are edible, flavorful and highly nutritious. This includes leaves, leaf powder, pods, seeds, flowers, roots and bark that offer a complement of protein, calcium, minerals, iron and several important vitamins.
Moringa also happens to grow in subtropical areas where malnutrition is most prevalent — particularly in West Africa. However, the people living in these regions are largely unaware of moringa’s nutritional potential.
In the past few years, an Oakland-based social enterprise called Kuli Kuli has set out to change this through a special nutrition bar made from moringa oleifera. The company says its bars are gluten-free, raw and made with just a few simple all-natural ingredients. The bars are low in calories and contain high levels of fiber, protein and vitamins.
Kuli Kuli claims to be the first to retail moringa food products in the US, sourcing it from women’s cooperatives in West Africa in an effort to help those communities move away from dependency on food aid and towards nutritional self-sufficiency.
In 2013, Kuli Kuli successfully raised more than $50,000 in one of the highest-grossing crowdfunding food campaigns of all-time. Six months later, the enterprise launched its first line of moringa superfood bars at 10 Whole Foods locations throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. It raised $350,000 in a crowdfunding equity campaign the following year.
According to Lisa Curtis, Kuli Kuli’s founder and CEO, 2014 was a major year of rapid expansion and learning for the enterprise. Although it was only Kuli Kuli’s first year on the market, it grew from nine to 200 stores and closed the year with $200,000 in revenue. It was also the enterprise’s first year with a full-time team, as Curtis transitioned out of her day job at the end of 2013 and her co-founders began transitioning out of their full-time jobs.
“We had an incredible group of summer interns, including a Stanford MBA and a UC Berkeley MPH, who helped us win a $25,000 grant from Ledbury and appear on MSNBC's Morning Joe,” Curtis said. “If we needed proof that people wanted to purchase moringa after hearing about it, that was it, we did more than $30,000 of online sales following that two minute segment on national TV.”
The highlight of 2014, however, came when Curtis returned to Ghana where she was able to finally meet with her moringa farmers.
“It was an amazing moment for them and us,” Curtis said.
Curtis wants to make Kuli Kuli Bars the "girl scout cookies" of the international development space through a new platform designed to help fund and tell the stories of people using moringa to improve nutrition around the world. Through the platform, Kuli Kuli will donate 15 percent of its online sales to different moringa projects.
“We piloted this with two nonprofits, raising an average of $800 for their organizations.” Curtis said.
Moving in to 2015, Curtis says Kuli Kuli is looking to expand to Southern California, the Rocky Mountain region and the Mid-Atlantic region by the end of the year. It is also actively looking to scale and grow its supply chain.