Corps to Career: Turning a nutritious West African treat into a business
“Figure out a way you can bring home what you learned in Peace Corps,” advises Lisa Curtis, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and founder of Kuli Kuli, a business that makes nutrition bars out of moringa, a food grown in West Africa. This isn’t just advice she gives, it is a principle she lives by.
Lisa first found out about moringa while serving with the Peace Corps in Niger from 2010 to 2011. However, her relationship with the Peace Corps started long before she set off for service. Even when she was in high school, Lisa knew she wanted to be a part of the Peace Corps. When she got to college, she took classes on African politics and decided she wanted to travel upon graduation, so she applied. When she got her assignment, she had no idea what to expect; all she knew about Niger was the little information she gained by Googling the country, and she had no idea how big of an impact her community would have on her.
The village she was assigned to lacked fresh fruits and vegetables, and soon she began to feel fatigue and lose weight -- early signs of malnutrition.
As she and the people in her community battled malnutrition, she began hearing about moringa, a plant that is rich in protein, calcium, iron, vitamin C, Vitamin A and flavonoids, that can help protect against cancer, and is native to Southern Asia and parts of Africa. Some Nigerien friends told her to combine moringa with Kuli Kuli, a Hausa (an ethnic group from West Africa) food made from peanuts. As soon as she began eating moringa, Lisa began to feel better. Moreover, it could help address malnutrition in the area. But, the question remained, how could she get more people to grow and eat it?
Unfortunately, before she got to answer this question, the political situation in Niger led to the evacuation of all Peace Corps Volunteers, forcing Lisa to leave the country. But that wasn’t the end of her relationship with moringa or the people of West Africa. When she returned home, Lisa continued to ponder the issue and realized that the best solution was to find a way to have people earn an income for growing the crop. This is where Kuli Kuli came in.
It started as a side project, as a way to help the people she had to leave. She was always amazed by the hospitality and generosity of the people who lived in her community, who would give everything and leave themselves nothing in order to help others. She wanted to return the kindness they showed her, so she designed a business model to keep West Africans involved and promote economic and agricultural development in the region. Today, Kuli Kuli works with NGOs based in the field to help the people of Ghana grow moringa, which she then buys from the farmers for her nutrition bars. This provides a sustainable lifestyle for farmers in the area, increased economic opportunities for women in Ghana, and incentives to grow a crop that eases malnutrition.
Lisa always knew she wanted to work in development but just didn’t know in what capacity. Peace Corps gave her the ideas and tools to create a sustainable project to help the people of West Africa by giving them the opportunity to be business partners. Today Kuli Kuli bars are sold in more than 100 grocery stores on the West Coast, and the company is about to start selling moringa powder, which can be used in smoothies and cooking. But Lisa is nowhere near finished growing her company or working with West Africans: She is currently working on becoming the leading supplier of moringa in the United States and intends to continue to support sustainable livelihoods for communities in West Africa.