The Big Idea Behind Kuli Kuli


When I don’t finish my plate, I think of starving kids in Africa. It’s not because my mother told me to, it’s because I have a vivid memory of the young girls who I knew in Niger, West Africa taking my food wrappers out of the trash and licking the slight residue that remained. They say the Peace Corps stays with you. My experience made me want to devote my life to fixing the imbalance between the hungry and the overweight. So, together with a few talented friends, I founded Kuli Kuli.

I began by thinking about the problem. As Amartya Sen and others have clearly illustrated, we have more than enough food to feed the world — we could feed 10 billion people  — and yet nearly a billion go to sleep hungry every night. For many years, we attempted to solve this problem by shipping unwanted food from the land of plenty into the places of poverty. But, as food aid reformers in the U.S. have argued for years (and the White House now seems to be hearing), sending heavily subsidized American crops abroad is inefficient and may even be hurting more than it helps when the imported food brings down crop prices such that local farmers can’t sell their harvests.

What does work is investing in farmers. During the Green Revolution of the 1960s, governments invested significantly in agricultural research, access to capital and in getting markets to work efficiently. Since then investment in agriculture has decreased dramatically with a 75% drop in agriculture-focused aid to the developing world over the last few decades.

There are a couple of ways to rectify that problem as a consumer living in the land of plenty. We could lobby our governments to invest more into agricultural programs that benefit the developing world and less into big crop subsidies that hurt small farmers. But, with our current economic situation and given the incredible power of the Big Ag lobby, such acts are unlikely.

The second option is to consume products that support farmers in the developing world. This is the idea behind Fair Trade, a certification showing that the farmers and workers are justly compensated. As their website states,”We’re a nonprofit, but we don’t do charity. Instead, we teach disadvantaged communities how to use the free market to their advantage.”

While I fully support the Fair Trade mission and products, I wanted a way to incentive farmers to grow crops that nourished their communities, not just popular Fair Trade exports like coffee and chocolate. So we’re starting with moringa.

Moringa Oleifera is slender tree that is often said to be one of the most nutrient-dense plants in the world for its high levels of protein, iron, calcium, vitamins, and antioxidants. It’s perfect for vegetarians (or rural farmers who can’t afford meat) as it contains the essential amino acids methionine and cystine, which are among the hardest amino acids for the body to acquire from plant-based diets. Moreover, moringa leaves contain vitamins A and C, more calcium than most other greens, and so much iron that doctors prescribe it for anemic patients. Best of all, it grows in sandy soil with very little water, meaning that it naturally grows in places like Niger, India and Haiti. It’s an especially promising as a food source in the tropics because the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other foods are typically scarce.

I first came across moringa while in Niger. The Peace Corps emphasized that we should work in our villages to increase the amount of moringa that is grown and utilized, as well as eating it ourselves. It’s a cause that has been taken up by the international development community, most notably  Trees for Life International, Church World Service, Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, and Volunteer Partnerships for West Africa.

But there is only so much that a few NGOs and Peace Corps Volunteers can accomplish outside of market forces. Kuli Kuli is building Fair Trade 2.0, a way for consumers in the U.S. to gain access to incredibly healthy plants from around the world while supporting farmers in the developing world to grow and utilize more of these healthy foods. By carefully managing our supply chain so as to only source a portion of each harvest for consumption in the Western World and by paying Fair Trade prices we can ensure that superfoods like moringa benefit those who need them the most. Though we’re beginning with moringa, there are whole books about the nutrient-rich plants that are just waiting to be discovered by Western consumers. As climate change makes rainfall increasingly unpredictable for low-income farmers in the developing world, indigenous superfoods will become an important tool to help communities around the world take control of their own nutrition.