When Lisa Curtis traveled in 2010 to Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer, she witnessed the ravages of malnutrition up close—and first-hand. She knew that 44 percent of children in the West African country suffer from malnutrition, but she never expected to experience malnutrition herself while there.
A vegetarian, Curtis subsisted mostly on rice, millet and a few beans here and there while volunteering in a small health center in the poverty-stricken nation. Without regular access to foods rich enough in protein and essential vitamins and minerals, the former White House intern perpetually felt tired and weak.
“I was starting to experience early signs of malnutrition,” she tells Free Enterprise. “I gained a first-hand understanding of the common nutritional challenges faced in rural villages—what 18 million children across West Africa feel every day.”
To regain her strength, Curtis turned to the leaves of the local moringa tree, also commonly referred to as the “drumstick tree.” Soon, with her energy back up, she taught the women in her village how to plant the tree, as well as how to process its leaves in an environmentally-friendly way.
Packed with protein, iron, calcium, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A, moringa is an energizing leafy “supergreen.” Used in traditional medicine for centuries, several clinical studies show that it also helps to provide critical antioxidants to cancer patients, increase milk production in new mothers, and lower glucose levels for individuals with diabetes.
Good For the Body, Good For the World
Experiencing the health benefits of eating the ancient tree’s leaves (mixed with a popular local peanut snack called kuli-kuli) didn’t just restore Curtis’s stamina. It also inspired her to launch Kuli Kuli, Inc. Upon returning to Oakland, California, from Niger in 2011, she co-founded the sustainable startup alongside Valerie Popelka, Jordan Moncharmont, and Anne Tsuei. They bootstrapped their nascent venture using money secured through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that raised $53,000.
Embracing its co-founders’ shared commitment to social entrepreneurship, Kuli Kuli sources its moringa solely from women-owned farming cooperatives in Ghana, Haiti, and Nicaragua. The concept is two-fold: One, the company improves the nutrition and livelihoods of the sustainable farmers it contracts with by paying them fair wages, and by providing them with education about eating healthfully, and two, with each cooperative selling a portion of its moringa back to Kuli Kuli, market demand for moringa is created here in the U.S.
In other words, Kuli Kuli does well by doing good, collaboratively bringing about positive social change rather than simply making a profit, and that’s part of the big idea.
“I co-founded Kuli Kuli to empower farmers in the developing world to access the nutritional power and economic opportunities of moringa oleifera by selling moringa-based products in the U.S.,” Curtis reflects on her blog. Today, Kuli Kuli sells moringa-enriched energy bars, herbal supplement powder, and energy shots from its online store, and from more than 1,500 American health food stores, including Whole Foods Market.
Furthering its sustainability goals, the startup also recently partnered with the Clinton Foundation and Whole Foods to reforest hurricane-torn Haiti with moringa trees. Additionally, in Ghana, Kuli Kuli’s network of female farmers collectively planted more than 100,000 of the flowering and seedpod-bearing trees.
Public-Private Partnerships For Global Change
Curtis is just one changemaker in a growing new generation of social entrepreneurs working to reduce poverty by encouraging entrepreneurial independence throughout the world as part of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Partnering to Accelerate Entrepreneurship initiative (PACE). Established in 2014, the government program fosters social entrepreneurship here at home while driving economic growth, jobs, and innovation abroad.
To achieve its objectives, the public initiative offers grants that catalyze private-sector investments into early-stage ventures that help unlock “the potential of thousands of promising enterprises around the world.” Since its inception, the USAID PACE program has provided 17 grants totaling some $19 million in funding, USAID senior alliance advisor Rob Schneider tells Free Enterprise. That funding has set into motion more than $100 million in combined public- and private-sector grants secured through 40 incubators, accelerators, and seed-stage impact investors.
“We recognized that there aren’t enough investable opportunities in developing countries,” Schneider says. “With PACE, what we do is to help increase the other side of the equation, to help provide goods and services that help the world through private-sector market-based solutions.”
Furthering USAID’s guiding principle of “ending extreme poverty and promoting resilient democratic societies while advancing domestic security and prosperity,” the main requirement for participating startups, like Kuli Kuli, is that they must aim to improve communities—and the lives of those who live in them—in developing countries. Among the countries impacted by the program thus far are Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, to name a few.
Village Capital is one of the many startup accelerators that USAID financially supports through grants. Headquartered out of Washington, D.C., the nonprofit finds, trains, and invests in entrepreneurs who solve “real-world problems,” like Curtis, for example. She took part in Venture Capital’s 2015 agriculture-focused cohort workshop. The peer review-anchored program was made possible in large part by a $2.6 million USAID grant. USAID’s financial backing enabled Village Capital to raise a $15 million fund to finance the workshop Curtis participated in.
“As one of the startups in Village Capital’s program, I gained a ton of insight around how to better pitch Kuli Kuli,” Curtis says. “I also received some great advice on hiring, and lots of good connections.” Additionally, she points out, that Kuli Kuli also walked away from the workshop with a $175,000 investment. “It was the best accelerator I’ve done.”
Daniel Hsu, Village Capital’s director of partnerships, says exposure to impact investors is a key benefit of his organization’s startup accelerator program, but it’s only one of the ways Village Capital promotes early-stage entrepreneurs via backing from USAID PACE.
“At the micro level, public-private partnerships like these also enable access to solutions for people who don’t have access to healthcare, nutrition and a myriad other basic human needs,” Hsu tells Free Enterprise. “At the regional level, they help drive local economic development. And, third and highest, they change the narrative around startups. You don’t have to be of a certain race, gender or socioeconomic background to start a business.”
He added: “Together, we’re sending the message that entrepreneurship is something that is accessible to everybody, everywhere in the world.”