The Peace Corps is one of the largest volunteering organisations in the world. With over 7,700 active members and missions in 65 countries, the Peace Corps actively supports communities in developing regions to help improve education, health and environmental protection. Lisa Curtis was one of many such volunteers. But her mission to Niger would end up being life-changing – not just for her, but for women all over the world.
Ethical travel is a topic that is certainly been a recurring theme in my podcast! Take my interview with Jeff Greenwald for example – he’s the man behind the not-for-profit organisation Ethical Traveler which raises awareness on human rights and environmental issues. Or my recent interview with Evanna Lynch, who’s shining the spotlight on animal abuse that’s committed in the name of tourism.
This week’s podcast interview touches upon another aspect of ethical travel: volunteering. As the years have gone by and people are becoming more aware of humanitarian and environmental issues, volunteering has become a huge multi-billion-dollar industry as more and more people wish to actively make a difference. Rough estimates put the number of people who go abroad to volunteer at around 1.6 million annually.
Lisa Curtis was just one of many in the grand scheme of things, but her mission in Niger would prove to be the start of something far larger than she could have ever imagined – and it was all thanks to the humble moringa plant.
In case you’re wondering who Lisa Curtis is, here’s a little background info to get you in the know! She originally hails from the USA, and after having finished her university studies she went on to volunteer with the Peace Corps. It’s a prominent American volunteer programme that focuses on grassroots efforts to help improve disadvantaged communities around the world and promote better understanding between cultures. Over 7,000 people volunteer with the organisation annually, deployed on projects in all four corners of the world.
Lisa herself was stationed in Niger, where she supported a health centre in a rural community with no running water or electricity. What initially drew Lisa to the Peace Corps in the first place was the feeling that by working with this organisation, she would be gaining much more insight into the lives of the local people there. The financial support provided to volunteers by the Peace Corps was limited, meaning that Lisa had to really adapt her lifestyle and gave her the feeling that everyone really was on the same level. In a way, it was almost two ways of engagement with the local community – she was not just helping and assisting them with projects, but also truly gaining first-hand experience of what life really is like in Niger.
In addition to helping at the medical centre, Lisa was teaching English at a local school. But as time went on, Lisa noticed that she was left feeling increasingly sluggish and tired. As a vegetarian she was sticking to a diet of rice, beans and millet, and the lack of vitamins and nutrients was clearly taking its toll – the early signs of malnutrition. But after telling her colleagues at the health centre about how she felt, they were quick to suggest a solution. They give her some leaves from a moringa plant and mixed it with a peanut-based snack called kuli-kuli. And it worked like a treat! Lisa felt her energy coming back – and it gave her a brilliant idea.
Most people might not know what moringa is, but this plant is a ‘superfood’ in the truest sense of the word. Pretty much every part of the tree from root to leaf can be used, and it’s filled to the brim with assorted nutrients, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. It can be used as a garnish in salads, cooked in stews or included in curries – yet despite it being widespread in various African and Asian cultures, it’s still relatively unknown in the western world.
This was where Lisa saw the huge potential right away. Moringa is of huge value to communities in developing countries that grapple with problems such as malnutrition and poverty. It’s nutrient-rich, but it’s also easy to cultivate and grow as well, able to survive even draught conditions. She began working with members of the local Nigerien community to encourage the use and cultivation of moringa – and it was then that the Kuli Kuli project was born.
Kuli Kuli Foods
There was a small setback to the Kuli Kuli project at the beginning – Lisa had to return to the USA prematurely after a terrorist attack in Niger. But by then the ball was already rolling, and Lisa was not about to give up on her project any time soon.
Lisa got together with her friends to officially launch Kuli Kuli Foods, and a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo was set up help secure their initial funding. Lisa and her team were able to raise just under $53,000 from 806 backers, making it the most successful food-related fundraising campaign on Indiegogo at the time. As years went on, more and more supermarket chains in the US began stocking her products, but initially it was a struggle for Lisa to get enough traction in large supermarket chains such as Safeway and Whole Foods. Countless hours were spent pitching the products to stores and speaking with managers in the hopes of getting her products stocked on the shelves. I believe this is definitely one of the largest struggles that Lisa has had to face whilst working on Kuli Kuli. Trying to introduce a moringa to a market where it’s otherwise unhead of was always going to be an uphill struggle, but it’s clear to see that her efforts have clearly paid off. The company has gone on to become a multi-million enterprise and its products are now stocked in over 3,000 stores across the continental US, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
What I personally love about Kuli Kuli is that despite being very financially successful, they’ve never once strayed from the core ideals behind it – promoting the empowerment of women, combating malnutrition and supporting sustainable agriculture and fair trade.
Kuli Kuli source their moringa from three countries, Ghana, Haïti and Nicaragua, where the team spends time to establish partnerships with specially selected farming collectives led by women. While a portion of the moringa harvests is sold to American markets for use in the products, a lot of the work also goes into encouraging the local use of moringa too, meaning that the communities can benefit from the business as well as improving the nutrition of their own diets.
Kuli Kuli have even done their bit to help plant a whopping 1,000,000 moringa trees! A fantastic example of this is Haiti, a country that is really having to grapple with the issue of deforestation and the soil erosion which follows on from that. Around 30% of Haiti’s natural forest cover remains, but the fragility of it is exacerbated by the country’s reliance on wood and charcoal as the main source of fuel. By encouraging local use of moringa, thousands of trees are being planted to support their harvests rather than simply being destined as fuel – and let’s not forget that the plant itself is incredibly hardy too.
Kuli Kuli are constantly looking to develop new products, support new campaigns and refine their supply chains. Right now Lisa and her team are working hard on launching a new product, a moringa green smoothie, but there are even other superfoods that Lisa has her eyes on that she believes could find their way into western cuisine. Fruit such as lychee, camu camu and baobab have huge nutritional benefits, yet they’re rarely used in the western world. If Lisa was successful in bringing moringa to the US, then there’s absolutely no reason for her and the Kuli Kuli team to not branch out into new superfoods. A wonderful follow-on from that would be the fact that the scope and reach of their efforts to improve nutrition and women’s rights will be even larger! In the meantime, Lisa is continuously looking to refine and perfect the supply chain currently in use, eventually developing a new system from scratch that will be even able to support smaller farmers.
Lisa Curtis set off on that volunteering trip to Niger as a university graduate ready to see what the world had in store for her – now she’s a hugely successful CEO. Recently nominated in ELLE’s 2018 Impact Awards and selected as one of Forbes 30 under 30 entrepreneurs, Lisa’s work is not only making a difference, but also turning heads. It’s been an absolute honour to have this interview with Lisa Curtis and I’m excited to see what projects and schemes Kuli Kuli will support in the future!
If you want even more inspiration, take a little look at her TEDx talk about how optimism (and mild delusion as she puts it!) enables her to always keep working towards her goals.
Listen to the interview over at our Gurucast!
Lisa’s determination and positivity is infectious and I’m sure my interview with her will leave you with a huge smile on your face. You can listen to it in the video that I’ve embedded below, or you can check it out on iTunes or Soundcloud as well. Enjoy! :)
Check out some other inspiring people promoting ethical travel!
If you like what you've seen on this page so far, why not check out our shiny new podcast. Holidayguru's Gurucast is our newest way to inspire and interact with you beautiful people. Here you can learn about new and exciting places, pick up some great tips on how to save on your travels and also listen to interviews with some of the world's most influential personalities. Happy listening! :)