Kuli Kuli raises $4.25 million to make moringa a mainstay in the US diet

Oakland-based food startup Kuli Kuli has raised $4.25 million in a Series A round of funding to bring moringa, a high-protein plant, to more kitchens in the U.S., according to CEO and co-founder Lisa Curtis.

During her time working in Niger for the Peace Corps, Curtis got a taste for the moringa plant, which grows pervasively in tropical climates and is higher in iron, calcium and protein than other leafy greens, even kale. But on her stateside return, she couldn’t find moringa in groceries. She co-founded the company in 2011 with a dual mission to make moringa popular back home and support women farmers around the world.

Kuli Kuli connects with women who are farmers in West Africa, South America and the Caribbean, purchasing their moringa harvests at a fair price and sometimes providing additional support, through select projects, which help the farmers and their communities plant moringa trees, and learn about nutrition. To date, the company reports that it has supported 800 women farmers and helped to plant 200,000 moringa trees.

The Kellogg Company’s new venture arm, Eighteen94 Capital, led the Series A round in the for-profit for-good startup Kuli Kuli. The fund was joined by food and environment-minded investors S2G Ventures and InvestEco, along with individual angels. The deal represents the first for Kellogg’s new fund, which it formed with Touchdown Ventures in June last year.

Eighteen94 Capital Managing Director Simon Burton said while Kellogg’s doesn’t produce any food items that use moringa as an ingredient, the company will help Kuli Kuli Foods figure out how to navigate through its next stage of growth. He said, “There’s a lot of potential here, whether it’s the nutrition or the super food angle, for moringa and Kuli Kuli to scale. We’re seeing search trends that look like the trend lines around something like quinoa ten years ago.”

Since its earliest days, Kuli Kuli has employed technology in fundraising, debuting its products on Indiegogo, connecting with angel investors through AgFunder and raising a loan through Kiva. The startup also uses proprietary technology in processing the moringa plant, a so-called “superfood,” into bars, powders, tea and energy shots.

It has also run recipe competitions online, including one judged by elite chef José Andrés, to drum up interest in cooking with moringa. Winners got a trip to dine with the chef at his China Chilcano restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Kuli Kuli also has new products in the works for release in 2017, Curtis said. The company will likely sell those direct to consumers online first, before rolling them out nationally to brick and mortar groceries. But funds will mainly be used for getting Kuli Kuli’s moringa products into more customers’ hands.

“Our goal with this capital is to really expand our distribution. We are in 3,000 stores already including lots of natural food stores, Whole Foods and others. But there are more places we’d like to be, including conventional retailers. We have a first to market advantage and the wind is at our backs right now,” the CEO said.