A small Oakland firm started by a 25-year-old whose Peace Corps stint was halted by terrorists and a subsequent evacuation is making a name for itself this week in the crowdfunding world.

Kuli Kuli Foods completed an equity crowdfunding campaign on Agfunder that brought in $350,000.

“I think this makes us the first company that totally financed ourselves from the crowd,” said Lisa Curtis, the now 26-year-old Oakland resident who founded Kuli Kuli.

Curtis and some friends started out by raising $53,000 in donations on Indiegogo, then raised another $5,000 from Kiva lenders and most recently earned a $25,000 grant from online votes on a Ledbury Launch crowdsource campaign. With Agfunder, they tried a newly allowed form of crowdfunding that offers ownership stakes to those who put in money – and it worked to raise what’s needed to expand their product line and distribution.

Actually, though, the funding means that Kuli Kuli is making yet another name for itself.

The health food start up is already remarkable for doing what many social impact start-ups dream of: providing jobs to scores of people in an impoverished country and improving their nutrition all while making a buck in the U.S.

It makes and sells a health snack called called Kuli Kuli bars made from the highly nutritious moringa plant grown in West Africa.  To do so, Kuli Kuli employs 25 farmers full time in Ghana at a women’s cooperative and provides work for as many as 100 other farmers.  The women grow the moringa, grind it into powder and ship 60 percent of their crop to Kuli Kuli in the U.S.  They sell the other 40 percent in their local villages, where it has helped boost nutrition because Curtis and a local non-governmental-organization in Ghana have convinced women to grind leaves and use them raw to receive the most nutritional benefit rather than boil the leaves, as was their habit but which causes some of the nutrients to leach out.

Curtis discovered moringa during the first few months of her Peace Corps service in 2010 in Niger.  She was feeling weak, which she attributed to few vegetables in her diet. Village friends suggested she eat some leaves off the local moringa trees. It worked to revive her health and Curtis did some research to learn that moringa is among the most nutritionally potent plants on the earth: packed with vitamins C, A, B as well as iron, potassium and calcium.  She began turning her attention to getting the village women’s cooperative to grow moringa as an income producing crop and with a local nutrition center teaching women that grinding it rather than boiling it would preserve more of its nutritional value.

Then Al Qaeda came to Niger.

“In my village I was doing nutritional education at the village health center. We had just been planting a moringa garden when the kidnapping happened,” Curtis relayed about her time in the Peace Corps.  Al Qaeda kidnapped two French aid workers and the Peace Corps responded by evacuating its team there.

Lisa Curtis, left, in Niger with a farmer from the women's cooperative

Lisa Curtis, left, in Niger with a farmer from the women’s cooperative

After a what-do-I-do-with-my-life-now time, Curtis went to India for a few months and then came back to the states where she worked with Mosaic which operates a platform for raising money for solar energy installation projects through crowdfunded mechanisms.

In her spare time, Curtis and her best friend Valerie Popelka were cooking up recipes with moringa in her Oakland apartment and came up with the idea of a nutrition bar. They decided to try to sell it. They rented space in a commercial and health inspection approved kitchen and started cooking.

“We’d spend all day Saturday making bars in the kitchen and then all day Sunday out at farmers markets selling them,” Curtis recalled of the early days of her start-up.

“We kept selling out at farmer’s markets so we decided to go for it,” and launch a company around it.  After two years of it being a weekend and evenings gig, Curtis finally quit her day job last year and plunged herself fully into Kuli Kuli.

Now, manufacturing 10,000 bars at a time and selling in close to 150 stores, they hire a health food OEM baker in Washington state to do the actual making of the bars. But their ingredients are remarkably simple:  dates, almonds, agave and moringa – and sometimes chocolate. They want to expand manufacturing runs and introduce a new moringa product in a nutritional powder.

They’ve been distributing in Northern California through contracts with Whole Foods Stores and elsewhere through Kroger’s stores. In Oakland they also sell at Uptown Juice and at Intelligent Fitness. Curtis thinks there’s a market for much more.

Agfunder, which is an investment platform for agriculture and ag-tech startups seeking to raise investment capital, was wowed by the promise of moringa.
“Kuli Kuli is the first company to introduce moringa, a unique superfood, to the U.S. food market. Moringa oleifera is one of the most nutritious plants in the world. Known as the “miracle tree,” the leaves are packed with protein, essential amino acids, 27 vitamins and 46 antioxidants. Moringa has been gathering momentum in the US market since it was featured on the Dr. Oz show a year ago. Moringa was recently named one of the best kept secrets of the natural food industry by Businessweek,” Agfunder states in its investment argument for Kuli Kuli.

“By creating demand for a nutritionally rich food source that grows in harsh environments with minimal water, Kuli Kuli bars are a powerful tool in the fight against malnutrition as well as a promising investment opportunity. A mission-led company, Kuli Kuli has captured a growing segment of customers who seek socially responsible products,” it continued.

Superfoods are a $38 billion market in the U.S., with nutrition bars holding $2 billion of that, according to Agfunder. It predicted Kuli Kuli sales could reach $200,000 this year.

Curtis said in a moment of candor said she turned to crowdfunding because she could not attract the interest of traditional investors in the angel and venture capital arena.  She said she pitched to 63 investors at 20 different pitch events and had no luck before they decided to go to Indiegogo.

“I think that being young and female made it harder for to get a lot of investors to take us seriously,” she said.

Her best friend Popelka is now chief marketing officer in their new company and two other co-founder friends, Jordan Moncharmont as and Anne Tsuei, became chief technology officer/chief operating officer and creative director, respectively.

They describe themselves as a mission-driven company, providing a livelihood and better nutrition to people in West Africa through selling something healthy in the U.S.

“Nourish your body as well as the communities of west Africa where the plant is sourced,” says the company’s mission statement.

“We are a team of entrepreneurs, product developers, and changemakers. We want to create a world where everyone has access to nutritious sources of food and malnutrition only exists in history textbooks,” the company’s web site reads. That mission is built around Moringa and farm cooperatives in West Africa. “All of our products are made with moringa, one of the most nutritious plants on the planet,” reads the rest of the mission statement.

Kuli women's group

Some prominent investors who put at least $15,000 each into the Agfunder equity crowdfunding campaign apparently see a lot of potential.

The investors in the $350,000 campaign include Brad Feld of the Foundry Group, who has lead five other companies as CEO. They also include Mary Waldner founder and chairman of Mary’s Gone Crackers and venture capitalist Derek Proudian, chairman of several startups and owner of Papa Kona coffee .

Equity crowdfunding became possible after last fall’s enactment of the JOBS Act, which was passed by Congress in 2012 but faced some controversy. Equity crowdfunding allows startup campaigns to seek investments from individual accredited investors – defined by the Securities and Exchange Committee as a person with annual income of over $200,000 or a net worth of at least $1 million.

Feld, co-founder of the Foundry Group, and an investor and board member in numerous start-ups, made this statement provided by Kuli Kuli.

“Kuli Kuli caught my eye because of their uniquely delicious product offering, social impact model and their impressive ability to build a movement around their business, as evidenced by their many crowdfunding successes.”