When I don’t finish my plate, I think of starving kids in Africa.
But it’s not because my mother told me to. It’s because I have a vivid memory of the young girls who I befriended in Niger, West Africa, who took my food wrappers out of the trash and licked the slight residue that remained.
They say the Peace Corps stays with you.
Finding a Better Solution
For me, the experience remains a significant part of my life, and fostered a devotion toward fixing the imbalance between the hungry and the overweight.
Witnessing hunger prompted me first to think more deeply about the problem. One hero in my field of development, Amartya Sen, has already illustrated that 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. When I studied why this happens, I noticed one main solution advocated: rich countries sending heavily subsidized crops abroad to poor nations. Yet this effort has proved to be inefficient and even hurtful if imported food lowers crop prices such that local farmers can’t sell their harvests.
I noticed as well that a better solution than ‘giving’, even if one’s intentions are pure, is to enable others to give. In agriculture, that means investing in farmers.
Eager to be part of this better solution, together with a few talented friends, l founded Kuli Kuli, a company producing nutritional bars from a plant I used to eat in Niger – moringa. Our mission is simply to nourish the world.
Moringa Oleifera is a 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 as perfect for vegetarians as it is for rural farmers who can’t afford meat, as it contains essential amino acids that the body normally can’t acquire from plant-based diets. Moringa leaves also 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 and India. It’s 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.
Kuli Kuli aims to increase global investment in the agriculture of poor communities by engaging consumers living in the land of plenty with farmers in West Africa who cultivate moringa. Just like the idea behind Fair Trade, a certification showing that the farmers and workers are justly compensated, Kuli Kuli invests in farmers and provides them with new market opportunities. As an added bonus, when farmers grow moringa, this specific crop not only provides them with an income from exporting it, but also can nourish their home community’s health.
Growing and utilizing moringa isn’t necessarily a new idea – in fact moringa production has already been taken up by the international development community, via organizations like 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.
Fair Trade 2.0
Kuli Kuli is building Fair Trade 2.0, a way for consumers in the U.S. to gain access to 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 wages, we can ensure that superfoods like moringa benefit those who need them the most.
When I look at the big picture of food aid, and how my own country has engaged with the world, I feel at first disappointed; investment in agriculture has decreased dramatically with a 75% drop in agriculture-focused aid to the developing world over the last few decades.
But then I realize that I have the chance to redefine how the US engages with poorer nations, even as an everyday person. Not only am I thrilled about our moringa product, but I have continued to read entire books about the nutrient-rich plants just waiting to be discovered by Western consumers. For all the negativity around climate change and how unpredictable rainfall will cause unpredictable economies, I also see immense positivity in that indigenous superfoods can become an important tool to help communities around the world take control of their own nutrition.
And I’ve been excited to see that movement build. By reversing current agricultural trends and misaligned incentives, I believe that we can make a real dent on malnutrition in poor communities and health problems of those who are “over-fed” in wealthier nations.