Last Update: 7/9/2014 7:08 PM
By John Hoban
In rural Niger, villages go completely still and quiet in the afternoon. Locals come indoors for a nap and hide from the relentless midday sun and heat. But in the small village of Safo, one solitary figure can still be seen hustling about the village or walking quickly along dry, dusty paths to other villages to lead a women’s group. The sun and heat is no match for Sofiya, a woman and Peace Corps counterpart of immense determination, drive, and vision. Although Peace Corps Volunteer Lisa Curtis’ time with Sofiya was abruptly cut short, Lisa was still able to find a great source of inspiration in Sofiya. Together, they turn it into a promising business spreading better health and nutrition around the world.
Lisa and Sofiya
Lisa came to Niger in 2010 as a Municipal Community Development volunteer and was assigned to the local mayor’s office. But shortly after arriving and settling into a “really sweet mud hut,” she found the mayor was never around and all the other men in the office spent their days just drinking tea. So Lisa began searching for other ways to get involved in her community. She did a community needs assessment and found that one name kept coming up over and over again: Sofiya. Every time she asked people in her village about community leaders and possible project partners, people would almost always mention Sofiya. “She was somebody that everybody said right away ‘Oh you need to talk to Sofiya! She knows it all!’” Lisa recalled. Sofiya ran six different women’s groups in her village and also surrounding villages. She worked with a microfinance NGO to help women generate their own incomes, and would shortly become Lisa’s main counterpart in her community. Sofiya’s work was driven by her own beliefs in women’s empowerment and economic opportunity, which was a surprise for Lisa. “One thing that was really eye-opening for me was that I came in with certain preconceived notions of women’s empowerment and women’s ability to be leaders in their communities in a Muslim country. I actually found that [in Niger] even though women covered their hair and ‘respected their husband’s wishes’, there were some badass women there! And Sofiya was just super motivated, and she really pushed women having money, having savings, being able to manage their finances…” Lisa explained. She continued, “Sofiya was very much like ‘Well, these women need jobs, they need to earn income, and that is the biggest challenge. If you support women you will support the whole community.’” It was Sofiya’s push for empowering women in her community that became Lisa’s main focus for her service in Niger.
Lisa and Sofiya began to build a strong working counterpart-volunteer relationship. Lisa would spend her time in the mornings at the local health center and teaching some English classes, and then spend the rest of the day with Sofiya following her around to meetings with the various women’s groups. Lisa remembered one time in particular where they walked a long way to another village for a meeting. “We had this really great meeting, of which I understood half. There were a bunch of women around all chatting and then it was time to go home and they gave us a bunch of melons. I thought ‘Oh no! We’re going to walk all the way back with all these melons?’ Sofiya just asked a woman for a basket and put them all on her head and said ‘Alright, let’s walk back.’ She was stronger than I’ll ever be,” Lisa said. Sofiya was also a great counterpart because of the way she treated and interacted with Lisa. “My language skills were ok, but they were the equivalent of a 5-year-old. She was very patient explaining things to me. And a lot of people see an American come in and they think how to get money out of you. But Sofiya saw me differently. She saw I was going to live there and I was there to work… It wasn’t just ‘Oh, buy me a new school!’ which was a lot of the interviews I did. Sofiya would say, ‘Help me train these women, or help me get materials for them to make soap.’ She was a lot more in line with Peace Corps ideals,” Lisa explained. But it was Lisa’s own experience with malnourishment that would form the basis for their biggest project together.
Like many volunteers and locals in Niger, Lisa began to feel the effects of malnourishment shortly after her service began. In her village, she had very limited access to fresh produce and vegetables. She began searching for nutritious foods locally, and stumbled on local dish called kuli kuli. It was little balls of peanut resin from crushed peanuts, and it was usually mixed with moringa, a small leafy tree that grew locally. It was delicious and, as Lisa discovered, highly nutritious. Moringa is a hearty little tree that can grow in the harshest climates, and it produces leaves that are extremely high in nutrients like iron, calcium, and vitamin A. The bark can be ground up and used as a salve for wounds, and the seeds can even be used to filter water.Lisa became hooked on moringa the more she read about it and ate it. “I was starting to get obsessed about moringa because it’s so cool, it’s so nutritious, and we need to get more of it. So I started planning with [Sofiya] how we could get some of the women to grow it and sell it at the local markets. We also thought of growing it at the local health center and using it as a tool to show people how to best utilize the leaves, because often women will take them and boil them for a really long time and dump out all the water, which leeches all the nutrients. We do the same in the US with spinach and broccoli, but when you’re talking about a country like Niger where 80% of the people live in absolute poverty, it’s really important to preserve those nutrients,” Lisa explained. So together with Sofiya, they began to plan and write grant proposals to get more people eating moringa and fight malnourishment.
But then everything came to an abrupt halt. There was a terrorist attack in Niger only seven month’s into Lisa’s service, and all the volunteers were hurriedly evacuated from the country and the program was closed down. There was no chance of Lisa coming back to Niger to work with Sofiya. Lisa remembered, “I was crushed. I loved my village and I loved the stuff I was working on, and I was so excited to be there for two more years…” She didn’t want to return home yet, so Lisa ended up going to India for a friend’s wedding. She was supposed to be there for two weeks but found work at a social enterprise consulting firm and stayed there for five months. She kept in touch with Sofiya and other members of her community during this time also, looking for a way to continue some of the work she had left. Together with Sofiya and some Indian friends at the consulting firm, they came up with an idea: moringa nutrition bars. “We got the idea of doing moringa food products because it’s so nutritious. Americans love ‘superfoods’ and nobody has ever heard of moringa, so why don’t we try to introduce it?” she said. Lisa returned to the U.S. and together with a friend who worked in consumer packaging and marketing, began making moringa bars by hand and testing them at farmer’s markets on the weekends. The goal wasn’t only to get the US hooked on moringa, but also to encourage better nutrition and women’s empowerment back in Niger. Lisa explained, “The idea came from [Sofiya] in that I was saying we need more people to eat moringa, but she said that what they really need is a way to earn an income. Then you’ll get them to grow more and eat more of it. Sofiya really emphasized to me that behavior change is really hard when people are just doing it because somebody else tells them to do it. But it’s a lot easier when people realize “Oh! There’s a big incentive for me to grow this crop and I wonder why all these others want to eat it. So maybe I’ll eat it too.’” Lisa’s initial plan was to buy and source all the moringa for the bars from a women’s cooperative led by Sofiya in Niger. But she found that exporting anything out of Niger was immensely difficult, as the country lacks basic infrastructure and roads to ship goods. So while they tried to find a solution for shipping problems in Niger, they found another source of moringa in northern Ghana from Fair Harvest, a nonprofit that grew moringa and supported nutritional education there.
So after about a year, they finally had a reliable source of moringa and began making bars. Lisa named the bars Kuli Kuli. The name came from the peanut resin balls that were mixed with moringa, which she had first exposed her to the delicious nutrition of moringa. But the name Kuli Kuli also had a much deeper meaning for Lisa. One night during her service, she was sitting with local men around a campfire. A little boy wandered up to the group and suddenly collapsed. There was a big commotion as the men tried to figure out what to do. The boy had lost his parents and was severely malnourished. Suddenly, the men turned to Lisa and yelled, “Get your kuli kuli! Give the boy your kuli kuli!” Lisa ran back to her mud hut and grabbed some Lara Bars that her mom had sent in a care package. There wasn’t a word for “nutritional bar” in the local language, so the men called the bars Kuli Kuli. Lisa ran back with the bars and gave them to the boy. It was a very poignant moment for Lisa. “It’s crazy to think about nearly about a billion people who are malnourished and go hungry every night, but we have over a billion people who are overweight. That imbalance in our food system is totally broken and it’s hard to know what to do about it. But in my mind, getting more moringa in people’s hands and really helping to improve nutrition that way is a sustainable way to make a small step in that direction. That’s our goal and why we ended up picking the name Kuli Kuli,” Lisa said. Once they had formulated a successful recipe and picked a name, the Kuli Kuli team looked to expand their bars outside of the farmer’s markets. Whole Foods Market was the first to pick up and start selling Kuli Kuli bars in their stores, and through a crowdfunding online campaign Kuli Kuli was able to raise $53,000 to begin mass-producing the moringa bars. This June, Lisa and her team were able to raise another $350,000 for the company, and she quit her day job and went full time for Kuli Kuli.
The years of hard work and problem solving are finally starting to pay off for Lisa and Sofiya. Lisa is still working with Sofiya to figure out sourcing more moringa from Niger, but the bars are already paying dividends by investing over $18,000 already back in West Africa. 5% of profits from Kuli Kuli flow directly back to Niger to support more nutritional education and the growing of moringa. In addition, 15% of sales are donated to nonprofits working with moringa through the Moringa Partners Program. Lisa is optimistic that one day they can solve the sourcing issues of moringa in Niger and continue giving women in Niger more economic opportunities and everyone better nutrition. Although Lisa’s actual time with Sofiya was cut short back in 2010, it might have actually made Lisa more determined to do Kuli Kuli. She had picked up immense inspiration and determination from Sofiya, and having to leave their work together incomplete only gave Lisa more motivation to do something for her community in Niger. “I think it came out of my desire that I didn’t really want to leave. I wasn’t done yet. I was just getting started. I had all these project proposals and I really wanted to do them with Sofiya. Kuli Kuli grew out of my own frustration because they wouldn’t let me go back to Niger. They still don’t have any volunteers there. That was my village. Those were my people. How can I do something useful? I feel like after living somewhere that was so different with people that were so awesome and you come back to America and realize ‘Oh my God! I have so much stuff. I have access to so many opportunities and so many resources. What can I do to somehow complete that circle?’ Especially when I had gotten cut off so early. My way of making lemonade out the terrorist attack I guess,” Lisa stated. With Kuli Kuli on track now, Lisa also finally has the time to return to Niger this November for the first time since she was evacuated. She’ll be able to show Sofiya and her village all of the hard work she has done the past four years, and how they all inspired her to improve nutrition and provide more opportunity for people. Sofiya will still be there hustling around the village, doing what she has always done, and showing the importance of Peace Corps counterparts around the world.
(Author’s note: Kuli Kuli bars are available in most Northern California Whole Foods Markets and other local retailers. Try one today! You can also find more information about moringa and Kuli Kuli at http://kulikulifoods.com/ .)