The Profiler: Valerie Popelka of Kuli Kuli
The Profiler: Valerie Popelka of Kuli Kuli
Photo by Kristen Hanlon.
In West Africa, the Moringa tree grows in some of the region’s driest areas, providing much needed nutrition for people and animals alike. The leaves of the tree are rich in protein, and vitamins A, B and C, and high in calcium, potassium, and other minerals. Recently, a group of young entrepreneurs embarked on a mission to make Moringa a household word via the Kuli Kuli Bar, a raw, gluten-free snack bar made locally in small batches and sold at farmers markets in Oakland and Lafayette. I talked with Valerie Popelka, a 2005 graduate of Alameda High School and Kuli Kuli’s chief marketing officer and co-founder, about their fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.
How did you come to be involved with Kuli Kuli?
I got involved through my friend Lisa Curtis (Kuli Kuli co-founder and CEO). We grew up just a few houses apart from each other. After college Lisa joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Niger. Unfortunately, the Peace Corps had to shut down their program due to terrorist attacks in Niger, so she was only there for six or seven months, but while she was there she had plans to work with village women to set up Moringa co-ops. She was really inspired by the people she worked with in Niger and after she left we brainstormed ways to set up a socially responsible business using Moringa.
When she came back to the states Lisa told me she wanted to make a food product incorporating Moringa and make a nutritional bar that would use the same ingredients a woman in Niger would use. On our first attempt we used peanuts, which we bought raw and roasted ourselves; dates; and powdered Moringa which we bought online. It turned out too cottony and dry, and it was nothing someone would want to buy (laughs). But we kept working at it, and because I like to cook I started experimenting with other ingredients and methods. Moringa is really grassy tasting - it’s green and it tastes green - so you need to incorporate things like fruit and honey to balance the grassiness.
About a year ago we finished developing a few varieties of the bar, got our food safety certification and other permits, and found a commercial kitchen to make the bars in. Currently, there are three versions: honey almond, dark chocolate cherry, and black cherry. Three of us working in the kitchen for six hours makes a total of 200 bars, which we thought would be plenty for the farmers market, but we sold out and right away we realized this model of production was not sustainable for the long run. Plus, we wanted to get our product into stores but to do that requires a co-manufacturer. I talked to several co-manufacturers to find out what the start-up costs would be, and that is what led to the Indiegogo campaign.
Your campaign on Indigogo was launched on May 6, and within just a few days you raised over half of your goal of $50,000. How was the campaign publicized, and to what do you attribute its success?
Lisa is a very social person and has a huge network, plus she goes to lots of conferences. She went to a conference called Starting Block for start-ups and pitched Kuli Kuli there, and she got a lot of people interested in it. We also have a couple of consultants on our campaign who have led really successful Kickstarter campaigns who gave us some valuable tips. We have seven people on our team and all of us pitched this campaign to our networks, asking them to spread the word about it. Indiegogo also featured us on their homepage during the first week of the campaign, which helped a lot.
Once funding is accomplished, what are your next steps?
I’m now getting formal bids from co-manufacturers and we plan to make a decision in June and sign a contract so we can get the process started. We’re also actively trying to sell our product to retailers and trying to get retailers to commit to a quantity of it before we start manufacturing. We’ve found a partner we can work with to source the Moringa in West Africa. She is working with growers in several countries, and buys no more that 40 percent of each cooperative’s crop, in order for the women to keep enough for their own use. With a portion of the money we earn from selling the Kuli Kuli bars, we plan to provide seeds, education, and money for the Moringa growers.
Ultimately, we hope to sell enough product to set up our own nonprofit to help the West African growers. Part of what we need to do is educate people in the U.S. about Moringa and its potential - nutritionally, for the U.S. consumer, but also economically, nutritionally and environmentally how this plant benefits people in Africa. Our designer, Anne Tsuei, has designed some educational collateral for that purpose. Also, if we build our own supply chain we can sell the powder itself and expand into products other than snack bars. We see the snack bar as just a beginning for Kuli Kuli.
You can link to the Kuli Kuli fundraising page on Indiegogo here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/kuli-kuli-the-superfood-snack-to-nouri.... You can also follow their progress on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/kulikulibar, and Twitter, https://twitter.com/KuliKuliBar.