Could the Popularity of Superfoods Actually be a Good Thing for the Planet?

Could the Popularity of Superfoods Actually be a Good Thing for the Planet?
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Quinoa, soy, kale, acai, chia (and even cockroach milk). The list of superfoods seems to be growing at a faster rate than we can gobble them down. Now part of the mainstream diet, superfoods are no longer confined to the shelves at Whole Foods or health food stores. Worldwide, the number of food and drink products that use the terms “superfood”, “superfruit”, or “supergrain” has grown by over 200% since 2011. Even mainstream suppliers like Walmart are selling wheat grass, goji berry, and green tea supplements.

I know because I’m in the superfood business. My company, Kuli Kuli, is the first company to introduce moringa, a nutrient-packed leafy green, to the U.S. Like quinoa and acai, moringa has been used for thousands of years, and was once eaten by the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. Known by some cultures as The Miracle Tree, moringa can be used for just about everything, from weaving rope and purifying drinking water, to making tea and medicine. Today, it is becoming an excellent way to combat malnutrition.

I first encountered the plant in Niger, where I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer. As a vegetarian, I had been subsisting on a diet of millet and rice, which left me feeling extremely fatigued. I later realized that I was experiencing early signs of malnutrition. Some women in the community suggested that I mix moringa leaves into a popular peanut-based snack, kuli kuli. Within days, I had recovered. That was when I began to comprehend what a huge role moringa could play in solving worldwide hunger.

But one question remained: why hadn’t local communities already started using moringa to cure malnutrition? The nutritional benefits were common knowledge. Even more puzzling was the fact that moringa is very easy to grow. It thrives in hot, dry climates, and doesn’t need much water to shoot up fast. As Mark Olson, professor of evolutionary biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told The New Yorker, moringa is “uniquely suited to feeding poor and undernourished populations of the dryland tropics, especially in the era of climate change.”

After conducting a three-month needs assessment in Niger, I came up with two answers: the first was that people were processing moringa in a way that leached its nutrients, and the second was that farmers simply didn’t have the financial incentive to grow and harvest moringa at scale.

Shortly after returning to the U.S., I launched Kuli Kuli to solve these two problems. We started sourcing moringa from women-owned farming cooperatives in West Africa, turning it into moringa bars that we sold at farmers’ markets in Oakland. We began working with nonprofit partners to educate local people about how to use moringa for nutrition in West Africa.

It turned out that there was a market for moringa. Our products are now distributed in over 1,000 stores nationwide. Today, we work with women-led farming cooperatives in Ghana, Haiti, and other countries around the world to grow moringa, use it to improve nutrition locally and help farmers earn a sustainable income by selling it in the U.S.

Selling superfoods in the U.S. to get more people to eat them in the developing world might sound counterintuitive. Quinoa’s popularity in wealthy countries has been criticized for driving up local prices in Peru, making it much more difficult for Peruvians to afford this “superfood” that was once a dietary staple. Acai, soy, and dark chocolate have similar stories of social and environmental exploitation.

But rather than believing it can’t be done differently, I think we can learn from these mistakes. We can create better business models that don’t just lower their social and environmental impact, but actually creates positive impact. Kuli Kuli and a handful of other superfood companies are proving that this is possible: Guayaki is reforesting South American rainforests by sourcing rainforest-grown yerba mate from local farming partners; Andean Naturals sells organically-farmed quinoa products made by small-scale farmers in the Andes; Organic India sells organic tea and herbal supplements made by Indian farmers and tribespeople; African Bronze Honey Company sells honey made by 6,000 beekeepers in Zambia; and Tony’s Chocolonely sells 100% slave-free chocolate.

This kind of impact can have wide implications. For Kuli Kuli, it means that Haiti’s notoriously deforested landscape is recovering from drought-resistant, fast-growing moringa trees, planted, owned, and harvested by Haitian farmers. It means that women like Madame Lalan can increase their income, and rely on having an income for long periods of time.

I believe that the true potential of moringa lies in partnership: partnerships between business and communities, between developed and developing countries, between consumers on opposite ends of the planet. That is the only way that we can begin to solve pernicious, complex problems like malnutrition.

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