Navyn Salem manufactures success by helping to feed the world's hungry

Her nonprofit Edesia produces Plumpy'nut, a nutritious paste rich in calories and vitamins.

Somalis await aid at a camp in the Howlwadag district of Mogadishu on Aug. 25, 2011. Drought in the Horn of Africa is affecting some 12.4 million people, leaving some 3.7 million people in need of food assistance and some 450,000 children malnourished in Somalia. Edesia, a nonprofit food manufacturer, is helping to meet such needs with Plumpy'nut, a nutritious high-energy food product.

In 2009 Navyn Salem founded Edesia, a nonprofit company based in Providence, R.I., that specializes in producing Plumpy’nut, a high-calorie edible paste made of peanuts that is rich in vitamins and provides nutrition to starving children.

By way of background, can you talk about why you founded Edesia and how you decided to focus your efforts on producing Plumpy’nut?

Navyn Salem: When I first started, I was certain of one thing: I wanted to have a big impact on children but get there by using a smart business approach. For over a year, I traveled, consulted, and spoke with some of the most amazing development and global health leaders to gather ideas.

Edesia was created with the purpose of creating jobs and contributing to economic development as well as having a social mission that contributes to a global health challenge. We first got started with this model in Tanzania, where 38 percent of the population is stunted due to malnutrition. Most of the raw materials needed to make Plumpy’nut are available locally and products were being imported from France.

We began back in 2007 to develop this project, and our factory there called Power Foods has been operational since December 2010. They can now produce enough Plumpy’nut to fulfill the demand in Tanzania and some of the bordering countries.

In 2009, we realized that there were opportunities in the United States for nonprofit manufacturers of food aid – at the time a rarity. USAID was looking for organizations that could produce ready-to-use foods like Plumpy’nut. We took the risk in deciding to equip the factory to be able to produce four different products that address the entire spectrum of malnutrition, not just the most severe.

We were thrilled when USAID chose Nutributter, a supplement used to prevent malnutrition in children 6-24 months. It was our first order to get the new factory running and was exactly what we were hoping for – the opportunity to make a new product and be part of the distribution on a large scale. Now, 18 months later, we have produced approximately 15 million pounds of all four products for some of the smallest and largest aid organizations in the world.

How can innovations, such as the products produced by Edesia, help change the nature of emergency response, while simultaneously helping stimulate economic development?

Local production of Plumpy’nut in malnutrition hotspots does exactly that. The PlumpyField Network is a growing network of independent Plumpy’nut producers located primarily in developing countries: Hilina in Ethiopia, Societe de Transformation Alimentaire in Niger, JB in Madagascar, NutriVita in India, just to name a few.

These partners are contributing to the nutritional autonomy (the ability for countries and communities to meet their own nutritional needs) around the world. By producing these products locally they provide a market for local agriculture, provide jobs in their communities, and cut down on lead times and transportation costs.

How can organizations like Edesia work to address everyday food security issues like the 19 million children who suffer from severe acute malnutrition every year?

I think we are just one piece of a very complex puzzle when discussing food security. One of the ways we address the root cause of malnutrition is by creating jobs and handing out paychecks, not only to our employees in the factories in 12 developing countries but also [to] the farmers who provide us with the raw materials to make these products. It is a small contribution but an important one. It is a unique business model that allows these factories to overcome great challenges in very difficult-to-work countries like India and Sudan. We are proud to be part of this growing Plumpyfield Network that is headed by Nutriset.

How can organizations like Edesia broaden access to nutritional solutions?

We and other organizations like us need to continue to be innovative. Plumpy’nut is an amazing success story but we cannot stop there. There are more vulnerable populations and regions all over the world with varying needs that all need to be addressed. This issue is a constant work in progress.

You say in your reflection that “I wanted to do something in my backyard that got people back to work and have an impact on a global problem.” Can you expand on that by talking about how the media, policymakers, and nonprofits can do a better job of getting the average citizen to understand the impact that they have on global food crises?

There is huge need to better understand the impact one person can make, and I have faith in that fact. My own experience speaks to it. In our first year and a half of production, my small factory reached close to 600,000 children. That’s just from a small dedicated team in Rhode Island. Think of what we can all do if we take action.

[Donations] have been coming in come in small amounts but by thousands of people I don’t even know. This never ceases to amaze me and I am really thankful that there are so many supporters of the work we do all over the world. I think the fact that you can make such a measurable impact on a child is what draws people in to the work we do. You can literally see it.

The media plays such an important role here. If the story had made it to the headlines sooner, perhaps funds would have followed sooner, and we would not be discussing the exorbitant cost of airlifting supplies to Kenya in a desperate last-minute effort.

You start your reflection by saying that “our success is dependent on failure, failure on a grand scale somewhere else in the world.” How do you measure Edesia’s success?

We measure our success by the number of children who receive the food and nutrition they need. Although this is not easy or straightforward, we work every day to make it happen.

We are successful when we supply a high-quality product at the best possible cost. We are successful when we are running our production efficiently. We are successful when the distribution network is communicating and sharing best practices.

We have the opportunity to impact all of those. So when you know that all the quality standards are met, when production runs as smoothly and as efficiently as possible, and when our partners get Plumpy’nut into the hands of children, then we count ourselves successful, even if it reaches just one child.

The task is far from done but we are proud to play our small role.

In your little time as the executive director of Edesia what have you learned about the role of emergency aid groups in dealing with situations like the one taking place in the Horn of Africa, and what have you seen as Edesia’s greatest challenge?

The biggest problem is funding. Even today, only a month ago we had to cut back our staff for lack of funding. We know that every year there is significant need for products like Plumpy’nut, and that it is cheaper to respond sooner. But we “wait around” until there is a crisis. By then it is already too late for so many.

The emergency aid groups I have seen in operation on the ground like Save the Children and Word Food Program do amazing work – they are smart, organized, dedicated, and risk their own lives every day in order to reach the people who so desperately need our help.

Graham Salinger is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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• This article originally appeared on Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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