One At A Time
With 20 million children right now on the verge of starvation around the world, a Rhode Island-based non-profit company has focused the past seven years on helping the hardest-hit countries. Edesia Nutrition is producing a lifesaving peanut-based food that needs no refrigeration or water, reaching more than 17,000 children a week. This month Jim Hummel talks with the company’s founder about the evolution of the operation and gets a first-hand look at its new production facility in Quonset.
Click here for more information about Edesia.
Click here to watch the extended interview.
The production schedule at this factory in the Quonset Business Park is unrelenting.
Then again, the need for what’s being produced - a ready-to-eat food product for starving children in the hardest hit areas of the world - is equally relentless.
Every day half a million of these the small, squishy packets containing a mixture of peanuts, milk powder, sugar, vegetable oil and vitamins - called Plumpy Nut - are produced by Edesia, a company founded seven years ago by Navyn Salem.
She started with nothing but a vision.
Salem: ``No experience, no office, no business plan, no firm skill set that is preparing me for this venture.’’
Salem’s father and his family came from Tanzania and a visit there a decade ago left a huge impression on her.
Salem: ``There’s so many problems when you visit a place like that, that it’s very hard to pick just one. The one thing that struck me was malnutrition. And the fact that it was actually killing children by the millions. And nobody was talking about it. We were talking more about AIDS, about clean water, and all of those issues, which of course are very important. But this issue was getting no attention whatsoever.’’
So she set out to build a factory in Tanzania, using local resources and employees. Then she turned her attention to establishing an operation in Rhode Island.
Salem: ``We started in my spare bedroom. I had one employee, then two employees and then it started to get a little crowded in our house. My husband was wondering who all these people are who are coming in and out. We had to take conference calls in the bathroom so you weren’t interrupted by other people on your conversation.’’
In 2009 she moved Edesia - which comes from the Latin word `to eat’ - into this 15,000-square-foot space in Providence. And she partnered with the French company Nutriset, developers of the Plumpy Nut line.
Salem: ``They really passed down a lot of know-how of what equipment to buy and how to actually do the process, because it is quite complicated. It looks just like peanut butter but behind it there’s a lot of complexities. The concept is very simple but if you look at the factory and all of the workings behind it, there is nothing simple about it.
Hummel: ``Your main ingredient is peanut butter…’’
Salem: ``It’s peanuts, milk powder, sugar, vegetable oil, vitamins and minerals. And there’s very different combinations depending on what product we’re talking about, but that’s the basic formula.’’
The packets, which have reached 7 million children since Edesia started, need no refrigeration or water - critical in Third World countries. Edesia targets children 6 months to 5-years-old. They are put on a program of three packets a day for seven to nine weeks. So one box - containing 150 packets - is a full treatment for one child.
Salem: ``If we’re not building the brains, then that is irreversible. And we will not be able to get that cognitive ability back if we don’t intervene really before the age of two.’’
Salem says Edesia’s product line goes to the worst of the worst: countries that not only have starving children, but a disaster like an earthquake or drought on top of it.
Salem: ``They’re surviving on leaves…you can’t even understand what it is to have access to nothing and so this is a really, really critical life-saving intervention that we are trying to get to people.’’
Along with the United States government, Edesia partners with - and is supported by - the World Food Program in Rome and UNICEF in Copenhagen, which determine where the need is greatest.
Salem: ``Guatemala, Haiti, Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tanzania, Rowanda, Malawi, Namibia.’’
She’s been to all of them - and more - over the past five years. And last spring Salem took two separate trips: to Sierra Leone and Liberia. She took along veteran employee Freeman Summerville - a Liberian refugee who hasn’t been back to his homeland for decades.
Edesia now has 70 employees from 23 countries, many of which the company has helped.
Salem: ``We actively since the beginning have recruited from the refugee population. To me that’s very important because that is who we’re serving a lot of the time. And so who can understand what it’s like to be a refugee and someone who has to flee their home than refugees themselves.’’
Last spring’s visit to Liberia is typical: a mother brings her infant to a clinic - often walking very long distances - to get help. In this case an eight-month old girl weighs barely 7 pounds. Salem, a mother of four, thinks about her own four girls who weighed that much at birth.
Summerville steps in to give the baby the Plumpy Nut and she immediately takes to it.
Salem: ``I make it a point to go to the field all of the time and bring as many people with me as I can to show this story, that there are people who need help right now. And if we don’t act now, they won’t make it. It’s that’ simple. And we can’t just push them away and say it’s too far, it’s too far away, I can’t do anything about it. We can and then that becomes the most incredible experience. To hand somebody the food that you’ve made, that you know will change their life, that you know will ensure their survival and that maybe they become the future leader that can do something in their community and give back in some way in the future. That is the most amazing gift that one person can have.
Hummel: ``Does that take a toll on your when you go on those trips? ‘’
Salem: ``No, no it’s always - it’s just a reminder of why I work around the clock, why we all work so hard to make this happen and to make it possible. And to do it better every day, is for each of these kids. Their faces are all over this office, I bring their images back home with me so I don’t forget them.’’
Kasparian: ``We didn’t know what we were doing but we were excited and passionate enough that we had something good and we had something meaningful that we just plowed forward.’’
Maria Kasparian, who grew up in Portsmouth and was a Peace Corp volunteer, is Edesia’s executive director. She started with Salem right from the get-go in 2009. Kasparian says the move over the summer to a facility quadruple the size of the old one will allow the company to greatly expand its reach.
Kasparian: ` Quonset has given us some space. Quonset has allowed us to dream bigger, think bigger, we can reach more kids in the same amount of time. If there’s an emergency, we can now surge. We can suddenly ramp up our production and get more emergency products out there quicker than we could ever do when we were in a smaller space in Providence.’’
In Providence, workers did everything by hand - including lifting these 50-pound bags of sugar and other raw materials to put into a mixer. All of that is automated now in Quonset and Edesia is producing the same amount in two shifts as it did in three at the old location.
Kasparian says a simple test using what’s called a MUAC tape - Mid Upper Arm Circumference - determines in the field the level of a child’s need.
Kasparian: ``They’ll actually measure a child’s mid-upper arm, which is right here. A child who is severely acutely malnourished, who is literally wasting away, their arm circumference is this small. This is terrible. This is a horrible thing. A child who is moderately acutely malnourished still has a very small arm circumference. They’ll also use this as a tool to know when a child is graduating out of a program. So when they get back into the green this is a healthy child. All of our products use this same color coding, it’s an international standard now, so it’s easier to say `Okay Plumpy nut is red,’ that’s for children with several malnutrition who fall in this category.’’
And that’s how they are stacked in the company’s warehouse. A typical order takes a week to produce, and the average shipping time is a little over a month, including time for quality inspections.
Kasparian: ``So when you look at a box going down the line you can think `Wow that’s enough in that box to cure and save one child’s life, right there.’”
As the company began looking for new space several years ago, Salem said she was committed to keeping Edesia in Rhode Island.
Salem: ``I feel that if I live in Rhode Island I should also be doing something to better Rhode Island. It just feels like something that was the right thing to do. And maybe it doesn’t make complete business sense in every dimension but to be able to continue to create jobs here and to be able make a difference here in Rhode Island, is important and outweighs the benefits of moving over the border.’’
So what does Edesia’s future look like?
Salem: ``In this new factory we have extra capacity. And for years people in the U.S. have asked us: what can you do here at home, how can you help with food insecurity in the United States? What about WIC programs or food banks or all these different situations that come up here in the United State. To me that’s the way forward is we can diversify our customers, our partners and also we have a lot of expertise that we are able to…poised to solve a lot of problems right here at home for the first time. And we would love to use our expertise to be able to apply this knowledge that we’ve learned over the last eight years, here in Rhode Island but also nationwide.’’
There are 20 million children in the world right now on the verge of starvation.
Hummel: ``Do you ever get overwhelmed by the need?’’
Hummel: ``So how do you deal with that?’’
Salem: ``You have to take it one at a time, right?’’
Hummel: ``So you think one box, one kid, six weeks.’’
Salem: ``Yup when you get overwhelmed you have to dial it back to that.’’
In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.