Edesia on mission to feed world’s poor children

By Richard Asinof
Contributing Writer
The secret ingredient in the success of Edesia, a Providence-based nonprofit on a mission to produce ready-to-use foods to prevent malnutrition in the economically developing world, is the willingness to confront new challenges, says Executive Director Navyn Salem. More

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Edesia on mission to feed world’s poor children

PBN FILE PHOTO/MATTHEW HEALEY
LASTING IMPACT: Edesia founder Navyn Salem talks with Max Villagran, who is loading a box of Nutributter at the company’s Providence production facility. The company’s food products have a shelf life of two years.
By Richard Asinof
Contributing Writer
Posted 9/20/10

The secret ingredient in the success of Edesia, a Providence-based nonprofit on a mission to produce ready-to-use foods to prevent malnutrition in the economically developing world, is the willingness to confront new challenges, says Executive Director Navyn Salem.

“On Monday, I make a list of things I don’t know how to do, and by Friday, I’ve hopefully figured out most of them,” she said. “You need to be able to give things a try, to believe you can do anything.”

The state-of-the-art Edesia factory, which opened in March in Providence, produces four peanut-based, ready-to-use food pastes – Plumply’nut, Supplementary’Plumpy, Plumpy’Doz and Nutributter. The pastes, combined with milk powder, vegetable oil and sugar and fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, have a two-year shelf life and do not need to be mixed with water or refrigerated. Edesia is the only licensed facility in the United States to manufacture ready-to-use food products developed by the French company Nutriset.

Edesia food products can be used to address chronic malnutrition as well as disaster relief – an earthquake in Haiti, a drought in Niger or floods in Pakistan, according to Salem. The facility has the capacity to produce products to treat about 500,000 children a year.

The company’s first order, Salem said, was unexpected. It was for Nutributter – a product designed for children younger than 2 – which really hadn’t been extensively marketed anywhere. The buyer was the U.S. Agency for International Development, which ordered $2 million worth of the product annually for three years. “We were beyond happy,” Salem said.

In its first six months of operation, Edesia’s facility will have produced enough Nutributter to provide more than 100,000 children with supplementary food.

The agency’s order underscored a recent shift in food policy by the U.S. government, Salem said, moving beyond the export of excess commodities as food aid and, instead, developing programs that target the needs of the world’s most vulnerable population – hungry children.

Salem’s innovative business model involves partnering and collaboration, working with organizations such as the World Food Programme, UNICEF, Partners in Health, Save the Children, and the Clinton Global Initiative.

Many of the 29 employees in the work force at Edesia’s facility, for instance, are recently resettled refugees, working in partnership with the International Institute of Rhode Island. For Salem, there is a personal connection to this business strategy – her father came to the U.S. from Tanzania, learning English as his fourth language. “No one can understand the importance of our product better than they can,” she said, explaining how one of her employees had lived in a refugee camp for 17 years. “The only thing that my employees have asked of me is [to work] more hours,” she said.

Salem said she chose to locate the manufacturing facility in Providence, turning down other real estate opportunities in Massachusetts, because “it was important to do something to help provide jobs here in Rhode Island, given the high unemployment.”

Salem is also exploring creating new products that will be developed using indigenous produce in Tanzania – and will be manufactured at an Edesia facility in Tanzania. To do so, Salem is employing social-marketing techniques, targeting what she called “the really, really large bottom of the pyramid.” The idea came to her, after visiting a factory in Tanzania that made mosquito netting. She decided to explore building a factory there to manufacture a ready-to-use food product and, by doing so, create jobs, hand out paychecks and make something that saves lives.

The ready-to-use food product, which will be based on local tastes and local produce, will be “a product that has a social good,” Salem said, like the mosquito netting. Customers will need to pay for it. “The target group is mothers,” she said.

Salem, who has four daughters, described herself modestly as a “part-time soccer mom and a part-time factory worker.”

She began Edesia by “working out of my home.” Her daughters – in between schoolwork, soccer, dance and gymnastics – also help her with Edesia, helping to assemble the cardboard boxes needed for shipping.

One of the most important skills she has acquired, Salem says, is an ability to be nimble and flexible, because the work is iterative, and plans always need to be changed.

Salem is not shy, nor is she reticent in promoting the good work of Edesia. Still, she admitted she was a bit uncomfortable with a recent spate of recent publicity, which included a feature story about her efforts in The New York Times Magazine.

Her company is also featured prominently on the home page of the Clinton Global Initiative website. The Edesia facility has become a go-to site for educational tours, she said, for everyone from kindergartners to college students. “I think just about every department at Brown [University] has taken a tour,” she quipped. •

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