Rhode Island Spotlight: Feeding Starving Kids

boxThe production schedule at a factory in the heart of 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 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.

Salem’s father and his family came from Tanzania and a visit there a decade ago left a huge impression on her. “There are so many problems when you visit a place like that, that it’s very hard to pick just one,” she said. “The one thing that struck me was malnutrition. And nobody was talking about it.”

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. In 2009 she moved Edesia, which comes from the Latin word ‘to eat,’ into a 15,000-square-foot space in Providence. And she partnered with the French company Nutriset, developers of the Plumpy Nut line.

The packets, which have reached seven million children since Edesia started, need no refrigeration or water, which are scarce 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.

“If we’re not building the brains, then that is irreversible,” Salem said. “And we will not be able to get that cognitive ability back if we don’t intervene really before the age of two.” 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.

Edesia now has 70 employees from 23 countries, many of which the company has helped. And Salem has traveled extensively to the countries Edesia aids. “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.'”

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.

In Providence, workers did everything by hand — including lifting  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.

“So when you look at a box going down the line you can think, ‘Wow there’s enough in that box to cure and save one child’s life, right there,'” Kasparian said. As the company began looking for new space several years ago, Salem said she was committed to keeping Edesia in Rhode Island.

“I feel that if I live in Rhode Island I should also be doing something to better Rhode Island,” Salem said. “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 create jobs here and make a difference here in Rhode Island is important and outweighs the benefits of moving over the border.”

There are 20 million children in the world right now on the verge of starvation.

Jim Hummel: Do you ever get overwhelmed by the need?

Navyn Salem: Absolutely.

JH: So how do you deal with that?

NS: You have to take it one at a time, right?

JH: So you think one box, one kid, six weeks.

NS: Yup. When you get overwhelmed you have to dial it back to that.

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org.

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