Edesia: Fighting Malnutrition Abroad, Welcoming Refugees Home

Dec 24, 2013

As 2013 comes to a close, it’s time to count our blessings … and a time to look back at the tragedies that struck around the world. The typhoon in the Philippines, a coup in the Central African Republic, the worsening civil war in Syria. In the wake of those crises, millions of children are going hungry and becoming malnourished. But there is a bright spot – and it starts in Providence, where a nonprofit is making a product that can help reverse the crippling effects of malnutrition.

As part of our ongoing series, “Made in Rhode Island,” Rhode Island Public Radio’s health care reporter Kristin Gourlay visited Edesia to learn more about the lifesaving products they make – and the remarkable people on the production line.

Down a quiet industrial lane just north of downtown Providence, a small factory called Edesia churns out thousands of foil packets filled with a kind of fortified peanut butter.

Andrew Kamara, Edesia's shipping manager, leads a tour of the factory floor.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“The product that comes through goes through that buffer tank there.”

Meet Andrew Kamara, shipping manager.

He’s leading a tour of Edesia’s small but buzzing factory floor, past the sterile blending and packaging room, where lab coat-and-hairnet-wearing employees are feeding a spool of foil wrapper into the production line. And here’s the warehouse, where a fork lift is moving pallets of boxes bound for places like Syria and the Central African Republic.

“We have trucks out here every day, sometimes twice a day," Kamara said, "that are replenishing raw materials and then taking out finished products to our warehouse in Lincoln.”

Those raw materials include nearly 55,000 pounds of peanuts a week - the primary ingredient in one of Edesia’s main products, Plumpy’Nut.

Feeding the foil wrapper into the packaging and production line
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

"Plumpy’Nut is made from peanuts, milk powder, vegetable oil, sugar, vitamins, and minerals," Salem said.

Edesia founder Navyn Salem says Plumpy’Nut and some of the other products they make are meant for young children who are so sick they can’t eat regular food. It’s basically peanut paste that comes in individually sealed foil packets. They’re about the size of a cell phone, easy to tear open. It doesn’t require refrigeration or mixing with water. And that means it’s ready to eat, right from the  packet.

“This takes a child who can’t sit up, can’t lift up her own head, can’t walk," said Salem.

And transforms her after just seven weeks of nothing but Plumpy’Nut, which packs all the calories and protein and other nutrients she needs not only to survive but to move her body and use her mind.

“It is remarkable to see a child from the start of this to the finish of this. And every time we watch a box go by in the factory, this is one life that’s been transformed to that degree.”

Boxes ready for shipment to Syria
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Today’s malnutrition treatment can be shipped in a small box. Not too long ago, treatment required access to water and refrigeration, and often a hospital ward. But in the 90s, a French company called Nutriset invented this peanut paste recipe. And since then, Edesia and some other ventures around the world have licensed it, kind of like a franchise. It’s now easier and quicker to bring a child back from the brink, and much less expensive.

“For a child who’s severely malnourished, one box equals $50 dollars, equals one child.”

Salem is wrapping up the workday in her bright but spare office, down the hall from the factory floor. She’s got four daughters, herself, to get home to. They’re one of the reasons she started Edesia. A few years ago, Salem was looking for her true calling. She wanted to combine her business background with a love of children and, of all places, Tanzania, her father’s native country. So she launched her first factory there. And years later, it’s still going strong, exporting products like Plumpy’Nut to neighboring countries in crisis. Salem handed the factory over to Tanzanian management, and went looking for her next venture. It was 2008, and the recession was in full swing back home in Rhode Island.

“I was realizing though that maybe the landscape is changing. My own neighbors are out of work," remembered Salem. "Maybe creating jobs here in Rhode Island is just as important as creating jobs in Tanzania.”

Edesia founder Navyn Salem checks her messages at the end of a busy day.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Salem says boosting the local economy wasn’t the only reason she established Edesia in Providence. Being based in the U.S. meant she could do business with the world’s largest provider of food aid – the U.S. government. It only buys food made or grown in the United States for the humanitarian aid it ships around the world. Plus, Salem says being here makes it easier to work with universities on researching new products, like the ones she’s hoping to develop to treat malnutrition in older children and pregnant mothers.

With 48 employees and plans to hire more and move into a bigger space, Edesia is making a local impact. Salem has made it a point to hire newly resettled refugees – people from the very countries Edesia ships to.

“Coming from a place where you relied on aid to becoming the person who’s making it and delivering it, you understand inherently the importance of quality, timeliness, showing up to work, and really taking this quite seriously.”

Take Andrew Kamara, the shipping manager. He left Sierra Leone 12 years ago and has been with Edesia since the beginning.

The United Nation's World Food Programme's 2013 Hunger Map highlights hunger hotspots around the globe.
Credit United Nations / World Food Programme

“I was one of those people out in refugee camps that were every day pretty much on the watch for when the next truck load of humanitarian aid is going to show up.”

Kamara ended up in the camps in the wake of a brutal civil war. He remembers going hungry. Fleeing down streets strewn with dead bodies.  Barely escaping from a gun battle, only to get separated from his sisters. By chance, they reunited at a Red Cross camp in western Sierra Leone. That’s when Kamara says he knew they had to leave. An American host family agreed to sponsor them, and they wound up in tiny Pomfret, Connecticut to recover and rebuild their lives.

“And for me to be here today, working with a manufacturing company that is making a product that is going directly back to kids that, whom I happened to spend time with and lived with, in a lifestyle that I lived prior to coming to this country. It’s definitely rewarding.”

Especially when he gets to work on a shipment destined for his own country.

“I find myself doing the Sierra Leonean shipment writing notes, little notes, and putting my last name and where I’m from to hoping that somebody would see it and say, Hey, there’s a Sierra Leonean out there that’s doing this.”

Life has since improved in Sierra Leone. But Edesia founder Navyn Salem says children are still suffering in too many other places. Wherever the headlines are, she says, that’s where Edesia ships: most recently, Syria, the Philippines, the Central African Republic. There’s never a lack of demand for their products, only political squabbling over how much the country should spend on food aid. So Salem says she trains her organization to do more with less.

“We run a business," Salem explained. "We’re not in the business of making money, but we’re not in the business of losing money either. We need to break even.”

Break even – but keep growing. Salem says she hopes to triple the business and develop new products for American kids battling a different kind of malnutrition: obesity. And right now, she’s one of only a few women running factories in Rhode Island, but Salem says more should give it a try.

“We’re good at it though. I would encourage women and young people to get involved with manufacturing. Because then you get to make something, touch something, watch something be produced," Salem said.  "And to be able to have control over something you’re making and producing is really important. So making stuff in Rhode Island really needs to make a comeback.”