PROVIDENCE JOURNAL // DEC. 6, 2018
Women in Action: Navyn Salem’s war on hunger is saving millions of malnourished children
By Patricia AndreuSpecial to The Journal
Barrington resident has become a force in the fight against childhood malnutrition. Her 83,000-square-foot headquarters in the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown produces 1 million packets of Plumpy’Nut each day.
Navyn Salem will never forget the sound that forever changed the course of her life.
She was visiting Tanzania, home to generations of her father’s family, on a personal research mission. She wanted to see firsthand what the needs were in this developing East African country and how she could get involved.
She learned about existing programs to combat malaria, provide clean water, treat HIV/AIDS patients and expand education. Then, as Salem toured a hospital, she heard the raw screams of despair. A mother was crying inconsolably over the loss of her child. The child had starved to death.
“I remember hearing that voice and the anguish and sadness and I thought, this should not happen in this day and age,” recalls Salem of her 2007 visit. “We know how to prevent this. Malnutrition is one hundred percent preventable.”
For Salem, by then a married mother of four daughters, that piercing cry led to a personal promise. “I remember thinking, I will never come back to a place like this unprepared. Ever. Next time I come back we’re going to come with solutions, with answers and with answers that can make a big impact.”
Salem saw huge potential in Plumpy’Nut, a product that was already having a “revolutionary” effect in Tanzania and other countries. Developed a decade earlier by a French pediatrician, the nutrient-rich, peanut-based paste (made with powdered milk, vegetable oil, vitamins, minerals and sugar) was specifically formulated to save children on the brink of starvation and help their bodies and brains grow. It was extremely effective because it came in portable, ready-to-eat packets, had a long shelf life and made an immediate impact on the health of children who ate it regularly.
But the supply of Plumpy’Nut was dwarfed by the overwhelming demand.
According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 155 million children under the age of 5 years old are chronically malnourished worldwide. A staggering 3.1 million children die each year from “under nutrition.”
“The need was really there, and there was a gap that wasn’t being filled by anyone,” says Salem. So she decided to get involved. She partnered with the French manufacturer of Plumpy’Nut to set up factories in Tanzania and, later, in her home state of Rhode Island. Despite countless naysayers and obstacles, Salem was determined to expand the reach of this lifesaving peanut paste. “Lives were at stake.”
She named her nonprofit Edesia Nutrition, after the Roman goddess of food.
Fast forward to today: Salem, 47, has become a force in the fight against childhood malnutrition. Her impeccably clean and super modern 83,000-square-foot headquarters in the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown produces 1 million packets of Plumpy’Nut each day. That translates into 2 million children being treated for malnutrition this year alone. A typical treatment for a severely malnourished child consists of three packets a day for an average of six to eight weeks. The child’s expected weight gain is at least one pound per week of treatment.
Adorning the factory walls are maps, country profiles and photos of children Salem has met on her in-country visits. They are a constant reminder of Edesia’s goal to help eradicate hunger.
“This is not just a job, it’s a mission,” says Andrew Kamara, Edesia’s director of logistics and distribution. Kamara is an integral part of the carefully cultivated workforce — 97 employees hailing from 26 countries, several of whom are former refugees.
Kamara fled civil war in his native Sierra Leone, in West Africa, in 1997. For three years he lived in squalid conditions in a refugee camp in Guinea. He eventually made it to Ghana before resettling in Connecticut in 2001.
“Many of us have been through the hardships of being a refugee,” Kamara explains of his coworkers. “We’ve gone through periods of malnutrition ourselves. We’ve seen kids dying of malnutrition in the field. [So], I understand the urgency of getting the products to the field. I know that every second is crucial in saving the life of a child.”
The magnitude of the problem can be overwhelming. Orders for Plumpy’Nut pour in daily from UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Quantities and destinations change constantly, depending on the crisis. Edesia’s team works quickly to stock containers, devise transportation routes and deliver their Plumpy’Nut shipments to 55 countries across the globe, the majority of which are ravaged by war, political instability or natural disasters.
But the team’s faith in their work, and in their “fearless leader,” is great.
“Navyn is a saint,” Kamara says without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel with her. I’ve seen her work in the field. I’ve watched her get emotional about the magnitude of the crisis. She alone has done so much. The fact that she was able to believe in something that was going to have such a big impact and bring that dream to where it is today, it’s inspiring.”
Rami Kawsara wholeheartedly agrees. Before fleeing from ISIS in 2014, the then-engineering student had seen the lifesaving effects of Plumpy’Nut in his native Syria. He feels it was a stroke of fate to have been hired by Salem to be Edesia’s quality-control supervisor.
“What’s greater than saving someone’s life?” asks Kawsara. “We saved maybe eight million kids [since Edesia started manufacturing Plumpy’Nut in 2010], so imagine this world without them.”
That clarity of purpose extends beyond the Quonset headquarters to Salem’s own family. With the support of her husband, Paul, who is the senior managing director emeritus at Providence Equity Partners, Edesia has become a family affair. And while they are raising their daughters — ages 13 to 18 — in Barrington, the world is their classroom.
“They’ve been through Haiti, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Tanzania,” says Salem of her four girls. “They’ve spent weeks in clinics. They’ve weighed babies, measured them. Helped with anemia checks.”
It’s a hands-on exposure to the realities that millions across the globe face. It’s also a front-row seat to their mother’s professional hurdles and success.
“My job is to lead by example,” says Salem. “It should be normal that a female should be a CEO. CEO of a manufacturing company. CEO of anything you put your mind to.”
Salem’s latest venture hits much closer to home. In an effort to reduce the risk of peanut allergies, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines in 2017 recommending the introduction of peanut proteins to babies as young as six months old.
Given Edesia’s expertise in manufacturing Plumpy’Nut, Salem and her team got to work. “There wasn’t a baby-friendly peanut butter product available at the time the recommendations were changed,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lange. A pediatrician for 25 years and past president of the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Lange was one of the experts Salem consulted on the development of her new product, called Little Nut.
Little Nut, now available on Amazon and at Dave’s Marketplace stores, is a nut-butter blend that comes in several flavors and is specifically made for children from six months to 5 years old.
While Lange never received compensation for her advisory role, she does regularly recommend Little Nut, along with other baby-friendly peanut products, to her patients’ parents.
“Edesia very smartly saw that niche. So, with their creative and science-nutritional team, made a peanut-based product that is less sticky so that the younger baby’s tongue can tolerate it without the risk of choking,” Lange says.
“I very much believe in creating foods that have a purpose,” says Salem. In the case of Little Nut, the impact goes beyond helping prevent peanut allergies in the United States. That’s because 100 percent of the proceeds from sales are invested directly into Edesia, so that the company can donate lifesaving Plumpy’Nut to places where UNICEF and USAID aren’t helping.
Little Nut is just the beginning. Salem and her R&D team are working on even more products that could benefit different groups in this country and abroad.
“[Navyn] is a quiet force who sees needs wherever she goes,” says Lange. “She very respectfully absorbs those needs and quickly figures out how to make things better for people. She’s an amazing advocate for the people of this world and the people of this state, within her own company.”
Innovating. Finding solutions. Rising to the challenge. This Ocean State CEO is making waves that can be felt across the globe … and right here at home.
For more information about Edesia, visit edesianutrition.org.
For more information on Little Nut, visit littlenutworld.com
— Patricia Andreu, a freelance journalist living in Providence, writes Women in Action, a periodic column. Reach her at WomenInActionRI@outlook.com.