For every box, a life restored
As a supplier of key ingredients for its life-saving products, Cargill helps Edesia treat and prevent malnutrition around the world
By Lori Fligge May 03, 2017
Above: Edesia's Rhode Island headquarters include a mini replica of a typical village clinic, where familis go to receive treatment. Founder and CEO Navyn Salem explained that just one box of their product, containing 150 sachets, can restore a child to health in six to eight weeks.
Photos by Steve Woit
Spend just a few minutes with Navyn Salem, the dynamic founder and CEO of Edesia Nutrition, and you’ll find yourself spellbound by her energy and passion for the vital work her company does – treating and preventing malnutrition to save millions of lives each year.
Edesia, named after the mythological Roman goddess of food, is a non-profit social enterprise that produces ready-to-use therapeutic and supplementary foods that reach malnourished children in more than 48 countries – and it’s a Cargill customer like no other.
From its modern, 83,000-square-foot factory in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, the company produces millions of 92-gram “miracle packets” of food each year – a peanut-based paste blend of simple ingredients, vitamins and minerals that’s delivered by humanitarian aid workers to people in desperate need in some of the hardest-to-reach and most inhospitable places in the world.
This is food that can take a severely malnourished child from the brink of death to restored health in a matter of weeks. Food that has saved nearly 5 million young lives since Edesia began production in 2010.
Cargill has been there each step of the way as a supplier of millions of pounds of soy flour and oil, two critical ingredients in Edesia’s Plumpy’Nut® ready-to-use therapeutic food and Plumpy’Sup™ ready-to-use supplementary food.
As Salem leads a tour of Edesia’s facility, she points out a sign an employee created to highlight production metrics. “You see, we don’t measure output in cases per day, but kids per day,” she said, explaining that every day Edesia makes 4,000 boxes, each containing 150 sachets of Plumpy product. “One box represents the life of one child. Over the course of six to eight weeks, one box can transform a child from skin and bones to health.”
The Plumpy products are revolutionary for a variety of reasons, said Salem, who notes that in rural areas of developing countries, it’s not uncommon for parents to self-diagnose their sick children and thus not seek proper treatment, with sometimes devastating results.
“The convenient sealed sachets require no water or refrigeration, making them ideal and extremely adaptable for emergency situations or community-based nutrition and health programs throughout the world,” she said. “In addition, it’s a treatment that parents can administer themselves, so moms who may have been feeling ashamed because their child is unwell can take the product home, feed it to the child, and feel that they are part of the solution.”
Edesia’s walls are lined with dozens of large, stunning photos of children Salem and her colleagues have met during visits to places in crisis. Each child is heartwrenchingly beautiful, with eyes that tell stories of both hardship and hope.
One such child is Sanaica, from Haiti. After her mother died, she got very sick, and her father, not knowing how to care for her, sought help at a community health clinic. She was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition – listless, wan and with each tiny rib protruding starkly through her chest.
After seven weeks of Plumpy’Nut therapy and the knowledge her father received from community health workers, Sanaica was sturdy, bright-eyed and restored to health.
Edesia also makes products for pregnant and lactating mothers, people living with HIV/AIDS, and other people in urgent need of nutritional support.
“We have the same mission, Edesia and Cargill, the same collective goal of nourishing the world,” said Salem, who founded Edesia after seeing the devastating effects of malnutrition in her father’s home country of Tanzania.
With a background in marketing and business, Salem smiles when you ask how she came to create and run Edesia.
“I had no experience in either nutrition or manufacturing,” she said. “In 2007, Anderson Cooper of ‘60 Minutes’ did a story in Niger about how Plumpy’Nut, developed and launched by the French company Nutriset, was saving lives. I was so moved by what I saw, I decided to devote all my time and energy to expanding the distribution and reach of these ready-to-use foods.”
With the courage, determination and tenacity that are her signatures among those who know her, Salem secured an agreement with Nutriset, put together a plan, raised capital and in 2009 founded Edesia, the first and only manufacturer of Plumpy’Nut in the United States.
That same year, Cargill’s John Garner, a senior account manager in the food and bioindustrial ingredients business, saw a story about Edesia on television. “It was such a moving segment that I reached out to them hoping that Cargill could help in their efforts of sourcing ingredients for their products and ultimately nourishing children in need,” he said. Cargill has been supplying Edesia with soy flour and oil ever since.
It’s not a philanthropic partnership: Edesia is a paying customer. However, Cargill does its best to keep costs down for the organization through process efficiencies and continually seeks ways to help Edesia innovate and grow.
An “emergency” business
Pristine and gleaming, Edesia’s production area not only features high-tech equipment – including a new giant robot nicknamed T-Rex that swiftly packs boxes and stacks them on pallets – but also a myriad of flags representing the 21 home countries of Edesia’s 70 employees – hailing from Africa to Asia, South America to Syria, and many places in between.
Andrew Kamara, who oversees Edesia’s distribution logistics and supply chain, came from a refugee camp in Ghana, where he’d fled to escape a bloody civil war in his home of Sierra Leone. Kamara is one of many Edesia employees who have witnessed or experienced first-hand the devastating consequences of severe malnutrition. In fact, several of Edesia’s employees are former refugees.
Kamara explains that Cargill has been a critical partner in handling a number of humanitarian crisis situations.
“We had just received our first bid since we started production in 2010, and our first major response was to the Haiti earthquake in January of that year,” he said. “We started off with basically zero raw material in stock – and the urgency to respond to the dire situation in Haiti was overwhelming. I called John, and he and the Cargill team responded swiftly and were instrumental in helping us build our stock levels in time to act on the crisis. Thanks to Cargill, Edesia was one of the first suppliers on the ground in Haiti with help. We couldn’t have done this without Cargill.”
Garner is deeply honored to have this strong relationship with Kamara and the Edesia team. “In all my years, I’ve never felt such a true sense of partnership as I do with the wonderful people at Edesia. From top to bottom, they are the most appreciative, kind and engaged team I have ever been around,” he said.
That said, Garner acknowledges that meeting Edesia’s needs can be challenging. Edesia’s products are made-to-order for humanitarian aid agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Food Programme and UNICEF, and the company doesn’t have a big warehouse full of finished product just waiting for a customer’s call. And when a crisis strikes, it can find itself needing tons of Cargill ingredients on very short notice.
“Knowing the nature of Edesia’s business helps our team understand their forecasts can change dramatically,” said Garner. “We recognize that wide fluctuations may occur because Edesia can’t predict every crisis or tragedy that’s going to strike.”
Garner adds that Edesia appreciates that what they’re asking for isn’t always easy for Cargill to execute.
“Time after time, Cargill jumped in,” said Salem, referring to a series of emergency situations that followed the Haiti earthquake. “Every day, we are working in an emergency business, depending on suppliers to go along with us on this journey.”
Shortly after Haiti, there was a flood crisis in Pakistan. At the time, two of Edesia’s other ingredients, cocoa and maltodextrin, were scarce. “I again reached out to John and the Cargill team in desperation to assist us with a spot buy,” said Kamara. “The first thing John said was, ‘We’ll make it happen.’ It was a strong collaborative effort, and we were able to make all of our deliveries on time.”
Kamara notes that on more than one occasion, Garner and his team have worked through the night to find creative solutions to ensure Edesia had the supplies to keep its production lines running. “Cargill has stood with us and ensured we met all our raw material needs through every humanitarian crisis we’ve responded to since 2010,” he said.
Salem points out that innovation is the future of Edesia, citing the company’s new in-house innovation center, a pilot-scale production line specifically designed to test new ideas and bring them to life.
“This is where the cool new stuff will come from,” she said, pointing out the new, smaller-sized equipment that will soon be put to use developing new product formulations.
“The main focus of the innovation center will be on what we can do at home here in the U.S., feeding the hungry with the right nutrition,” said Salem. “For example, can we create products geared for at-risk children or the elderly? And what does Cargill have that we could use to develop new ideas or solve other problems?”
Salem is open to ideas of all kinds. “The team teases me for being the crazy idea lady,” she laughs. “And sure, we hit roadblocks all the time. But anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
“To see Edesia continually grow as a Cargill customer isn’t about the bottom line, but about the fact that each incremental case of product that rolls off their production line means another child will live,” said Garner. “It’s a privilege and joy to contribute to their success.”
To learn more about Edesia’s life-saving work, visit edesianutrition.org.
Godfreid Birikumana is no stranger to malnutrition. The shift supervisor at Edesia survived it himself growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he spent his childhood in a refugee camp. His parents had fled there from war-torn Burundi in 1972. From DR Congo, he fled again to Tanzania in 1996.
“You flee because of war or problems in your beloved country, you leave all your belongings behind. I saw kids who were dying, but I didn’t understand. I saw too many kids pass away,” said Birikumana, his eyes full of sorrow at the memory.
In 2008, the U.S. government granted exile to some who’d fled Burundi in 1972. Birikumana was fortunate—that year he came to the U.S. with his wife and two sons to start a new life. His mother and sisters are still at the camp.
The lifestyle change was dramatic and difficult. Birikumana arrived in Rhode Island speaking no English and without job skills. He found a physically taxing job in Providence, but after having surgery, was unable to do that work anymore.
That’s where Edesia came in. Birikumana met founder and CEO Navyn Salem and began work in packaging on January 29, 2010. The event is so special to him he recalls the exact date.
Seven years and several promotions later, he couldn’t be happier with his work.
“The job I’m doing helps those kids. I know how they are, because myself, I’ve been there,” he said, echoing the sentiment of the many other Edesia employees who also are former refugees.
Birikumana considers the Edesia team as family, filled with what he describes as “amazing people.” And as Edesia has grown, so has Birikumana’s own household, which, he says with a smile, has increased by two daughters since he left Tanzania.