In 1994, Navyn Salem visited Tanzania, the homeland of her father. She saw poverty, of course, but she was startled to learn its full breadth: several million African children would die that year as a result of malnutrition.
“I thought, this is both preventable and unacceptable,” Salem recalls. “I couldn’t understand why there was not an outrage that this was going on in the world.”
Then Salem learned of Plumpy’Nut, a nutrient-rich paste made mostly of peanuts, invented and patented by French company Nutriset. Each packet contains 500 calories of sustenance, along with fat, protein, and essential vitamins. Plumpy’Nut is designed to be distributed in famine-ravaged regions. Salem was inspired, and she decided to help produce the life-saving rations.
The result is Edesia, a Rhode Island-based company that manufactures Plumpy’Nut. The product is packaged in a nondescript building in North Kingstown; many locals are unaware that the plant is even there. But since 2009, Edesia has shipped its foodstuffs to seven million malnourished children in 51 countries. The company employs 70 workers, most of them refugees from impoverished and war-torn nations. Edesia has long partnered with the Dorcas resettlement agency, and today its workforce represents 20 nations.
On paper, Salem is an unlikely leader. She grew up in Connecticut, attended Boston College, and worked for two internet companies, including the future Monster.com. She lived for two years in London with her husband, Paul. They have four children, and Salem spent an additional seven years as a stay-at-home mother. Salem had no background in founding companies, and she’s good humored about her lack of experience.
Yet Edesia has grown exponentially: last month, the factory shipped 220,000 boxes of Plumpy’Nut, amounting to 136 truckloads of food. Each year, Edesia reaches two million children. Many of its shipments are crisis-specific, such as the Syrian exodus, the Pakistani floods of 2011, and last year’s droughts in Ethiopia.
“You can save a life for less than $50,” says Salem. “And not only save a life, but deliver the micronutrients that the brain needs for lifelong cognitive development. There is no better ROI on planet earth. I don’t understand how I could not do something about this problem. The opportunity for large-scale impact was incredible.”