Navyn Salem didn't have experience in building factories or food distribution when she started a non-profit, Edesia, and created the first U.S. factory to produce a life-saving packet called Plumpy'Nut, a therapeutic peanut butter paste used to feed starving children around the world.
But she had the memories of seeing children dying from hunger on a trip to her father's birthplace of Tanzania — and the belief she could do something to help.
"There is no way you can forget what you’ve seen," she told NBC's Cynthia McFadden on TODAY. Although she had three children under age 5 at the time, she said, "This couldn’t wait. ...I need to be there now because we have children’s lives at risk."
Salem has spent the past dozen years improving the lives of millions of children under 5 with acute malnutrition around the world.
Salem is founder and CEO of a non-profit enterprise called Edesia that manufactures Plumpy’Nut, which is given around the globe to underfed children.
Salem, now a mother of four, told McFadden on TODAY and said she had “no experience at all” when she decided to create the factory to package and ship Plumpy’Nut.
"You had no qualifications to do what you ended up doing?" McFadden questioned. "You had drive and passion?"
"Well," Salem replied, "and I was a mom."
Salem explained that each of the boxes filled with Plumpy'Nut “represents basically breakfast, lunch and dinner for two months.” For a child suffering from acute malnutrition, that box can be life-saving.
“That takes a child from not being able to walk or hold up their own head — it gives them the energy to smile, to laugh and be kids.”
Plumpy’Nut is packed with calories and vitamins to restore the health of children under 5. The special thing about it is that unlike milk or formula, it doesn't need to be mixed with clean water or refrigerated, which makes it much easier to deliver to children in places where such luxuries don't exist.
After first hearing about the invention on a news report and learning that there wasn't enough, Salem reached out to Plumpy’Nut’s French investors.
She recalled, “After they hung up on me a couple of times, I ended up flying to Paris and introducing myself in person and right then and there, we decided that we were going to be partners. And we've been partners ever since.”
Now Edesia, which was named after the Roman goddess of food, works with the United Nations' World Food Programme, the USDA, UNICEF and many others.
“I truly believe that we can end hunger and malnutrition,” said Salem.
Edesia employs 110 people, many of them refugees originating from 25 different countries.
Hiring refugees is “smart for business,” Salem said. "So many have lived on that side of depending on aid.”
“So of course we’re going to feel that urgency because we’ve lived it,” she continued. “ And we don’t miss deadlines, we just can’t.”
Andrew Kamara, who works in Edesia's Providence, Rhode Island, factory and is in charge of logistics, was born and raised in Sierra Leone.
“I always approach my job as a mission to save lives,” Kamara told McFadden. “When there’s a shipment going out to Sierra Leone, if I have a chance to catch it before it leaves the door, I would send it with a message saying, ‘It’s your brother from the other side.’”
While on site at the factory, McFadden witnessed the ticker on the wall hit a major milestone: 15 million boxes of Plumpy'Nut produced.
Salem said the number represents “15 million people who have the power to go to school, to be educated, who knows what they’ll be able to do in their lives.”