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'The only sustainable way to improve poverty is to educate and employ': 8 questions for Patricia Wolff

A child squeezes the last bit of Medika Mamba ("Peanut Butter Medicine") out of its wrapper. Photo: <a href="">Meds and Food for Kids.</a>
A child squeezes the last bit of Medika Mamba ("Peanut Butter Medicine") out of its wrapper. Photo: Meds and Food for Kids.

Over 23 years volunteering in Haiti, Dr. Patricia Wolff has seen the hemisphere's poorest country at its most hopeful and in its deepest despair.

In 2003, looking for ways to fight malnutrition while creating good jobs for Haitian workers, she launched Meds and Food for Kids, a nonprofit factory that uses locally grown peanuts to manufacture a ready-to-eat product called Medika Mamba ("Peanut Butter Medicine") that is sold to aid organizations fighting to keep children well-fed while their bodies and brains develop.

Global Envision writer Margo Conner caught up with Wolff by email to talk about the PlumpyField Network for similar manufacturers around the world, the meaning of "social enterprise" and the future of market-based antipoverty work in Haiti.

Dr. Patricia Wolff, founder and executive director of MFK. Photo: <a href="">Meds and Food for Kids.</a>
Dr. Patricia Wolff, founder and executive director of MFK. Photo: Meds and Food for Kids.

Obviously Haiti is still recovering from its 2010 earthquake. But in your two decades there, have you noticed there are times when things are better or worse for the country?

Overall, there has been tremendous progress. There used to be NO overweight people, many shoeless people, many fewer children in school, few well-dressed people, few vehicles, no bank in Cap-Haitien, no beauty shop, no bakery.

What is involved in becoming certified with the Plumpy'nut Field Network?

Joining the PlumpyField Network does not require certification. It is a mutual decision by a food producer in a poor country and Nutriset in France to work together to develop a RUTF [ready-to-use therapeutic food] factory meeting international food safety standards which can be certified by MSF [Medecins Sans Frontiers], UNICEF or WFP. This company in a poor country then becomes a validated supplier to MSF, UNICEF, WFP and USAID.

Do you have plans to expand your reach to other countries?

We don't need to expand, because the PlumpyField is in 14 countries. We would be very pleased, though, to have UNICEF purchase Medika Mamba from Haiti to ship to other countries—employing more Haitians and using more Haitian peanuts.

Would you consider the factory in Haiti that produces your product a 'social enterprise'?

I think that the only sustainable way to improve poverty is to educate and employ. By [my] definition, social enterprises employ local people to do or make something with a societal good as the product. There are no profits. They are designed to pay salaries and overhead and plow all other resources into social programs. Social enterprises are run with business principles, business plans and tight control of finances. No fuzzy thinking allowed. As you can tell, I am a big supporter of social enterprises.

Can you share an example of how you have seen Medika Mamba help break the cycle of poverty?

Let me give you an example: H. works at our factory. The roof of his home leaked and he needed a new roof. Despite a good monthly salary, he could never get ahead. There were always emergency money needs for some member of the extended family. We set up a system where he would borrow money from an expat but that expat would be repaid by a portion of H.'s wages every month. The roof was repaired. The expat was repaid.

What kinds of other supplemental or nutritionally enhanced products do you hope to produce?

We are currently doing an efficacy and acceptability trial with Nutributter in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Cap-Haitien. The product is used as a prevention for malnutrition in children between 6-12 months of age, the most common age when malnutrition begins and the ages at which brain development is permanently negatively affected by malnutrition. Meds and Food for Kids does not yet have the packaging machine for Nutributter but hopes to acquire it in the next 12 months.

We also have a USDA grant to develop and study efficacy and acceptability for a school snack. The Ministry of Education of Haiti asked us to develop such a snack because so many children come to school hungry and, therefore, suboptimally learn. We will be doing the study next school year and producing the product the following year if the Ministry of Education approves.

Can you tell me more about the farmer cooperatives you work with?

We have educated over 1,000 farmers on techniques for avoiding mold contamination of peanuts. This mold coats the peanuts with aflatoxin, which causes immune and growth suppression in children and, over 30 years, liver cancer in adults. It is found all over the world except in high income countries like North America and Europe, where it has been controlled for 30 years. This is a serious public health problem which we have been working on with farmers for seven years; we would love to have help.

We can only buy peanuts which are low in aflatoxin for our therapeutic and preventive products. We work best with small groups of farmers who have organized themselves into cooperatives. We have successfully educated several of these co-ops in best practices for improving yields and improving quality. There are many more farmers whose incomes and yields could be improved if we had more funding for our agricultural programs in Haiti.

Have you noticed certain kinds of interventions by aid organizations that seem to have longer-lasting effects in Haiti?

I think we all have to go beyond rescue to training, employing and transferring knowledge so that Haitians can look forward to a future which does not require rescue. This takes a long time, persistence and continuity. The more continuity, the more impact. The more investment in people, the more impact.

Additional editing by Michael Andersen.

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