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Devil take the hindmost? Haiti peanut battle puts NGOs head to head

Left: Patricia Wolff, founder and executive director of Meds and Food for Kids. (Photo: MFK.) Right: Paul Farmer, founder and executive director of Partners in Health. (Photo: <a href="">Nyaya Health, Flickr</a>.)
Left: Patricia Wolff, founder and executive director of Meds and Food for Kids. (Photo: MFK.) Right: Paul Farmer, founder and executive director of Partners in Health. (Photo: Nyaya Health, Flickr.)

When antipoverty nonprofits compete, it's not always clear who will lose more: the one whose business is threatened, or the people both nonprofits set out to serve.

Meds and Food for Kids (MFK) and Partners in Health (PIH) are two organizations in the business of producing a nutrient-enriched peanut butter. Their goal: to end hunger and malnourishment in Haiti, while supporting local farmers and creating desperately needed jobs.

The problem: both organizations are opening similar factories in Haiti to increase their respective production of this nutritional peanut butter. MFK, much smaller than PIH, is crying foul—claiming that this competition will simply put them out of business and ultimately be a disservice to Haitians.

“There's not enough local peanuts, and not enough need for this product in Haiti, to have two factories that hope to be sustainable into the future," said Patricia Wolff, founder of MFK, to National Public Radio.

PIH, however, claims it’s not stepping on anybody's toes and its factory will encourage more farmers to grow processable peanuts. “When the center opens, farmers around the area are going to know that this center is a beacon of economic opportunity," said Jonathan Lascher, the project manager for PIH. "They can bring their peanuts, and we'll purchase them." Additionally, as NPR reports, PIH doesn’t plan on selling to any of MFK’s buyers: UNICEF and the WFP.

So, what does it mean when two NGOs, making similar products, compete to produce a social good? Does PIH have a chance to create a commercially viable peanut product where MFK has failed?

Here’s the breakdown of the two organizations:

Meds and Food for Kids (MFK):

  • Founded in 2003 by pediatrician Patricia Wolff.
  • With 8 staff members, its primary effort is to produce “Medika Mamba,” a nutritional peanut butter, for malnourished Haitian children. MFK started production of the supplement in a rented kitchen and it has quickly expanded.
  • MFK raised $3 million, $700,000 of which is a loan, to build its factory.
  • MFK sells directly to UNICEF and the WFP, which distribute the product to schools and hospitals.
  • In 2010, MFK became a member of Nutriset's PlumpyField Network.
  • The factory is located near its headquarters in the northern region of Haiti in Cap-Haitien.

Partners in Health (PIH):

  • Founded 1987 by public health advocate and physician Paul Farmer.
  • In Haiti, PIH employs 5,400 Haitians and approximately 100 international physicians, nurses and public health specialists in order to combat AIDs, cholera and water sanitation. PIH started producing its peanut butter product in 2006 after approaching MFK for its recipe.
  • PIH received a $6 million grant from Abbott Laboratories to build a production factory for “nourimanba,” its nutritional peanut butter product.
  • It plans to use extra space in the factory to produce commercial peanut butter, which it will sell to local markets.
  • It will locate its factory in Corporant, Haiti’s central Plateau, near the hospital it constructed in 2005.

The end goal of both organizations is to end hunger and treat the malnourished in Haiti. Whatever happens in Haiti, the question again: Are hungry kids better served by NGOs that compete for funding to find solutions? Or by organizations that cooperate and respect each other’s boundaries?

Could a peanut paste called Plumpy'nut end malnutrition?, New York Times, Sept. 2010

Big pharma helps export Haiti's hunger-busting peanut butter, Global Envision

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

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