Workers package a fortified peanut paste as part of an Abbott-Partners in Health initiave to stem malnutrition in Haiti. (Photo courtesy of Abbott Fund and William Vazquez) 

For a child suffering from severe malnutrition, eating a fortified peanut paste can tilt the odds toward survival. In Haiti, where numbers of poorly nourished children have spiked since the 2010 earthquake, quantities of this lifesaving potion are about to increase dramatically through a nonprofit-corporate initiative that also will help fill a hunger for local jobs.

Partners in Health (PIH) co-founder Paul Farmer says his organization’s partnership with Abbott Laboratories, the global health care and medical research company, to build a production facility is an opportunity to “help the people of Haiti build back better.” At the new plant in Corporant, local workers will produce a therapeutic food called Nourimanba, using peanuts grown by regional farmers.

PIH health workers began distributing Nourimanba several years ago, borrowing the idea from similar efforts to combat childhood malnutrition in Africa. The packaged paste, which PIH gives away free, allows children to recover from malnutrition at home rather than in the hospital. Dr. Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer for PIH, says this “peanut butter with some stuff in it” has revolutionized the treatment of childhood malnutrition. The United Nations and UNICEF have offered similar endorsements for ready-to-use therapeutic foods, known as RUTF.

What’s new with this initiative, says Jonathan Lascher, PIH operations manager for Haiti, is both the expanded scale of local production and the emphasis on quality control. Before the partnership, Nourimanba production in Haiti relied heavily on hand labor. The new $3 million facility will dramatically increase efficiency and output. Ramping up production means PIH can treat more of Haiti’s malnourished children. That’s one-third of the country’s population under age 5. Abbott’s involvement in the project enables “the highest standards for quality and safety,” Lascher adds. Haitians hired for new factory jobs will undergo training to meet these exacting standards.

Developing the facility, which represents a $6.5 million commitment from Abbott and the philanthropic Abbott Fund, “is a true partnership,” Lascher says. Native Haitians and Abbott experts have worked side by side to design a plant that will withstand rugged conditions, meet local needs for economic development and sustainability, and yield a high-quality therapeutic product.

The project represents “a departure from traditional philanthropy,” says Kathy Pickus, vice president of global citizenship and policy for Abbott. “This is an investment rather than charity.” Abbott began looking for opportunities to help in Haiti before the earthquake. The disaster sharpened the corporate philanthropic focus on two goals: improving nutrition and encouraging economic sustainability.

Rather than donating products or shipping goods in from the outside, “we wanted to work in the country to spark the economy,” Pickus says. Partnering with the well-regarded PIH “gives us a chance to leverage what they are doing and make it more efficient.” A nutrition expert from Abbott, for instance, traveled to Haiti to analyze and improve the formula for Nourimanba. Abbott scientists made recommendations to improve testing for aflatoxin, a peanut fungus that can sicken vulnerable children. Abbott also has worked with PIH to develop income-generating strategies to make this effort sustainable in the long run. The same facility that produces Nourimanba for free distribution could eventually be used to make peanut butter for sale, generating new revenue to reinvest in the operation and growing the market for peanut farmers.

In a separate effort, PIH is preparing to open a 320-bed teaching hospital in the central plateau city of Mirebalais that will serve patients from across Haiti. Hospital staff will likely identify even more cases of childhood malnutrition. Once the new food production facility goes on line in 2012, there should be an ample supply of Nourimanba to meet this anticipated need. “We’re creating a product that saves lives and creates livelihoods,” Lascher adds. “That’s exciting.”

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