QUARTIER-MORIN, Haiti — Medika mamba — Creole for “peanut butter medicine” and known internationally as Plumpy’Nut — is a lipid nutritional supplement developed in Haiti and internationally renowned for its effectiveness.
The supplement is made from peanuts, powdered milk, sugar, oil and a fortifying cocktail of additional vitamins and minerals. Medika mamba is classified as a Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) and is designed to treat acute malnutrition in children six months of age and older.
One single-serving packet of medika mamba contains 500 calories. A box of 150 packets costs between $50-$70 and can completely treat childhood malnutrition in a period of six to 12 weeks. The packets have a shelf life of 24 months and are easy to use, requiring no refrigeration, water, heating or supervision from medical professionals.
So why is medika mamba at risk of disappearing from Haiti, the country where the supplement had its start and where it has already saved hundreds of children from malnutrition?
A proper explanation requires some background. Haitian history is contentious, rife with imperialism, power struggles and drawn-out fights for independence. Dictatorship and violent U.S. intervention have been the norm for more than a century. Widespread poverty has been the consequence of this turmoil, helped along by frequent hurricanes that ravage infrastructure and further cripple fragile economic bases.
And poverty contributes directly to malnourishment. In Haiti, 22 percent of children suffer from chronic malnourishment, and one in three of these cases is acute. As such, the nation has been a recipient of foreign aid for decades. This aid comes largely in the form of food aid, some of which is purchased locally and the rest shipped in from other nations.
Dr. Patricia Wolff, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University, visited Haiti in 1989 as an aid worker and was inspired to pursue sweeping food and medical reform for the sake of the nation’s starving children. She founded Meds & Food for Kids, or MFK, in 2004, a Haitian company that now buys from and employs locals in order to produce the nutritional supplement that came to be known as medika mamba.
In 2012, with a loan of $732,000, Wolff opened a factory in northern Haiti to produce medika mamba for national and international consumption. The MFK factory employs 42 Haitian workers and enlists the services of hundreds of local peanut farmers. Additionally, the MFK has provided instruction in peanut farming practices to almost a thousand other peanut farmers, directly improving their livelihoods and increasing the prosperity of the region.
But there is trouble on the horizon for MFK and its peanut super-fuel. In December 2013, Wolff was contacted by the World Food Programme, one of the world’s most powerful aid organizations and a major customer of MFK. The WFP informed Wolff that they would not be purchasing medika mamba for the next four years and would instead be supplying U.S.-grown food aid to Haiti at no cost.
The food aid the WFP referred to was a reserve of food aid left over from a relatively peaceful hurricane season. The organization decided to transfer the unused food to a different program — a standard practice, according to a WFP official—but they did so without considering the ramifications of the change.
Because medika mamba is produced by Haitians and for Haitians, the exchange of MFK’s product for free American food aid threatens the island nation’s economic livelihood. Wolff knows that the pipelining of foreign food aid into Haiti will have a “market-distorting” effect, feeding the nation but doing more harm than good for Haitians in the long-term.
Unemployment is a major problem in Haiti. An estimated 40 percent of Haiti’s potential workforce is unemployed, and the infusion of food aid from other countries only exacerbates this problem, stealing jobs from such people as MFK’s employees and regional farmers.
The local production and purchase of medika mamba has benefited the country, and if the company were allowed to grow, it would help Haiti to become more self-sufficient and rely less on foreign aid. Not only that, but MFK has aspirations to sell their product on international markets, to conscious consumers and aid providers in other nations.
If MFK can secure regular buyers such as the WFP and other aid organizations in Haiti, it has the potential to generate a local and sustainable market. The company currently buys 50 tons of peanuts from local farmers. If their output were to rise to 550 tons of product, then the organization could operate without any assistance from aid groups and would be a veritable titan of food aid in the Caribbean.
The WFP has agreed to purchase medika mamba locally for one year, says Wolff, but whether or not this deal can continue into the future remains uncertain. The WFP seems loathe to sit on its supplies of undelivered food aid, and understandably so.
Yet, while the WFP’s intentions are good, their desire to deliver U.S. food to Haitians for free severely miscalculates the country’s needs. If they rush forward with their plan, the WFP risks upsetting what delicate economic gains MFK has produced. In the end, they may place a greater burden of poverty upon Haiti than they take away.
– Patricia Mackey