BENTONVILLE When Bret Raymond looks at his youngest child, Luke, he knows how lucky he is to have a healthy toddler.
He has seen firsthand how helpless parents in Rwanda watch their children suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
According to UNICEF, roughly half of children under 5 in the African country are chronically malnourished. Worldwide, the humanitarian organization estimates, 200 million children in the same age group have chronic malnutrition, which contributes to a third of all early-childhood deaths.
The contrast between Raymond’s active, almost 30-pound 20-month-old boy and the severely malnourished children in Africa is stark.
“I could find a kid his exact age and he’ll weigh 7 to 8 pounds,”Raymond said.
The Bentonville resident believes hope lies in MANA, or Mother Administered Nutritive Aid - a ready-to-use therapeutic food made of vitamin-and-mineral-fortified peanut butter. MANA is also the name of an organization co-founded by Raymond and Mark Moore. Their goal is to help eradicate malnutrition in Africa, with the immediate goal of reducing malnutrition by 50 percent by 2015.
Raymond and his family are moving to Rwanda later this year to oversee production of the food product.
“The world has said this is a right - the right to be free of malnutrition,” Raymond said, alluding to the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition adopted by the World Food Conference in1974. The declaration states, in part, “Every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition.”
“What can be more fundamental than nourishment?” Raymond said.
In the Bible, God miraculously provided manna (sometimes spelled mana) to feed the Israelites each day as they wandered through the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.
The modern mana, developed by Dr. Mark Manary and French nutritionist Andre Briend, is the treatment of choice of many humanitarian organizations. The foil-packaged spread is distributed by UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups, but the supply doesn’t meet the increasing demand. That’s where Raymond thinks MANA can help - by increasing production of the product and reducing the cost so morechildren can be helped.
Moore and Raymond met while they were students at Harding University in Searcy in the late 1980s. Both ended up living in Uganda for a few years and participating in mission work. They both saw the effects of malnutrition while there, but the problem seemed too huge to tackle.
In the years since, Moore was again confronted with the issue of malnutrition while working as an Africa specialist in Washington for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. The catalyst for MANA came about 18 months ago when a fellow Harding alumnus, Mike Runion, talked with Mooreabout ready-to-use therapeutic food, and the topic of malnutrition came up again.
“This opportunity or idea sort of fell in my lap and I kept thinking, ‘Should I do this? Should I drop the other stuff and chase this idea?’” Moore said.
A father of four, Moore said the thought of his children suffering from malnutrition spurred him into action. His youngest is 4 and falls within the age group most affected in Rwanda.
“How terrible, how horrific would it be if she came and said, ‘Daddy, I am hungry’ and I could not help,” Moore said. “And what if I watched her, day by day, grow thinner and thinner, knowing that she was not growing. ... How hardwould that be?”
Even though he had no source of funding, Moore began researching and eventually met with a team from UNICEF and told them about his dream of starting a company to produce the food as cheaply as possible. Profitswould be used to help communities in Africa produce their own therapeutic food, as well.
To get started, Moore knew he needed someone with experience in the business world. That led him back to his friend from Harding. Moore and Raymond drew up a business plan and have been working on the project for the past year, meeting with UNICEF and other aid groups to assess their needs. They also toured peanut butter plants and packaging facilities, collaborated with business leaders and started raising money.
In addition, they found out that others in Arkansas were planning a similar project after reading about Grace Point Church’s efforts in Mali. The Bentonville-based Southern Baptist congregation is planning to produce Plumpy’nut, a ready-to-use therapeutic food, in the African country. Pastor Mike McDaniel said he hopes to start production by late summer or early fall.He said the two groups have been in conversation and might work together in the future.
The MANA plan calls for two production facilities, one in the United States, one in Africa. The U.S. plant is planned for Georgia, where peanuts are serious business. Moore said the American operation will be a “surge” facility that can respond quickly to disasters and emergencies around the world. The plant will provide wide-scale production of the product. The African plant will be in Rwanda and it will play an important role in the organization.
This isn’t a case of Americans rushing in to save the day, Moore said. MANA will work in partnership with African nations so they can increase their self-sufficiency.
“At the end of the day, if the solution comes from America in shiny packages, then that’s not a real solution. That’s more aid and more dependence and all the things that we are trying to get away from,” Moore said. “What we need are African production facilities that employ Africans and buy peanuts from local farmers. That’s a better solution because it helps employ people and helps local governments solve their own issues.”
As for the Rwanda connection, the country recently committed to stepping up efforts to fight malnutrition.Raymond said the Rwandan Ministry of Health surveyed the country’s children under 5 and evaluated their levels of malnutrition. They discovered about 1.5 percent or more than 30,000 have severe acute malnutrition.
“Think about it. That’s theentire population of Bentonville,” Raymond said.
The Ministry of Health has put together an emergency plan to address the issue, which includes the use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods in treating children with severe acute malnutrition. The country, however, doesn’t have a local production plant and must import the product. Having a plant in the country would save money and reduce the cost of treatment, Raymond said.
MANA’s goal is a long-term commitment to Rwanda.
“This is not a one-year project. It’s not a three-year project. It’s a multi-decade investment in a country ... to show that we can make a difference in a country, to actually turn back the tide of malnutrition,” Raymond said.
Because the Rwanda facility will be such an integral part of the MANA organization, the Raymond family - Bret, Johnna and their children, Isaac, Anna and Luke - will move there later this year to oversee the operation. While Bret and Johnna have lived in other countries, the children have lived only in the United States. The family will live in the capital city of Kigali.
“We wondered, how would the kids respond to this?” Raymond said.
So far, they seem excited. Seven-year-old Isaac madestrawberry muffins to sell to neighbors to raise money for a goat for a village in Africa, and 4-year-old Anna recently gave her father 22 cents from her piggy bank for MANA.
“We want to feed the hungry children,” she said.
For now Moore and Raymond are raising money. They estimate the cost for both facilities will be about $4 million. An anonymous Arkansas donor has committed $250,000 to the Rwanda portion of the project. Moore said they are seeking donations, large and small. The two men hope to have the money to get the facilities up and running this year and they envision serving more than 1 million children over the next three years.
“That children are dying because of malnutrition, because of lack of food, the injustice of it is almost too much to bear,” Raymond said. “We could throw up our hands and say, ‘Man, that’s horrible,’ or we could say, “There is hope.’ ... God speaks hope today in the midst of this horrible situation.”
That hope comes in the form of peanut butter and milk.
“It’s what we all grew up with - the great after-school snack,” Raymond said. “And it can change the course of their lives.”
Information is available at mananutrition.org.