Kühne Logistics University graduate Jennifer Esterle (MSc Logistics, Class of 2012) was on the ground working for a local non-profit organization, Meds & Food for Kids (MFK) when hurricane Sandy hit Haiti in 2012 and brought extreme rain devastating the homes of thousands of families. This is her story, the story of building supply chains in some of the most challenging environments in the world while empowering local people to improve their livelihoods.
MFK manufacturers specialized ready-to-use foods for malnourished children in Haiti, distributing their products locally, and even exports them for distribution to West Africa. This year in August an earthquake caused more than 2,200 deaths. Jennifer Esterle’s vision for poor countries like Haiti is to enable personal and professional development locally through long term humanitarian development projects.
Jennifer, Haiti came to play a major role in your work and private life just after you graduated from Kühne Logistics University (KLU) in 2012. Please tell us about this country.
Jennifer Esterle: Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere making it a hot spot for humanitarian aid. Beyond that, the country has a lot of political instability. This creates a challenge when it comes to efficiently using money for humanitarian development and disaster responses in a responsible way.
I guess, this is known to many. But what I would like to highlight is the theme of resilience, which was really the underlying thread that was woven through my experience in Haiti.
What do you mean by resilience?
Jennifer Esterle: On a normal day in Haiti, life is hard and it is encapsulated by extremes: extreme weather (heat, rain, storms), extreme poverty (80% unemployment, very limited access to clean drinking water, limited access to and availability of schools), etc. Everyday life there is hard, and then there are disasters on top. Earthquakes (300,000 people dying in 2010, more than 2,200 deaths this summer), hurricanes, tropical storms, political violence.
But Haitians are resilient. They are adaptable and innovative in the face of disaster. In 2010, Meds & Food for Kids (MFK), began producing a peanut-based paste for the treatment of malnutrition in a small church long before the 2010 earthquake. They introduced a peanut-based paste to Haiti to feed children. Ingredients were sourced from local, smallholder farmers and processed locally.
In the wake of the earthquake (2012), they grew into a new factory and became an accredited producer of ready-to-use therapeutic foods for Unicef for all of Haiti. This is when I started to work for MFK as a Supply Chain Manager just after my studies at KLU. Shortly after, in 2014, MFK became Haiti’s largest food exporter, supplying products for the treatment of malnutrition to Latin America and West Africa. There has been much political strife, conflict, and many natural disasters since, but Haitians are still innovating and overcoming.
You have been working in the humanitarian aid for close to close to 10 years. What experience has influenced you the most along the way?
Jennifer Esterle: At MFK, we had about 100 staff members in the year 2015. I had the honor of watching them grow in their personal and professional lives through this project over a long period. This is what strongly influences my work in the humanitarian sector, which continues through my current position at Edesia Nutrition.
At MFK in Haiti, one of our staff members said he liked to work at the peanut butter factory because it was like a school. He learned to work in an extremely sterile environment in the factory and that washing your hands will help you to not be sick. And so, he said: “I taught my daughter this and she's not sick anymore.” This, to me, is a surprisingly easy example of how projects can not only deliver employment grows a nation economically, but more importantly, builds resilience among the people to improve their livelihoods.
Another example of this is that in 2013, MFK opened a new, state-of-the-art facility in a rural area outside of the city of Cap Haitien. Shortly after, people started to move there in anticipation that the factory would offer jobs. When I came back for a visit in 2018, I found a whole village built around the site. And now, this area is one of the most beautiful well-kept areas with a school and a health clinic. This showed me once again: long-term development projects do change people's lives and enable real economic development.
What exactly was your task when you began your work at Meds & Foods for Kids in Cap Haitien directly after your studies at KLU?
Jennifer Esterle: I was the one on the ground who was responsible for managing the factory in Cap Haitien, Haiti from 2012 to 2015. This included procurement of raw materials, management of production staff and peanut processing, and then distribution to our final customers. Very shortly, I was responsible for the supply chain management on the ground.
Production of ready-to-use foods seem to be a big success. What are you personally proud of?
Jennifer Esterle: When I left Haiti, I was really proud to see that there were so many Haitians who were well-equipped to continue the project; the organization now is 100% Haitian-run. Success without a successor is a failure.
Today, you are Director of Operations at Edesia Nutrition in the US …
Jennifer Esterle: Yes, in 2015, I transitioned to MFK’s U.S. based partner, Edesia Nutrition. At Edesia, we make the same ready-to-use foods and ship them to over 50 countries in the world. We work very closely with a network of eight producers/factories worldwide in the countries where our products are being distributed like MFK in Haiti, Sudan, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and others. We support in countries where local production capacity is not sufficient, and we supply to areas where local production is not available. In addition, we focus on advocacy and research and development of RUFs.
As part of this work, Edesia designed a new formulation of the product and worked with MFK in Haiti in order to determine the acceptability of the new formula among beneficiaries.
What’s your first memory from Haiti – a country that very much influenced your life?
Jennifer Esterle: I remember sitting at the airport and it was chaotic and so loud. I was watching people interact and wondered if they were fighting or laughing. I didn’t know if I was in danger or if I should be laughing. There is a very palpable tension there that can feel very unsafe. But with the people that I got to know there, I learned about the vibrant expression of people in Haiti.
You have been on the ground when hurricane Sandy hit Haiti?
Jennifer Esterle: I was there when the tropical hurricane Sandy arrived at Haiti in 2012. It started raining and then all of a sudden in the night, you heard this crash. I remember waking up and there were six inches of water in my house but we just went to work. And what we found out later in the day, was that there was a landslide on the hill behind our house because of all the water and deforestation. It was a weird surreal experience, where it was still raining and raining for days and everything was flooded. In that one little village about ten people died but no one seemed to notice. Out of desperation, the Haitians put the bodies of their loved ones on the street, covered in a sheet, in protest to say: “We need help here!” while it was still raining. Everything that they had was soaked and their houses were flooded. As a passerby, they asked me to take pictures of their deceased loved ones to honor their lives. It was honestly, the most horrific thing I've ever seen.
So, this was hurricane Sandy, but no one in Haiti even called it a hurricane. It was just a rain that happened. That was a very tragic and meaningful experience for me. But for them it didn't seem to be something extraordinary but part of their everyday Haitian life. People are used to rain flooding their cities, because there's mass deforestation in this country with many mountains and there are no trees on them anymore, because they have been cut down to make charcoal for cooking.
How did this meaningful experience affect your life?
Jennifer Esterle: I would say it gives me an obligation to do something to help. These people did not do anything wrong; they are doing the best they can to survive while these disasters keep happening. They just happen to have been born in a place with less resources than me.
As a Director of Operations at Edesia Nutrition, what are the big challenges?
Jennifer Esterle: It's an uphill battle trying to influence policy and decision making in the government. Even though helping the Haitians seems the right thing to do, it's actually really hard to convince people, because everyone has their own agenda. This is the case in the US and in Haiti where it’s rather challenging to overcome the bureaucracy of the government.
And what way have you found to meet that challenge?
Jennifer Esterle: In two words – extreme persistence. Take the MFK founder, Dr. Patricia Wolff. I really admire her. She dedicated at least 30+ years of her life to this project and its long-term success. In comparison, I was there for only three years. So there is no easy recipe but a lot of extreme persistence.
Which insight or advice would you like to share with today’s KLU students?
Jennifer Esterle: Do something that inspires you and know that you can make a difference and impact meaningful change. It takes time, but your extreme persistence will be worthwhile.
About Jennifer Esterle
Jennifer Esterle is now the Director of Operations at Edesia Nutrition, a U.S. based partner of Meds & Food for Kids (MFK) in Haiti. She is responsible for the strategic alignment of internal departments to maintain a supply chain that meets the critical and urgent needs of Unicef, World Food Programme, USAID, and other non-government agencies working on the ground to deliver critical, life-saving foods to the world’s most vulnerable children.
Jennifer Esterle – LinkedIn profile