Ending malnutrition with fortified food products that parents love

Laureate
Gisela Sánchez
Venture
Nutrivida
Program
McNulty Prize
Location
Costa Rica

This is part of a series of leadership case studies featuring McNulty Prize Laureates.


There was a long line snaking towards the table where Gisela Sánchez and her team were distributing Nutrivida products at a neighborhood promotional event. The people were poor, and the food was welcome. But what really made Gisela smile was the behavior of the children. “The kids kept cheating. Every time they got to the front, they went back and joined the line again because they found the food so delicious!”


This was a vindication of one of the principles that drives Gisela: if the end-user is treated with respect in all your research and all your thinking, your work is going to hit the spot

Gisela is no stranger to poor communities: she grew up with poverty and she knows its priorities: “The most important thing is to have food on your table,” she says. But beyond the need to fill the bellies of the family, is the battle for adequate nutrition. She tells the story of her own mother being proud of having fed her baby with condensed milk diluted with water, because it tasted so good. Here, a caring mother with the best of intentions but a lack of basic nutritional knowledge, lovingly filling her baby’s tummy with what is effectively sugar water.

When Gisela started thinking about her Fellowship venture as part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, she knew almost immediately what she wanted to do: “I thought about what I deeply care about. It is children, and giving them a good start. The best thing I can do with my life, in addition to looking after my own children, is to also look after other children.” It was an area in which Gisela was well-placed to make an impact. As an executive with Fifco, a food company known for its sustainability practices and high credibility, Gisela had excellent networks to draw on for intelligence, insight and practical support; and as a trained engineer, she has a strong foundation in manufacturing.

Gisela is an industrial engineer and a graduate of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

She is an executive at the Florida Ice & Farm Co.

For two years, Gisela persuaded Professor Muhammed Yunus, who had fought malnutrition in Bangladesh by designing a fortified yogurt, to join her in founding Nutrivida.

In 2013, Nutrivida was launched as a joint venture between herself, Professor Yunus, and FIFCo, with a range of products from cereals to powdered drinks aimed at low-income families.

From a mere 2000 units in its first month, Nutrivida now sells 350,000 items a month.

Nutrivida is using the tools of the market to get good food to every single table. We want to eradicate under-nutrition in the region.

— Gisela Sánchez

It took Gisela just two years to go from the idea for her venture to action. Those years were intense. Gisela had already thought about nutritionally fortifying food products when she came across Professor Muhammed Yunus’ work along similar lines – micronutrient-fortified yogurt – in Bangladesh: “I looked at what he did right and what he could do better with his social businesses and learned from both.” Her research took in endless hours of background reading and benchmarking. She determined that what very poor people supplement their staple rice-and-beans diet with when possible, is dehydrated soup, and cool drink mixes. That refined her thinking in product line terms. There were hours of meetings and collaborative work with other NGOs, government health officials, food manufacturers, marketers and nutritionists. There were failed prototypes and resource challenges and closed doors. And then there was the slow climb of refinement of the successful prototypes, for quality, taste and nutrition.  

In 2013, through sheer determination, hard work and smart footwork, Nutrivida was founded as a joint venture between Fifco and Professor Yunus, with seed capital from Fifco and Gisela herself. In the first month, a disappointing 2,000 units were sold. But with persistence, sales grew exponentially. Today, monthly sales are 350,000 units, and Gisela is able to talk confidently about her expansion plans to other territories in the region.

2.5 Million
Meals sold by Nutrivida
35+
Partnerships Nutrivida has with NGOs, companies, and government actors in Costa Rica & abroad.
Almost 30%
Of Costa Rican children are below the average height for their age.

Nutrivida is a case study in the kind of systems thinking that social entrepreneurship demands. The distribution network of community saleswomen, for instance, is designed to deliver social benefits beyond affordable enhanced-nutrition foods. Along with the products, this now 520-women-strong workforce raises educational levels in their communities by dispensing nutritional information to their customers; and along with the independence that their new income delivers, the women of this sales team, most of whom have severely limited options, gain the unquantifiable value of self-esteem.

Moving from the start-up phase through the mid-project phase to the maturity Nutrivida now exhibits had its own set of leadership challenges. “There are many skills I need now that I don’t have; I have to rely on others,” Gisela says. Always collaborative, Gisela has entrenched a network around Nutrivida of more than 35 NGOs, government institutions and companies; and she has involved many of her peer Fellows of the Central Americanl Fellows: “A lot of other people have joined me – not giving money, but giving their skills pro bono.”

She has now also appointed a general manager.

How is that working for her?

“I find it difficult to let go!” she laughs. “I said to my GM: ‘I’m giving you Nutrivida as a stepmother.’ It’s super-difficult to detach: I can’t. I can’t! it’s not a project, it’s my life.”

But the realities of Nutrivida’s success and pending expansion mean she is preparing to let go more. “I think I can. I can be more of a sounding board,” she muses. Gisela also lives the philosophy that good leaders are those who surround themselves with people who know more than they do; she has great confidence in her team.

It’s not a project, it’s my call. I’m an engineer, and my day job is in the food industry. I have the know-how, the context, the network, the strategic allies to help Nutrivida — it’s a sweet spot.

— Gisela Sánchez

Gisela defined leadership in just these terms: “Leadership is dream high, as high as you can imagine,” she said. “Work hard… and try to invite and energize as many people as possible. It will be nice to do it yourself, but much better if you can enlighten other people to join you and create a greater impact.”

There are, of course, some things Gisela would do differently, if she knew at the beginning what she knows now: “In the beginning, I misunderstood the competition – I thought people would be supportive of a social business. But Nutrivida was designed to be appealing on the supermarket shelves, and so other manufacturers were intensely competitive, to the extent that they undermined us by removing products from shelves. Also, we didn’t have a budget for a marketing campaign, and that cost us a lot.”

Equally, there are things that have gone right, of course. For instance, other manufacturers have bought into the idea of fortified products, exponentially increasing the impact of Gisela’s work.

And Gisela has a good relationship with her learning curve: “I’ve been learning what I don’t know, and finding out how to plug these gaps.” Also, that most fundamental of networks – her own children – has been brought along on the journey, and is supportive of the time she needs to take away from them. Their understanding of the greater good is an inspiration in itself to Gisela.

She knows that her mission – to eradicate under-nutrition and significantly reduce malnutrition in the region – is bold. But in the face of hunger, she sees it as the only ethical path. “Not one child should suffer,” she insists. As long as infants and children are hungry, or are deprived of the nutrition necessary to give them a fair start in life, Gisela and Nutrivida have urgent work to do.

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