When we think of hero’s, most often our minds first conjure up larger than life figures, either from fictional characters initially in books or in later times splashed across movie and television screens. Then we may remember real life hero’s, such as people who have distinguished themselves in war or disaster, either as individuals “in the trenches” or as leaders, followed by every day public safety hero’s, such as police or fire personnel. Some of us will then remember the teachers, medical researchers and scientists or personal mentors who they recognize as hero’s.
Through this list we recognize that there are various kinds of heroism, some on an epic level, some demonstrated under great stress and danger, some with great fanfare, some manifest through diligence, quiet dedication and perseverance whether through adversity, or simply without recognition or assistance. These latter acts of heroism made quietly, quite often with humility, but not without a great understanding that we are all human beings, striving to survive and even thrive and grow on a planet that is not always conducive to human life in a vast, seeming cold universe.
Steven Kwon is one of our hero’s of the latter type.
Kwon was born and raised in war torn Korea where he witnessed starvation first hand, later he migrated to the United States and became a naturalized American citizen, and also earned a doctorate in food biochemistry. Kwon won 13 patents during a career at Nestle Foods where he developed infant formula and liquid meals for hospital patients and other people who cannot eat solid food.
Kwon became very aware of Afghanistani women and children’s high mortality rate due to malnutrition when asked by a friend to vist the country in 2003. He spent his evenings and weekends working in a “lab” in his garage at home and developed a soy protein powder that could be used as a nutritional supplement, then traveled to Afghanistan with 500 pounds of the powder that he compounded from donated food materials from Nestle venders. Afghani children were enlisted as taste testers and they preferred the vanila drink made from soy protein over a similar drink made from milk products. This gave Kwon an idea, and that was to enlist Afghani farmers in raising soy beans, and Kwon was off on a mission.
Embraced by the Afghanistan government, but with no funding available from either the government of Afghanistan or the United States, Kwon organized Nutrition & Education International (NEI), a 501 (c) 3, non-governmental organization (NGO) and began raising money and conducting training in Afghanistan and convinced members of a society who’s agricultural economy was based upon opium poppies, to grow soy beans, which were previsouly unknown in Afghanistan, and much less lucrative than the drug trade. During the past two years Kwon has got 4,400 Afghan farmers to plant soy beans in 15 of the country’s 34 provinces which has resuted in a harvest of 2,000 tons of soy beans, with his NGO providing the farmers with the seeds, fertilizer and training, and guaranteeing to purchase the entire harvest. His organization, NEI, has not had to buy back much of the resulting crops, the Afghanis have adopted the soy protein in to their diets, developing various recipes, and have acquired a taste for soy flour based naan over the traditional wheat based, with the soy based product providing considerably more nutrition.
Kwon retired from Nestle earlier this year, and has a small office in Pasdena and staff of three helping him operate NEI and according to an article by Wlliam Lobdell in the Los Angeles Times:
Last year the group established four small soy-milk processing facilities in provinces with the highest infant mortality rates. But for the project to succeed nationwide, soy-processing plants would need to be built throughout Afghanistan.
Nutrition & Education International is looking to team with private companies in Afghanistan or establish partnerships with larger nonprofits.
In the meantime, Kwon shuttles between Pasadena and Kabul (he recently left for his 16th trip there), doing whatever one man can do to create a soybean industry in Afghanistan.
Kwon said his motivation is simple: “If we’re unsuccessful, people will starve.”
A humble, low key, individual dedicating a large part of his life to insuring other people in another part of the world have a better chance at life. Steven Kwon exemplifies the hero’s of another kind that are among us every day.
Crossposted at: Sirens Chronicles.