Headshot of Nora Joseph
Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   Haiti

Nora Joseph

Nora is addressing food security in Haiti through women-run micro-franchises. By professionalizing women street food vendors and linking them to local producers through an integrated supply chain,…
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This description of Nora Joseph's work was prepared when Nora Joseph was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


Nora is addressing food security in Haiti through women-run micro-franchises. By professionalizing women street food vendors and linking them to local producers through an integrated supply chain, they improve their livelihood while also becoming a critical node to democratize access to nutritious food.

The New Idea

Nora is working to make visible and catalyze women entrepreneurs as a force for social impact. Women street vendors, known as Madan Sara, have historically played a critical role in distributing food and other products to underserved communities in Haiti. It is estimated that half of the population rely on them for daily meals. Recognizing this power, Nora is strengthening their work to help increase access to healthy, safe, and sustainable food while also creating better economic opportunities along the whole value chain.

At the core of Nora’s strategy are the Saradi, a play on the words “Madan Sara” and “RADIKAL,” Nora’s organization. Saradi are women in situations of poverty, often heads of household, whose main livelihood is selling retail goods on the streets of rural and peri-urban areas. By becoming RADIKAL franchisees, these women can turn their informal sales into a thriving micro-enterprise that provides them with a reliable income. They can access quality local products at affordable prices and increase their sales thanks to ongoing training and ongoing.

Nora departs from traditional micro-retailing models in two ways. Firstly, her priority is ensuring women’s livelihoods and wellbeing rather than simply tapping into their social capital to sell specific consumer products or services. This means that training for Saradi is not limited to basic business acumen like other similar initiatives; instead, they participate in regular up-skilling workshops in an evolving range of topics such as food safety and clean cooking. They have access to medical support, and they are linked with public services like insurance that were previously out of reach as informal workers. Also, RADIKAL’s network functions as a safety net: after the 2021 earthquake, the network was mobilized to swiftly get emergency relief into the hands of affected women.

Secondly, Nora’s impact goes beyond the Saradi by building a farm-to-fork ecosystem that integrates street vendors with small farmers and women-led cooperatives. Whereas micro-retailing models tend to focus on one side of the equation—production or distribution—Nora seeks to embed fair and sustainable practices at each stage of the value chain and connect micro-entrepreneurs with each other to increase resilience. RADIKAL buys organic produce and raw materials from small farmers and then engages cooperatives to process and package products like oils and spices and to pre-cook meals. These quality products are later distributed to the network of Saradi. Instead of having to go to the market every day and buy imported goods at predatory retail prices, Saradi have an on-demand affordable supply of local products that are more nutritious, sustainable, and safe. Sourcing locally also stimulates agriculture, countering decades of neglect and linking rural and urban communities.

Thousands of people rely on street vendors for food every day, so improving conditions and practices from production to last-mile delivery ultimately benefits the general public at large. By sourcing healthy, locally-produced food, and prioritizing food safety, hygiene, and sustainable practices in food stalls, Saradi directly impact public health. Engaging street food vendors can therefore be a powerful lever to scale impact into the most hard-to-reach communities.

The Problem

Hunger around the world is on the rise. The number of people affected has more than doubled in the past three years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet and nearly a million are living in famine conditions. Overlapping threats including the pandemic, climate crisis, environmental degradation, and recently the war in Ukraine have disrupted supply chains and triggered surging food, fertilizer and energy prices.

Haiti is among the most affected countries. According to the World Food Program, 4.7 million people—nearly half of the population—are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity, of which 1.8 million are in emergency conditions. A fundamental cause is the country’s dependence on imports, which leaves it vulnerable to fluctuations in global prices. Decades of neglect have left the agricultural sector unable to meet consumption needs. In fact, 51% of the food consumed in the country is imported compared to 18% in 1981, leading to an import bill that rises above $1 billion dollars annually. Although natural disasters are partly to blame, insufficient access to financing, technologies, training and limited infrastructure make it difficult for the sector to become more resilient. Meanwhile, the promotion of imports through dramatic tariff cuts since the mid-1990s has meant that farmers in Haiti are unable to compete with cheap, subsidized, imported food. The political crisis and rising gang violence have exacerbated these issues.

Against this backdrop, nearly 50% of Haitians (especially in low-income communities) have come to rely on street vendors, who are mostly women, as a more affordable way to access food. Eating street food saves on the cost of fuel and water as well as time needed to cook. The latter factor has become more important as urbanization increases activity outside the home, reducing the number of household members available to buy and prepare food. Also, without reliable access to electricity, people cannot store food safely. Street food vendors help people overcome these problems by eliminating the need for storage and labor and pooling the costs of products, fuel, and water. They also fill the gap when formal food distribution networks are interrupted by deficient transport infrastructure, fuel shortages and road blockades by protestors and gangs—issues that have become the new normal in Haiti amid political upheaval. Madan Sara are therefore on the frontlines of food security in Haiti. Indeed, USAID estimates that they are responsible for up to 90 percent of the local trade in Haiti.

Despite their importance, Madan Sara remain in a cycle of poverty. One of the main drivers of poverty among street vendors is their lack of access to training and schooling. In fact, they turn to this work because it requires low investment and education. Few know how to manage their finances and often depend on male relatives, who use this leverage to control their money. They also lack business skills needed to run a sustainable micro-enterprise and have no access to structural nor financial support. Without financial stability to buy wholesale, Madan Sara buy their inputs at retail prices and sell at a loss because their clients cannot afford to pay more, driving sellers into debt. On top of these business challenges, Madan Sara face gender-based violence and discrimination. They are spat upon and insulted by clients and passers-by as a routine part of the work. They also are slapped, punched and mocked in public spaces, and regularly experience sexual abuse. These risks can interfere with their ability to continue working.

Madan Sara’s poverty and lack of training has a knock-on effect on public health. A key issue is the unsanitary conditions under which they operate. Researchers from Ghent University found that in 60% of the cases, flies and animals were evident around the stall and 65% did not have access to potable water. The majority served food with bare hands and did not wash their hands after handling money. This lack of adherence to basic hygiene standards, combined with low awareness of food-borne diseases, can lead to serious health hazards for consumers. Furthermore, the imported retail products that street vendors depend on are often hazardous due to poor regulation. Haiti does not currently have food safety laws. Finally, street vendors typically use unhealthy charcoal stoves and Styrofoam containers, which also contributes to pollution and deforestation.

The Strategy

RADIKAL’s process starts with local farmers. Historically, Madan Sara mostly sold produce from their own or their community’s farms and were a fundamental distribution channel for domestic agriculture, helping to connect rural populations with urban markets. However, this relationship has been broken by competition from cheaper imports. RADIKAL sources produce from smallholder farmers through partner organizations, creating a win-win situation where farmers who have received capacity-building can find a stable market for their produce while women vendors gain access to fresher, more nutritious food at wholesale prices.

Crops are then brought to processing facilities run by cooperatives where at least 90% of members are women. To reduce environmental impact, RADIKAL has introduced renewable energy in these spaces and installed bio-digester systems, which circle back waste as fertilizer for farmers. The products are then brought to a central kitchen to prepare and package food using biodegradable packaging made from agricultural waste.

In the last stage, Nora has assembled a distribution network of women street vendors called Saradi. These women participate in an 18-month training program that includes food sanitation and hygiene, business management, and other skills. Workshops are implemented through NGO partners with specific expertise, such as World Central Kitchen and the Clean Cooking Alliance. After the first two months of the program, they can invest in a RADIKAL food cart and start selling, with the option of participating in a mutual savings program to help finance the cost. These carts are equipped with clean cooking stoves and other upgrades that would have been difficult to finance otherwise. After they graduate, Saradi continue to access financing, business and marketing support, and further training opportunities. RADIKAL also works with municipal governments to ensure that network members have access to state insurance programs, state financing tools, and secure work areas, although this support has been destabilized by political turmoil.

As an example of what the full process looks like, to produce peanut oil RADIKAL sources organic peanuts from farmers and then a women’s cooperative processes them into oil. The oil is packaged and stored by RADIKAL and ordered on an as-needed basis by Saradi to use for cooking or to sell directly. By comparison, some imported cooking oils sold by Madan Sara have been reported to be recycled oils purchased from international fast-food restaurants, which can be highly toxic.

RADIKAL’s network currently includes more than 2,500 women vendors in 45 towns, mainly in the south of the country. They each pay a monthly franchise fee that is reinvested into the program. Even with this added cost and the initial investment on their food cart, women vendor’s revenue increases by 50% on average, and their micro-franchise has a 75% success rate compared to less than 20% as an informal business. Thanks to this higher income and their enhanced financial savvy, women build greater economic independence and resilience. They can save or invest in things like health and education for themselves and their families. Many women visit an OB-GYN for the first time through RADIKAL’s network of doctors, and others started sending their children to school. Given that over 40% of households in Haiti are headed by women, improving their livelihoods can uplift entire communities.

The impact on Saradi’s individual capacity and financial wellbeing ripples far beyond their household. By investing in them, RADIKAL seeks to strengthen their role in building food security. Each Saradi reaches at least 50 regular clients and serves nearly 400 meals, collectively impacting over 125,000 people who rely on them entirely for their daily nourishment. By joining RADIKAL, they can help more people access healthy meals affordably. Their food is also safer to eat, thanks to training in food safety, and hygiene and the replacement of coal with clean cooking stoves. Furthermore, the high mobility of Madan Sara allows RADIKAL to channel resources to communities that humanitarian organizations find difficult to access. Their importance continues to grow as the political and economic crises deepen.

Nora has had to remail agile to consolidate and grow RADIKAL in a deeply uncertain context, navigating situations such as gang control on Haiti’s main roads that cut off supplies and country-wide shutdowns that force vendors to stay home. Yet pooling these risks facing Madan Sara is precisely why RADIKAL is so necessary: organizing as a network makes it possible to redirect resources efficiently and to obtain economies of scale to implement adaptive solutions. For example, after being without gas for three months, RADIKAL leveraged their partnership with Clean Cooking Alliance to switch vendor from gas to ethanol stoves that enabled them to maintain their livelihood.

In the long term, the food value chains that Nora has built through RADIKAL can become self-sustaining as farmers, cooperatives, and street vendors become better connected and build wealth. The ultimate goal is to cut dependence on international aid and predatory imports. Additionally, once the political situation is stabilized Nora plans to mobilize the network of women to advocate for institutionalized training and support and protection of their rights as workers. She hopes that, over time, the network will create collective power to influence policy.

The pervasiveness of street food worldwide means that the model can be readily adapted and replicated. Globally, an estimated 2.5 billion people consume street food each day; in Latin America street food accounts for up to 30% of urban household purchases. Aware of this potential, Nora has identified the Haitian diaspora as a potential lever to scale internationally in the next three years. She plans to engage Haitians spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America to establish franchise networks that offer migrants employment opportunities.

The Person

Nora’s journey as an entrepreneur has been shaped by her experiences growing up in Haiti and migrating to the United States with her family in her early teenage years. Early on, she was determined to create her own project that could contribute to positive change in her native country, especially to support women. At 20 years old she worked as an intern at the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York to gain a deeper understanding of the Haitian context and learn where she could have the biggest impact. In her travels between Haiti and the U.S., Nora became aware of the difficulties that many Haitians face in purchasing quality consumer goods and wanted to help address this issue.

The final straw happened when an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. In the aftermath of the disaster, family members started reaching out to Nora about the desperate situation. She was especially struck by a relative with whom she had been close to growing up in Haiti: despite being a trained nurse, she had been unemployed for months and was in dire need of support. Nora understood that other women shared her situation, being able and willing to work and yet with no real opportunities to earn a livelihood. This realization motivated her to focus on building a model that could broaden access to locally made, sustainable products while also creating economic opportunities for women.

In 2015 Nora took the jump and moved back to Haiti to launch RADIKAL. This decision cost her the support of her family and partner, so she became a single mother of two young children. RADIKAL’s first iteration was a Mary Kay-inspired model to create the market for natural personal care products made from local materials like cacao. However, when COVID-19 hit, Nora repurposed her network of small farmers and Saradi to deliver critical food aid. The dramatic impact achieved in this period motivated her to evolve this model from emergency response to a long-term strategy for food security and economic empowerment. Mounting political, economic, and social crises have hampered growth, but slowly and steadily Nora continues to creatively adapt and evolve her strategy. Thanks to her work, between 2020-2022 Nora has been awarded fellowships by Vital Voices, SOCAP, Opportunity Collaboration, and Bridge for Billions.