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Lee Benson
A display at Malawi's Pizza thank diners for helping serve 1 million meals to kids in Africa. “Zikomo" is "thankyou" in the African dialect of Chichewa.

PROVO — Several years ago, a Utah County multimillionaire named Blake Roney, co-founder of the network marketing giant Nu Skin, found himself traveling through Africa on a humanitarian tour.

When he visited the small nation of Malawi, a land-locked country of 18 million people shoehorned between Tanzania and Mozambique, he learned it ranked as the poorest country on Earth.

Wage earners there earned on average slightly less than a dollar a day — and those were the ones lucky enough to have a job.

Every night, a third of the country went to bed hungry.

The AIDS epidemic had rendered as many as a million kids under the age of 18 without one parent, and often without both.

Back home in Utah, the poverty and need in Malawi heavy on his mind, Roney picked up his phone and called Kent Andersen, a chef with whom he’d recently partnered in opening a popular Provo restaurant called La Jolla Groves.

“What would you think about opening another restaurant,” he asked Andersen, “and this time we’ll integrate a giving program into it?”

Roney’s idea was to donate one meal to a needy child in Malawi for every meal the new restaurant sold.

To that end, in the late fall of 2010, Roney and Andersen opened Malawi’s “Pizza With a Purpose” in The Shops at Riverwoods.

Last month, almost seven years to the day since they opened, they sold their millionth meal — and simultaneously gave away their millionth meal as well.

“I have to say, it’s a soul-satisfying business,” says Kent Andersen as he stands next to the pizza oven that has pumped out most of those million pizzas over the last seven years.

He doesn’t pretend it’s been easy. He’s a restaurateur, after all, and therefore a realist. Staying in business is never a sure thing. He knows do-gooders looking to end hunger and feed the world haven’t been what’s kept Malawi’s going for the past seven years.

“I think people come for the pizza,” he smiles, then quickly adds, “but I also know there are people who continue to dine with us because they can contribute something good in the world.”

“A million meals,” the chef marvels, “That’s a big number when you’re doing it one by one.”

They started counting on day one, he’ll tell you, and never lost track. The accounting has been meticulous: a meal in Provo (and later at Malawi’s franchises that have opened in Texas and Virginia) equals a meal in Malawi.

The meals in Malawi aren’t pizzas, by the way. Instead, they are prepackaged mixtures made of native-grown grain — purchased directly from Malawi farmers — that is milled and blended with maize, soy bean, millet and other nutrients. Add water, and the result is a porridge specially formulated for Malawi toddlers in the 2- to 10-year age range.

The effort has not gone unnoticed in Malawi. A couple of years ago, then-Malawi President Joyce Banda visited Malawi’s Pizza in Provo and expressed her country’s appreciation for the positive impact the meal-for-meal program was having on Malawi children.

On another occasion, King Kalonga Gawa Undi, leader of the Chewa Tribe, a dominant group in Malawi, also visited the restaurant and offered a heartfelt zikomo — “thank you” in the Chichewa dialect.

All the while, Malawi has climbed out of the cellar. The country no longer ranks as the poorest in the world. In the latest World Bank statistics from 2016, it now sits six places up from the bottom, having jumped ahead of neighboring Niger, Liberia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

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The website Global Finance stated, “The prize for ‘most improved’ country in 2016 goes to Malawi, where following a return to democratic government, average GDP per capita increased to $1,136 — an improvement of more than $300 compared to the prior year.”

The website’s report did not mention Malawi’s Pizza as a factor in the country’s economic upswing. And certainly no one is suggesting a little pizza restaurant 10,000 miles away in Utah has moved the poverty needle in Malawi all that far. But it has contributed a million meals, with more on the way. That counts. One by one, that counts.