Bühler, Cargill, General Mills in Africa assistance effort
Companies unite to build a better food supply chain in Africa.

MINNEAPOLIS — Five leading American and European companies with expertise in different areas of food production have lent 70,000 hours of their employees’ time since 2008 on projects to build a better food supply chain in Africa. Plans are afoot to double over the next five years both the number of corporations involved and the countries where they share their expertise.

General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis; Cargill, Minneapolis; Bühler Holding AG, Uzwil, Switzerland; Royal DSM, Heerlen, The Netherlands; and, most recently, The Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., are investing in “intellectual philanthropy,” where a highly trained corporate volunteer is paired with a small and growing company serving the food industry in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and, as of late 2015, Ghana, with plans to expand to Cote D’Ivoire this summer.

The initiative is called Partners in Food Solutions (P.F.S.), based in Minneapolis and linked both to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and TechnoServe, a non-profit headquartered in Washington, with staff in Africa who find opportunities that fit P.F.S.’s mission.

“The need to feed the continent is really what we’re interested in — and to feed the continent with local resources,” Jeff Dykstra, chief executive officer of P.F.S., told Milling & Baking News. The focus isn’t so much on directly helping the farmer. Instead, P.F.S. volunteers work with African businesses that process and sell what the farmer produces. This work looks to build a better market and more accessible nutrition to a growing number of consumers, both those who represent the growing middle class and those still dealing with poverty.

Participating companies have been involved in a range of food production activities, with improved grain milling one emphasis among many.

“We’ve worked with millers in every country we’ve done work in,” Mr. Dykstra said. “They may be milling corn and soy, they may be milling wheat, but that means they are buying raw materials and turning them into value-added goods.”

Each corporate partner has its own emphasis, with General Mills taking the lead on blended flours, Cargill on vegetable oils, Royal DSM on fortification of staple feeds, Bühler on process engineering and Hershey on a combination of food processing, production and distribution.

Because of the success of the P.F.S. model, the consortium’s goals during the next five years are to help 2,000 Africa-based food processors who purchase agricultural products from more than one million local smallholder farms. A key requirement for an American or European company joining the P.F.S. team: being able to provide 100 employees who volunteer about two hours a week for a company total of 10,000 hours a year, said Mr. Dykstra.

“It’s less the size of the company as it is the ability to give the hours,” Mr. Dykstra said.

The rewards of joining P.F.S., he added, are more than burnishing a company’s image. Corporate participants don’t need to have long-term business relationships in Africa, just an interest in helping reduce food insecurity on the continent in an innovative way.

“Some companies have been doing business in Africa for many, many years while others are at the front end of that,” Mr. Dykstra said. “But with all the companies, it’s when, not if, they will be involved in business on the continent of Africa.”

The result of the P.F.S. initiative to pair first-world experts with small African companies is a healthier value chain from farm to end user that helps build the infrastructure for agriculture in Africa, a continent that will play a growing role in feeding the world, especially in view of a world population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050, Mr. Dykstra said.

In order to meet that challenge, “every part of the world is going to need to be fully contributing to the food value chain,” he said. “And right now Africa is one of the few places in the world that is tremendously underleveraged in what its actual capacity is. We are creating that enabling environment that shows farmers that, if they plant more and have greater yields, there is actually a market for that.”

P.F.S. volunteers help companies in Africa on a range of business applications, including better product safety, packaging, nutrition, cost-savings or improving shelf life of goods, to name a few examples. One of P.F.S.’s success stories in 2015 was equipping an Ethiopian flour miller to sell nutritionally fortified flour, the first time a local company was ever able to do so. Another win for P.F.S. volunteers was offering business advice to the Ethiopian baby-food manufacturer, Faffa Food Share Co., which earned a visit from President Barack Obama when he visited Ethiopia in July 2015.

Project Peanut Butter in Malawi, an initiative to package peanut butter in a way that brings nutritious food to seriously malnourished children, is another food-based initiative where P.F.S. contributed expertise from skilled volunteers.

René Steiner, president and chief executive officer of Bühler North America, one of the five companies currently aligned with P.F.S., already has seen benefits from being part of the work under way by the non-profit.

“Africa is a continent of great opportunity but desperate poverty,” he said. “Bühler has been installing mills and food processing lines in Africa for generations and continues to make investments in Africa.

“P.F.S. is also a way to invest in the future of Africa. Bühler supports the development of sustainable food value chains, providing safe and nutritious food, which in turn brings employment and equitable economic growth. We offer our employees the opportunity to engage in the program and efficiently utilize their skills to support this goal.”

Bühler operates a milling school in Nairobi, Kenya, where local grain millers receive high-quality training in their profession.

In selecting new companies to become a part of P.F.S. “we’re likely to continue to look at bigger companies that bring the food processing and milling expertise that our clients need,” Mr. Dykstra said.

“All our companies right now are complementary to one another, but we could actually bring on competitors because we are operating in a pre-commercial space,” he added.

The emphasis on the middle of the food value chain reflects the rationale that a lot of effort has been focused on improving agricultural outcomes for the smallholder farmers who are the backbone of food production in most of Africa. What those producers now need is a better market for their raw materials that focuses on using locally sourced supplies and selling their products in the region where they are produced, Mr. Dykstra said.

By improving food that has undergone processing of some kind and needs to be sold in Africa, benefits don’t just accrue to the impoverished. The rising middle class also reaps the benefits of better and more available nutritional options, he noted.

“Some companies are making food that literally is being provided to the food aid market or the school aid feeding program, but that same company is selling peanut butter to local markets that someone who is called middle class is purchasing,” Mr. Dykstra said. “But the way we tie it all together is that the peanuts are being grown locally, they are being processed locally and that creates jobs, and they are being sold locally. The benefits come to rich, poor and everything in between in terms of helping improve local food-processing.”

What also has become obvious since the start of P.F.S. eight years ago are improved job skills for the cadre of corporate volunteers involved in reaching out and offering their expertise to growing companies.

“We started out with the goal of truly trying to improve food security and nutrition,” Mr. Dykstra said, “but we also found out that for our participants there are a lot of beneficial byproducts. The biggest one is the human capital development of their own people.”

He said chief executives of the participating companies were gratified to see volunteers gain skills in such areas as cross-cultural awareness, virtual team effectiveness and dealing with ambiguity on the way to a solution. Comfort with those challenges “can make your day job a whole lot easier,” Mr. Dykstra said, something that leaders in the corporations working with P.F.S. acknowledge.

He added that a volunteer program with the gravitas of P.F.S. also makes recruiting quality employees an easier prospect.

“If you interview millennials, you see the desire to use their core skills to make a difference in the world is higher than in any previous generation,” Mr. Dykstra said.

He said P.F.S. offers a chance to volunteer while working in a professional environment.

P.F.S., based in Minneapolis, accepts funding from corporate and private donors, with opportunities to contribute 100% tax-deductible gifts to the organization on its web site. Funds from public and private donors allow P.F.S. to continue to take advantage of opportunities to build businesses in Africa by linking them to information, capital and markets.

“We look at USAID as a soft partner for us,” Mr. Dykstra said.

He said USAID wanted a way to fortify wheat flour in Ethiopia and to see increased production there.

“We’re not going to know that sitting in Minnesota,” he added. “Technoserve also has a line of sight on what’s really happening on the ground. USAID has helped us scale up as rapidly as we have.”

The current annual budget of P.F.S. is slightly less than $2 million, with additional investment of between $2 million and $3 million a year from USAID, for a total of about $5 million annually. Going forward, the plan is for P.F.S. headquarters staff and operations to stay lean and to keep its overhead to a low 15% of total revenues, allowing most expenditures to be made in the field.

With the recent addition of Ghana as a country where P.F.S. plans to operate with the help of volunteers from The Hershey Co., the organization has made the jump to West Africa. This summer, P.F.S. plans to start working with companies in Cote D’Ivoire, also in West Africa. Both countries are top producers of cocoa beans, a source of raw materials for the Hershey Co. for decades, but the confectionery giant hopes to be able to utilize its P.F.S. volunteers in a broad range of food-based businesses, helping improve both nutrition and the food infrastructure in the region.

The move into Cote D’Ivoire means P.F.S. volunteers will have to communicate with their clients in a language other than English.

“Cote D’Ivoire is our first Francophone African country,” Mr. Dykstra said. “We’ll have a bilingual local staff person, and they will translate between French and English. We’ll also do our best to draw upon French speakers, of which we have many among our corporate partners.

“This will be a little bit of a challenge but not something we can’t overcome.”