MINNEAPOLIS — Sifting through strategies to make tangible progress toward a food-secure Africa, General Mills, Inc. opted to try intellectual philanthropy, harnessing private-sector power to connect food industry experts with promising African entrepreneurs to improve the continent’s food value chain.
Ten years later, that concept thrives as Partners in Food Solutions (P.F.S.), an independent nonprofit in which 946 active volunteers from six of the world’s largest food companies share their expertise on a range of food production activities with small-but-growing African client companies. In that time, more than 94,000 consulting and training hours — mostly conducted remotely from around the world — have supported 1,559 small food companies and 1 million smallholder farmers from nine African countries.
“The partnership represents what the food industry can do in a very tangible way to make a positive impact in food security, nutrition and development, even from 8,000 miles away,” said Jeff Dykstra, co-founder and chief executive officer of P.F.S. “It’s a testament to our six corporate partners and their commitment to open up their collective 700 years of know-how and be willing to share that in a meaningful way with companies that look a lot like they did a little ways back.”
The genesis of the partnership was a conclave between former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and then-c.e.o. of General Mills Kendall J. Powell during the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. General Mills initially considered a direct focus on African farmers. But a small group studying the complete food value chain across the continent identified local food processors as the sector with the most to gain from the specialized knowledge of one of the world’s foremost food companies.
With General Mills' blessing, volunteer employees worked remotely on specific projects arising from problems or questions posed by African client companies. The program forged a relationship with the nonprofit TechnoServe to help facilitate the transfer of knowledge on the ground in Africa. Linking with the U.S. International Development Agency lent funding, support and African aid expertise that allowed the program to scale up rapidly.
It proved popular among employees — 40% of volunteers have served four years or more — and beneficial for recruiting.
“It truly epitomizes something that is an amazing experience for the employee getting to use their core skills, knowledge, education to make a very tangible, meaningful difference,” Mr. Dykstra said. “And for our client companies across Africa, that information and expertise is often hugely significant for their businesses where they either don’t have access to some of that expertise or can’t afford it, or both. It’s a rare thing when both ends of an exchange get the best end of that deal.”
After three years, the internal volunteer program was spun out as the nonprofit Partners in Food Solutions and two new corporate partners joined the consortium: Cargill, Minneapolis, and Royal DSM, Heerlen, The Netherlands. In 2013, Bühler Holding AG, Uzwil, Switzerland, came aboard. A planned expansion to West Africa received a big boost when The Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., joined in 2015. Two years later, Ardent Mills, Denver, signed on, bringing additional volunteer employees with expertise in milling and processing. Partner companies view the work in Africa as pre-competitive or transcending competition for those fully engaged commercially across Africa, Mr. Dykstra said.
“The kind of expertise that we’re sharing is basic in most cases, and it’s with companies that are considerably smaller than any of our six corporate partners,” he said. “The work that we’re doing is all about trying to build up the middle of the food value chain, working with these small mills and processors to really try to help them become an engine of demand for crops of what are mostly still smallholder farmers, and to then be an engine of supply to local consumers.”
A longtime collaboration with COMACO — Community Markets for Conservation — has been a boon to the people, animals and environment on the continent. P.F.S. helped the fledgling African food company get off the ground and scale up its goal of presenting farmers with stable markets to trade crops. The company now buys crops at premium prices and manufactures value-added products such as Yummy Soy, a Zambian breakfast cereal created with P.F.S. That market stability increased farmer income, helping wildlife populations rebound as poaching declined. Instruction in sustainable farming has slowed the rate of deforestation.
Establishing markets for African farmers remains a goal, Mr. Dykstra said.
A farmer without a market is a gardener, the axiom goes, “and unfortunately, there are still too many gardeners across the continent that don’t have a reliable market for their crops,” he said. “We’re increasing the net demand for those food products. Downstream from us, whether it’s a food-aid consumer whose food is being bought by a world food program and distributed, or a middle-class businessperson in Nairobi, we’re helping supply more locally-grown and processed food to that individual as well.”
As it moves into its second decade, P.F.S. will put into play strategies that took shape in 2018 thanks to pro-bono work from management consultant Bain & Company, Boston. Bain helped the consortium dissect lessons learned during the first 10 years to pave the way forward. One such lesson was that a small percentage of African client companies drove the greatest impact, whether measured by number of farmer-suppliers or amount of food produced.
“We were able to get a much clearer definition of what that high-potential company looks like,” Mr. Dykstra said. “As we move into this next season, we have a better sense of the kind of companies we’re looking for, and we want to go from about 40 high-potential clients to more than 150 over the next couple of years.”
That’s part of the partnership’s long-term goal to help feed a growing global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.
“Africa still imports something close to $40 billion of food every year,” Mr. Dykstra said, “and ultimately, we need Africa to be a net exporter of food, not a net importer. We see the role of Partners in Food Solutions as helping build out that value chain to meet the demands we’ll face.”