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Starters-Setting the Table in Africa-June 2011

Starters-Setting the Table in Africa-June 2011

In a new initiative from General Mills and Cargill, philanthropy is market building and vice versa.

Partners in Food Solutions, the nonprofit recently spun off by General Mills, helped Malawian food processors improve the nutrient value of their product and double its shelf life from six months to a year—just by putting them in touch this spring with General Mills scientists who could advise them on the benefits of cooking the food longer. 

The implications are “massive,” says Jeff Dykstra,
executive director of Partners in Food Solutions (PFS). He means less food wasted, more people fed, and simplified logistics for the World Food Program, which buys food from the Malawians. 

But the implications of the new nonprofit could be massive in other ways, both for Africa—where Dykstra says food aid is a familiar story, but the “real story” is a growing market for retail food—and for the companies taking part in PFS. So far, those are locally based General Mills and Cargill, and a Dutch company, DSM. 

They’re volunteering their expertise to improve the operations of small and midsize food processors in Africa, 15 processors so far. The five-year goal is to assist 200 companies. PFS will help them solve problems in sourcing ingredients, formulating recipes, food safety, and packaging. Technoserve, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that applies “business solutions to poverty,” serves as a partner on the ground in Africa and the link between food companies there and volunteer teams in Minnesota.

PFS “creates a win across the entire value chain,” from farmer to consumer, says Dykstra, an alumnus of Cargill and the relief organization World Vision. A grain processor in Tanzania quintupled the daily output of his mill with PFS’s help. Successes like that can boost demand for local crops, create new jobs at processing companies, and bring more affordable food to the marketplace. 

Economic development of that kind eventually could benefit the companies involved in PFS. Business growth for them is nowhere on the nonprofit’s agenda, but Africa’s agriculture and food sector is seen as one of the next great opportunities in global business. In a paper published in April, researchers for global management consultancy McKinsey & Company estimate that food production worldwide will need to increase by 70 percent over the next 40 years. Africa, with 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated but arable land, has to overcome infrastructure deficits before it can grow a food industry on those acres. But once it does, Africa will be a huge market for everything from fertilizer to packaging technologies. Meanwhile, PFS helps food processors expand their operations within Africa’s existing infrastructure.

Partners in Food Solutions had its inception in 2007, when General Mills employees volunteered to package ready-to-cook meals for Feed My Starving Children, a Twin Cities nonprofit that would ship the food to Malawi. “We started to think, ‘Well, what if instead of packaging meals, we taught people how to make their own meals, at a manufacturing level?” says Peter Erickson, General Mills’ senior vice president for innovation, technology, and quality.

Dykstra says there’s growing awareness that business development can be a force for social change. In that sense, he adds, “we think big businesses, even if they’re not yet looking at these areas as markets, still have a role to play.”