This Nonprofit Helps Small African Businesses Fight Food Insecurity

Neil Parmar

Shortly after Ken Powell took over General Mills as CEO in 2007, he attended a panel on hunger at the World Economic Forum and ran into none other than Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations. Annan asked the executive what he was going to do to address food security issues in Africa now that Powell ran one of the largest food companies in the world.

There is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone on the planet, yet an estimated 815 million people were undernourished last year—up from 777 million in 2015, according to a report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. “One of the greatest challenges the world faces is how to ensure that a growing population—projected to rise to around 10 billion by 2050—has enough food to meet their nutritional needs,” warns the U.N.

Familiar with these challenges, and inspired by his exchange with Annan, Powell began developing Partners in Food Solutions, an internal General Mills initiative where employees volunteered an hour or two each week to share food manufacturing expertise with African farms or factories, often through videoconferencing or phone calls. Partners in Food Solutions has since spun off into an independent nonprofit that has six major corporate partners with employee volunteers sharing a combined 700 years of food industry expertise across nine African countries.

Partners in Food Solutions CEO Jeff Dykstra cofounded the organization with Powell when it was still a part of General Mills. Like Powell’s meeting with Annan, he describes a revelatory experience that led to his work with the nonprofit. About a decade ago, Dykstra was working for a humanitarian aid group in Zambia, where he recalls buying a small jar of peanut butter imported from South Africa. Driving home, he passed Zambians growing peanuts and remembers wondering, “Why am I not able to buy Zambian peanut butter?” Dykstra was struck by the realization that the humanitarian work he was doing at the time wasn’t helping boost the country’s employment rate and just “wasn’t going to move the needle in terms of development.” But figuring out a way to better harness raw materials (like peanuts) and turn them into a new product (like peanut butter) could promote entrepreneurship and increase access to food in countries direly in need.

Since launching, volunteers working with Partners in Food Solutions have provided mentorship to small businesses on an array of food-related issues. One General Mills employee looked into how an African cereal company was storing its grain after customers complained the food tasted “off.” The volunteer learned that sacks of corn were stored in the company warehouse without proper labeling to indicate when the food arrived, or when it might expire. He then assisted in revamping labeling and storage conditions, not only preventing customers from purchasing bad food, but also prolonging the inventory’s shelf life.

Partners in Food Solutions also helps homegrown companies within the African continent scale in size. In Zambia, local entrepreneur Monica Musonda launched Java Foods in 2012, selling products like packaged instant noodles manufactured in China. Musonda wanted to expand her offerings and reduce her reliance on imported goods by manufacturing simple items, like a fortified instant cereal. But in order to locally source and produce these foods, she needed expanded capacity and a strategic plan. Through Partners in Food Solutions, Musonda was able to connect with volunteer engineers, business managers, and food scientists from Cargill and General Mills, who helped her develop protocols for manufacturing, operations, and product formulations.

By working with these small companies, Partners in Food Solutions lends a hand in growing local economies, creating new jobs, and hopefully, making it cheaper for shoppers to buy the food they need. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who toured a company helped by Partners in Food Solutions in Ethiopia a few years ago, recently praised the organization as a “model for how to uniquely and effectively tackle food security.”

Last year, Dykstra was also awarded a fellowship from Ashoka, a social entrepreneurship group, granting him and Partners in Food Solutions access to Ashoka’s well-developed support network of business and nonprofit leaders. According to Ashoka, it provides its fellows with the “advice, network, and capital” they need to scale up—essentially imparting to Dykstra the social-entrepreneur version of the service Partners in Food Solutions provides to small food businesses.

Simon Stumpf, director of venture and fellowship for Ashoka, says he applauds Dykstra’s work, particularly the foresight shown by splitting from General Mills in 2011. Stumpf says the move has allowed Partners in Food Solutions to more effectively engage talent and share expertise with mentored companies. Since becoming an independent nonprofit, the organization has expanded its volunteer base with employees from other companies that manufacture, process, or market food, including some  General Mills competitors. Its network now consists of Cargill, Royal DSM, Bühler, Hershey, and Ardent Mills, which joined earlier this year.

Mary Jane Melendez, executive director of the General Mills Foundation, says that while Partners in Food Solutions is having a positive impact, a broader industry effort is needed to combat global hunger. “While much good work has been done to seed an enabling ecosystem, there is a strong recognition that together our industry can do much more,” she says.

Dykstra says he’s looking for ways to bring on mentor corporations not directly involved in food manufacturing, such as banks. Employee volunteers in that sector could help companies be better prepared to take on debt when expanding or sprucing up a manufacturing facility, for instance. To pinpoint other inefficiencies or problem areas for mentored businesses, it might also make sense to partner with a major consultancy or IT company, Dykstra notes. “We’re Partners in Food Solutions, but how do we catalyze other industries or other companies to think about [food security]?” he says.

Tackling the world’s food shortfalls will require boosting the productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, shoring up the resilience of food production systems, and finding more sustainable ways to use our planet’s resources. As the world’s population continues to swell, food security questions will only grow alongside it, making Partners in Food Solutions’ work even more vital.