If you knew how to help feed the hungry — would you? Most of us would, but often we just don't know how. So, it was difficult at first to see how General Mills, half a world away in North America, could play a meaningful role in addressing hunger in Africa. General Mills employees were already volunteering their time packing meals for African children and partnering with other organizations to build grain storage systems and dig community wells — but we believed that we could do more.
We began to think, could we share what we know — our knowledge and technical expertise as a food company — with small and growing food producers in Africa? By helping local food processors produce safer and more nutritious foods, could we help create sustainable market access and better livelihoods for millions of African farmers and their families? And, could that boost farmer incomes, strengthen food security, and increase the supply of affordable, nutritious foods in local economies?
With this in mind, we founded the nonprofit Partners in Food Solutions (PFS). The name itself describes the business model. We've recruited world-class companies to join our effort, including our U.S. neighbor Cargill and Dutch-based DSM. We've received support from bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies, such as the World Food Program and USAID, which helps shape and guide PFS by sharing experiences, methodologies and resources through a public-private partnership formed in 2010. We've partnered with international NGOs, such as TechnoServe, and social investors like Root Capital. Each partner brings different expertise, but together we can accomplish far more than any of us could alone.
As a group, we saw the need to fully embrace technology in a way that would easily allow skilled volunteers to transfer their knowledge to our partners in Africa. We adopted a cloud-based platform that serves as a knowledge repository for all our work, and is specifically designed to help our food scientists and engineers seamlessly work with our African partners from 8,000 miles away. On the ground, our African partners work directly with our partner, TechnoServe.
Though some may see this work as philanthropy, we see it as creating shared value with local African businesses. For example, Nyirefami, in Tanzania, is a company that mills flour. General Mills knows flour. We've been in the milling business more than 140 years, and with Gold Medal, we're still America's leading flour brand. PFS volunteers were able to provide Nyirefami with the technical expertise needed to install a quality control lab, and improve washing and pre-drying operations. With that, Nyirefami increased their milling capacity five-fold, paving the way for the company to buy more grain from local farmers, while also earning the highest level of food certification available in Tanzania.
Veronica Banda is one impressive farmer I met recently in eastern Zambia. Veronica sells her cotton to Cargill, and her corn to COMACO, a local nonprofit that markets food to consumers while also striving to save wild animals and ecosystems. Farmers work hard, and Veronica certainly does. She also cares for her family, including several children she has taken into her home who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS. Because PFS is helping COMACO grow, creating markets for her crops, Veronica's income is rising. Today, she not only feeds her children, she can also send them to school. (Veronica is pictured below, left, with COMACO employee Whitson Daka, center, and me on the right.)
It's a powerful idea — and it's playing out with more and more small companies. PFS is working with 40 food processors on more than 140 projects in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, and most recently Ethiopia — and we are looking for more. Our vision is big, and our journey is long. But I believe the role General Mills is playing is exactly the role we can play best: lending our technological expertise.
How can you apply what you do best to reduce poverty and increase economic activity in the developing world? Here are some ideas:
Leverage your core expertise. As one of the world's largest food companies, we knew we could help African food processors and smallholder farmers by sharing our food processing expertise. Our teams work alongside our African partners to create viable, culturally-sensitive technology solutions in areas such as process, food formulation, equipment design, packaging, etc. What valuable expertise can your company share?
Enlist on-the-ground support. Our in-market partner, TechnoServe, in partnership with USAID and PEPFAR, is evaluating, hiring, and managing small, in-country teams to identify promising companies. They then help develop and implement projects that PFS volunteers can address back home. Find a quality local partner who can guide you in understanding and addressing local needs.
Embrace technology. We can do things today we couldn't dream of five years ago. Technology is allowing us to successfully partner remotely from 8,000 miles away. We share a common technology platform with our partners, which helps us solve problems despite the challenges of varying time zones and cultural differences. Technology breaks down barriers and helps unite people with purpose. Use it.
Seek out like-minded partners. We knew we could make a greater impact if we brought on world-class partners. Be thoughtful in selecting partners who share your vision, but offer capabilities and expertise that you couldn't provide on your own.
Engage and empower employees in leading the effort. Employees will be your engine to keep programs moving forward, while creating new approaches to solving problems. We have found that by pioneering a model that enables our employees to use their core skills to make a difference, they receive as many benefits as they contribute.
Jump in with humility and get started. Much of our success stems from our willingness to "stumble forward" and learn as we go. Be willing to think big and move quickly, albeit imperfectly.
We hope you can learn from our journey, and start a company-wide effort of your own. For us, it has proven to be some of the most gratifying work of our careers.
Insights from HBR and The Bridgespan Group