Africa: What Can General Mills Do for Africa?

opinion

The General Mills CEO explains how a US company can support African agricultural producers and consumers.

If you knew how to help feed the hungry, would you? Most of us would, I think. But often we just don't know how. General Mills has a legacy of community engagement and food is what we do. It's a core value that stretches back more than a century. We're nourishing lives every day.

Even 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. But I was motivated to try, and I was inspired - as usual - by our employees. I found they were already reaching out to Africa. General Mills employees were packing meals for children in Africa, and partnering with organisations such as CARE, Land O'Lakes, and World Vision, to build grain storage systems and dig community wells.

We were already having an impact in Africa, but we believed we could do more. Our next idea was better. Could we share what we know - our knowledge and expertise as a food company - with small and mid-sized food producers in Africa? By helping local food processors produce safer and more nutritious foods, could we help expand markets for African smallholder farmers? And could that boost farmer incomes, strengthen food security, and increase the supply of affordable, nutritious foods in local economies?

This is the idea behind Partners in Food Solutions (PFS). This new non-profit has three features we think are unique. First, the name - Partners in Food Solutions - describes our business model. We've recruited world-class companies to join our effort, including our US neighbour Cargill and Dutch-based DSM. We've received support from bilateral and multilateral agencies, such as USAID and the World Food Program. 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.

Second, by embracing technology, we're able to communicate and collaborate virtually. General Mills food scientists and engineers may be 8,000 miles away, but we work with our African partners as if standing side-by-side. Our partner, TechnoServe, engages our African partners directly on the ground. It's an entirely new approach to collaboration.

Third, though some may see this work as philanthropy, we see it as something more. We're striving to create shared value - and that's when the impact really multiplies, because more successful African food processors also help thousands of smallholder farmers grow and reach their potential.

Let me give you an example. Nyirefami, in Tanzania, is a company that mills flour. General Mills knows flour. We've been in the milling business 142 years, and with Gold Medal, we're still America's leading flour brand. When PFS volunteers provided the expertise needed to install a quality control lab, and improve washing and pre-drying operations, we were able to help.

PFS helped Nyirefami increase their milling capacity five-fold, paving the way for Nyirefami to buy more grain from local farmers, while also earning the highest level of food certification available in Tanzania.

Helping African food processors helps smallholder farmers, and that helps entire communities. 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.

This positive impact on Veronica's life and the lives of her children is what PFS is all about. 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 130 projects in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi 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.

How can you learn from our journey and apply what you do best to reduce poverty and increase economic activity in the developing world? Here are some ideas. First, 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. What valuable expertise can your company share? Second, enlist on-the-ground support. In partnership with USAID and PEPFAR, our in-market partner, TechnoServe, is hiring and managing small, in-country teams to identify promising companies. They also 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.

Third, embrace technology. We can do things today we couldn't dream of five years ago. Technology is allowing us to successfully partner virtually from 8,000 miles away. Use it. Then, 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.

Fourthly, engage and empower employees in leading the effort. General Mills employee volunteers have such a strong stake in our philanthropic efforts that they lead our programs. Employees can be your engine to keep programs moving forward.

Lastly, 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'll join us on this journey, because, for us, it has proven to be some of the most gratifying work of our careers.

Ken Powell is the chairman and CEO of General Mills.

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