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Opinion: Corporate volunteering is a game-changer for African food processors
FoodBev Media

FoodBev Media

27 July 2023

Opinion: Corporate volunteering is a game-changer for African food processors

Jeff Dykstra, co-founder and CEO of Partners in Food Solutions, tells FoodBev more about the non-profit organisation, which connects volunteer employees from some of the world's largest food companies with small and growing food processors and millers in Africa. When Lagos-based Graceco Industries – a food processing company specialising in baked goods since 1999 – had taste and texture issues with their new baby food product, they faced a costly struggle to identify the underlying issues to improve the product for the market. Yet, thanks to a volunteering model unparalleled elsewhere in the food industry, Graceco was able to source the expertise of volunteers from some of the world’s biggest food companies. Their remote support to overcome these challenges paved the way to market for the new product that can now contribute to greater childhood nutrition for Nigerian communities. This is just one example of how Africa’s food processing sector, often considered the “missing link” in the continent’s agribusiness value chain, can tap into Partners in Food Solutions' (PFS) unique volunteering model which shares the expertise of multinational food companies. In the process, African businesses like Graceco are building their capacity to address a range of barriers to economic growth and improved livelihoods – from product design challenges to food safety certification, and everything else in between.

Sourcing industry expertise PFS is a non-profit organisation that was formed to deliver the expertise and knowledge needed to address the challenges faced by African food processors head-on. It has its roots in an encounter between the then CEO of food processor General Mills, Ken Powell, and former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos. In that meeting, Annan pressed Powell to find a way that his company – one of the world’s most prominent agri-food businesses – could play a role in addressing rising food insecurity and nutritional challenges in Africa. Initially taking the form of an internal volunteering programme at General Mills, PFS today unites remote volunteers to provide technical expertise from some of the world’s largest food companies – including Ardent Mills, Bühler, Cargill, DSM-Firmenich, Hershey and The J.M. Smucker Company – with local food processing businesses across Africa. This unique volunteering model offers a range of benefits for Africa’s emerging food processing sector. Last year alone, PFS helped to connect more than 700 volunteers with food companies in 12 countries across Africa, helping these businesses to grow their profits as well as resolve pressing business challenges to enable them to boost nutritional and economic security across the continent. This knowledge and expertise sharing isn’t just a one-way street of benefits, either. General Mills, for example, last year reported that nearly 80% of its volunteers developed new or improved skills through their volunteering programmes with PFS, showing the benefits of international volunteering and collaboration for food business employees. Ultimately, the “intellectual philanthropy” model pioneered by the international food companies in partnership with PFS provides a range of vital support to African food processors in building their capacity to address the continent’s pressing challenges – whether related to economic growth, health or sustainability.

Delivering impact for African food processors From the outset, PFS volunteers have played a key role in supporting African food businesses to address the health burdens caused by high levels of malnutrition. Deficiencies in key micronutrients – such as vitamins B12 and A or minerals like iron – pose a significant challenge for the continent’s infants and mothers. An average of 40% of children under the age of five across sub-Saharan Africa face stunting due to a lack of key micronutrients in their diets, which can have significant implications for future health and growth. Volunteers from PFS partners have supported several African companies in building up food fortification efforts, a central tool in tackling micronutrient deficiencies at scale without requiring any change in consumer behaviour. Volunteers from DSM, for instance, provided support to Kenya’s Western Fresh Industries Limited, helping them to develop a laboratory and vitamin A fortification for edible oil. Elsewhere, experts at Cargill were among the key partners to support Rwanda’s Le Palmier in collating the necessary documentation needed to fortify Cooperative Le Palmier’s palm oil, improving both its operations and the safety of its final product. In both cases, the support provided by PFS volunteers directly tackled vitamin A deficiency, which affects a third of all children under five – yet can be tackled in a scalable and cost-effective manner through food fortification. PFS volunteers have also supported African food processing businesses in achieving the economic growth needed to offer more high-quality jobs for the continent’s growing population. High-level volunteers from Bühler, for instance, have used their expertise to support Uganda’s 60-year-old East African Basic Foods (EABF) company to develop a five-year plan to track and establish a growth trajectory for the business. With this kind of support, African food processors can leverage, adapt and apply the successful practices of world-leading agri-food businesses to a more local context. Africa’s growing food processing sector has a vital role to play in addressing food insecurity challenges with homegrown solutions, helping the continent to achieve self-sustenance while providing jobs and economic opportunities for a population expected to double by 2050. The world’s biggest agri-food companies can – and should – leverage their depth of expertise and resources through corporate volunteering programmes to build up the capacity of African businesses in reaching these goals. After all, a food-secure world with vibrant jobs and growth opportunities is one that benefits us all.

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