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March 23, 2011

Food companies share know-how in Africa

by Ilan Brat

Food companies have long donated money and surplus food to fight hunger in Africa, but some of the biggest firms are now plowing people and money into a new strategy aimed at helping the continent feed itself.

General Mills Inc., Cargill Inc. and Dutch food-science company Royal DSM NV announced a nonprofit called Partners in Food Solutions to help global food makers share their technological and other expertise with food processing companies in African nations and, eventually, other developing countries.

The companies will volunteer their own people to advise small and midsize African food processors on how to fix manufacturing problems, develop products, improve packaging, extend shelf lives and find new markets.
The firms believe putting these African companies on a stronger economic footing will help the farmers who supply them and make food more plentiful on the continent.

"We've donated money and commodities" in the past, said F. Kerr Dow, Cargill vice president of global food technology. "This is knowledge transfer, and that makes you a lot more personally connected."

Partners in Food Solutions already has begun working with 15 food processors on projects in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi expected to help about 60,000 farmers, General Mills executives said. Over the next five years, PFS hopes to have 10 big companies working with 200 processors and one million farmers in 14 African nations.

In 2007, General Mills Chief Executive Ken Powell asked senior executives to explore ideas for how the company could help fight African hunger beyond donating food.

The company first looked into helping establish small food-processing operations in rural villages, but discovered that clean water, reliable electricity and suitable facilities were scarce, says Peter Erickson, General Mills' senior vice president of innovation, technology and quality and a PFS board member.

To help Africans feed themselves long term, he says, "you need to help build the capacities and the capabilities of a food industry" that can compete with imports.

With some of the $1.5 million from its corporate foundation, General Mills paid for four food technologists from Zambia and Tanzania to visit the company's Minnesota headquarters for training. They've since been traveling those countries as well as Kenya and Malawi to find processors needing help.

In one example, Nyirefami Ltd., a Tanzania grain miller, asked for help improving production. Late last summer, the technologist saw that millet grains Nyirefami was getting from farmers were contaminated with dirt and other materials because growers ran cattle over millet plants and beat them with sticks to separate grains from chaff. Washing and drying them took Nyirefami up to two days, says Dave Cummings, a General Mills engineering manager.

General Mills engineers modified an inexpensive threshing machine the company bought from India so the device would work with millet. That tool combined with a washer the engineers designed will allow Nyirefami to halve the time it takes to wash and dry grains, Mr. Cummings says.

The technical expertise is "so much more valuable than money," says Dr. Mark Manary, who helped start a nonprofit that makes a peanut paste used to treat severe malnutrition and has worked with General Mills on about a dozen projects.

Companies that join PFS will be expected to use their buying power in assisting African processors, Mr. Erickson says. For instance, General Mills last year got its powdered-milk supplier to sell its product to Dr. Manary's organization at the same price General Mills gets. The nonprofit saved $200,000.

Cargill, the food ingredient maker, has experience with technical problems a small African processor might face, such as how to make products stay fresh longer and how to use local crops to make ingredients too expensive to import.

Dr. Dow said requests for advice from African food businesses will be funneled through PFS by email to Cargill, which is organizing volunteers with expertise in areas such as packaging, nutrition and baking.

The nonprofit comes as a commodity price boom threatens to raise food costs for many of the world's poor. In February, the World Bank said rising food prices had driven an estimated 44 million additional people into poverty since June 2010, for a total of at least 1.2 billion.

For decades, the World Bank and other development organizations encouraged poor countries to focus on manufacturing rather than agriculture. That led many to rely for food on imports from agricultural powers such as the U.S. and Europe. Hunger kept spreading in Africa, with farmers there often comprising the large majority of the hungry. More recently, international attention has shifted toward fighting hunger by supporting farmers.

Wall Street Journal

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