FORBES: How employees at the world's largest companies are assisting entrepreneurs in Africa
By Willy Foote, Root Capital CEO
On the outskirts of Kumasi, a bustling city in southern Ghana, Charlotte Adjei Ababio stands on the front line of the fight against food insecurity and malnutrition.
In 2009, she and her husband poured their life savings into founding Royal Danemac, an agro-processing company that uses local agricultural products, like soybeans, to produce animal feed for poultry and livestock.
With a grand vision and the grit and determination needed to achieve it, Charlotte is working tirelessly to strengthen the local poultry and egg industry, thereby improving food security for Ghanaians. Today, she employs a small but growing team of individuals and sources raw materials from nearly a thousand small-scale farmers located in one of the poorest and most remote regions of the country.
Recently, she has also been receiving support from a network of food technologists and food business experts located thousands of miles away. It’s the latest example of how companies both large and small can partner with government and non-profit organizations to achieve collective impact.
As part of the aptly named Partners in Food Solutions (PFS), some of the world’s largest food and agricultural companies – General Mills, Cargill, DSM, Bühler, and The Hershey Company – are harnessing their 693 years (yes, years!) of combined experience to strengthen small- and medium-sized enterprises like Royal Danemec throughout Africa.
Backed by additional funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and facilitated by the nonprofit organization TechnoServe, the partnership is helping these businesses to provide locally sourced, nutritious food for the continent’s rapidly growing (and quickly urbanizing) population. And while there are no quick-and-easy recipes for building and scaling these types of multi-sector partnerships, PFS offers a powerful playbook.
Here’s how it works: As an independent nonprofit organization, PFS brings together the technical expertise and food industry knowledge of employee volunteers from its corporate partners: a product developer in Minneapolis or a nutritionist in Switzerland, for example. These employees are then paired with agri-entreprenuers across seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa to collaboratively solve big-picture strategy issues as well as thorny operational and technical challenges.
For Charlotte and her colleagues at Royal Danemec, this means receiving advice from engineers and food scientists from The Hershey Company. The six-person team provides technical recommendations on how to install, operate and maintain oilseed refining equipment. They are also guiding Charlotte through new quality management processes, suggesting improved methods for testing and analyzing soybean oil.
Since 2008, hundreds of corporate volunteers have contributed over 75,000 hours to help more than 700 early-stage food companies improve food safety, packaging, processing, marketing and more. These experts devote an hour or two each week to participate in calls, review blueprints and flow charts, and share their knowledge. For example, PFS volunteers assisted Ethiopian food company Faffa Food Share in identifying and adding new products that will make more effective use of its existing equipment, which until recently was sitting idle.
Jeff Dykstra, Co-Founder & CEO of Partners in Food Solutions, calls this “intellectual philanthropy” – the sharing not of money, but of know-how. “Our volunteers are able to do 95% of their work remotely, thereby eliminating the cost and time of travel, which is the natural barrier to scale,” he explained.
And in this context, the issue of scale is crucial. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly half of the world’s uncultivated land that could be brought into production. But despite its vast agricultural potential, the region spends roughly $35 billion each year on importing food. Meanwhile, millions of farmers across the continent struggle to find markets for their crops, and more than 30% of the food that is produced goes to waste because of inadequate post-harvest storage and processing capacity. That’s the problem—and the opportunity—on which PFS and its partners are relentlessly focused.
PFS started when General Mills volunteer experts began working in partnership with TechnoServe. Since then, other multinational companies with similar visions of creating shared value in food and agricultural supply chains joined the partnership.
By working through on-the-ground partners, PFS ensures that its activities are owned and driven by local leaders. TechnoServe continues to provide the partnership with in-depth country knowledge and agribusiness expertise. This includes screening and identifying high-potential businesses, developing a detailed scope of work for PFS volunteers to guide implementation and evaluating the success of each project.
After planting its roots in Eastern and Southern Africa, PFS recently expanded its activities to West Africa in collaboration with my organization, Root Capital. In Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, Root Capital’s team is providing asset financing and working capital loans along with financial management training to PFS partner businesses, including Royal Danemac. By leveraging these resources, PFS is able to remain agile, tailoring its approach to local needs and focusing on solutions that will have the greatest impact.
“Each partner brings different expertise, but together we can accomplish far more than any of us could alone,” explained Ken Powell, chairman and chief executive of General Mills, who visited PFS and Root Capital clients in Ghana earlier this year. “Be thoughtful in selecting partners who share your vision, but offer capabilities and expertise that you couldn’t provide on your own,” he added.
From the General Mills corporate headquarters in Minneapolis to the processing line at Royal Danemac, there is a shared appreciation among all partners for the multiple wins that can be realized by working together. In this case: small-scale farmers can access new markets and earn higher incomes; entrepreneurial ventures can flourish and create more opportunities for formal employment; and entire countries can benefit from a local supply of nutritious food, helping to reduce the need for costly imports.
Management guru Peter Drucker famously said “every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise.” Thankfully, innovative partnerships like PFS are helping to illuminate these opportunities in places where opportunity is needed most.