Wearing a white lab coat and clutching a wrench, Neema Mrema watched closely as scientists in a General Mills laboratory concocted a nutritional grain paste that she could replicate in her homeland of Tanzania.

Mrema learned how to create the paste, as well as how to repair the enormous machine grinding it during a recent six-week, high-tech training program donated by General Mills and staff volunteers.

Her training blitz in Minnesota represents a new type of philanthropy taking off across the nation. Instead of doling out cash, it involves donating brainpower and technical expertise through arrangements sometimes known as "tech philanthropy."

"Whenever [trainers] were talking, I'd think, 'How would this work in Tanzania?' I want to get home and get working," said Mrema, a food scientist from Dar es Salaam.

Donating technological know-how is a logical evolution for both philanthropy and corporate volunteerism, philanthropic leaders say. Instead of simply donating food to Tanzania, for example, having volunteers train someone like Mrema ensures the donation keeps on giving.

"We used to say there were cash contributions and in-kind contributions, plus employee volunteers," said Steve Paprocki, a veteran Twin Cities philanthropy researcher who teaches the subject at Hamline University. However, only about one in 15 companies contributed employee time.

"But there's been a huge shift in the past five years," Paprocki said. "The number of companies now giving out cash contributions [65 percent] is about equal to the number contributing employee volunteer programs."

Corporations are far more likely than Minnesota's philanthropic foundations to have in-house experts to offer technical training. Agricultural giants Land O' Lakes and Cargill are cases in point. Minnesota foundations such as the McKnight Foundation, which donates millions of dollars to crop research in Latin America and Africa, support training by paying experts in the host country to deliver it.

How it works

Mrema, who will share her new expertise with 12 small food processors and local farmers in Tanzania, arrived in Minnesota in February with a big suitcase and a bigger agenda. Her mission was to help small food producers in Tanzania improve their products and production, which in turn would give farmers more opportunities to sell their crops.

The mother of a 3-year-old, Mrema also was eager to learn recipes for creating inexpensive, nutritional snacks for children.

A glance at the topics on her March itinerary shows the scope of her training: Making energy bars. Quality auditing of products. How to use a thresher. Grain storage. "Sensory training."

"I had no idea you could analyze food products by smell," she marveled.

Another eye-opener was learning how to use a thresher that General Mills soon will ship to Tanzania.

"Right now, farmers just put [the grain] on the ground and hit it with a rod," said Mrema. "Having a thresher will increase production by 30 to 40 percent."

When Mrema flew back to Tanzania last weekend, she carried technical manuals, books, CDs and contact information for dozens of scientists she can turn to for help.

Interest is growing

Mrema is the second person to participate in General Mills' new technology transfer program.

John Mendesh, vice president of operations at General Mills, said the initiative grew out of a meeting of 1,500 technical staff two years ago. When employees were asked if anyone wanted to volunteer their technical expertise, 500 raised their hands, he said.

"The next question was how," said Mendesh. "At first, we thought people would send us a project and we'd go to the lab and fix it. ... That changed."

General Mills and Cargill have launched projects with a nonprofit called TechnoServe, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that links businesses to development opportunities in poorer countries.

Bruce McNamer, president of TechnoServe, said interest in such arrangements has exploded.

"In the past three months, I've had conversations with 10 to 15 major corporations," said McNamer. "Five years ago, I probably had that conversation three times."

Meanwhile, Minnesota's Land O' Lakes cooperative eliminated the middle man completely when it created a nonprofit international development division. It relies on its Minnesota technical staff, as well as experts in host countries, to train farmers and others in developing countries.

All this is great news for food experts such as Mrema, who say the gift of knowledge is priceless.

"When I first came here, I didn't know what to expect," she said. "But they made everything so simple."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511