The audio crackled as the web-based technology strained to connect people worlds apart. Some voices were louder than others. Some suddenly dropped. But Rose Barry managed to catch promising partial sentences about peanut butter.
“The peanut butter installation ...” (static) “ ... started operating about a day ago ...”(dead air) “We had a bit of a breakdown ...” (static) “The mix is working really well.”
After some clarification, Barry was pleased. Changes regarding production equipment that she and her team had recommended to COMACO, a Zambian food company, were increasing the amount of peanut butter it could churn out. And the lower mixing temperature improved the peanut butter’s quality.
These solutions — and unlikely conversations — are the result of Partners in Food Solutions (PFS), a Minnesota-based nonprofit that pairs scientists and experts from U.S. food companies with smaller African food companies looking for assistance. Barry, a senior research and development scientist for Golden Valley-based General Mills, is one of nearly 1,200 PFS volunteers offering professional skills and free time to help African food businesses.
Companies have long offered volunteer opportunities for its workers to participate in community service projects or contribute to a companywide charity fundraiser. But some companies are seeking to move beyond one-off volunteering events in ways that tap into the specific skills of their employees.
St. Paul-based Ecolab, for example, allows its employees around the globe to find solutions to water problems in their communities or teach best water conservation and hygiene practices in area schools. Sometimes, those employees identify a need and move in to fill it without going through a formal corporate process. Other times, they take advantage of the option to get Ecolab’s approval, which gives them more leeway to use company time to work on the projects, said Kris Taylor, Ecolab’s vice president of community relations.
Deloitte, a multinational professional services firm, recently published a report suggesting that companies that bridge the gap between their employees’ daily work and the aspirations they hold for societal good will do better at retaining workers.
“It’s definitely a trend and evolution [in corporate volunteerism] to connect skill sets and needs, and I do think that means more to employees,” said Adam Nelson, a partner at Deloitte’s Minneapolis office.
“It feels like a longer-lasting impact for both the organization and the individual.”
PFS projects run the gamut, from improvements in food safety to upgrades in quality and technical equipment to assistance in developing new food products using locally available ingredients.
The goal is to share information, expertise and know-how with these small-to-midsize food makers so they can feed their local population, rather than relying so heavily on imported food. Africa imports $40 billion worth of food every year, said Jeff Dykstra, co-founder and chief executive of PFS, with the majority of the continent’s agriculture coming from subsistence farmers who grow enough crops to support a handful of people.
PFS began in 2008 after former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a Macalester College alum, personally challenged former General Mills CEO Ken Powell to do more about food insecurity. A global food crisis had sent food prices soaring 83% in three years.
Powell, whom Annan called “Mr. Minnesota,” asked General Mills executives Peter Erickson and John Mendesh to look into what the company could do in Africa. They brought in Dykstra, a former Cargill employee who, at the time, was working for World Vision in Zambia. The three traveled around eastern and southern to Africa and the idea for an “intellectual philanthropy” project quickly took root.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) supported the new model and provided funding to partner with TechnoServe, a nonprofit bringing business solutions to address poverty. TechnoServe provides much-needed on-the-ground experts to act as a counterpart to U.S. volunteers.
“The timing was right on this,” Dykstra said. With the food crisis came a reckoning among the UN’s G-8 members that they needed to put more resources into improving food systems, rather than just sending famine relief.
“The development agenda overnight became all about food,” Dykstra said, “and that happened at a time we were first walking into the room, and so [our idea] resonated in a way that it wouldn’t have a year before.”
Three years later, he said, “we realized the demand was going to be far greater than General Mills could meet and that’s when we spun it out with five other corporate partners.”
Today, PFS is a stand-alone nonprofit that offices out of General Mills’ headquarters but is supported by volunteers from Hershey, Buhler, DSM, Ardent Mills and Cargill, the latter based in Minnetonka.
Barry’s day job is to develop new food products for General Mills. She has worked across its categories, from yogurt to baked goods. Since 2014, she’s been working with African companies during her free time — and sometimes during the workday. The peanut butter project with COMACO — which stands for Community Markets for Conservation — is Barry’s latest in a long list of PFS projects. A few years ago, she helped Kinda Bakery in Kenya develop a Vitamin A-rich biscuit (what Americans call a cookie) made from sweet-potato flour grown and dried by local farmers. Rarely a week goes by when she doesn’t communicate with her PFS clients.
Barry’s African partners reap the benefit of her formal training and experience, but she benefits as well.
“It is rewarding. I feel empowered by empowering them,” Barry said. “I like that my education can help other people. That training is not as helpful locally as it is internationally.”
She originally started volunteering to develop a greater sense of “global empathy,” but has gained more than that. On a biscuit project with an Ethiopian food company, Barry’s first formula was too sweet for their more subdued treat palettes. That situation is one of countless others that have given her a better understanding of what people in other countries like and dislike, which helped her land a new position with Cereal Partners Worldwide, General Mills’ international joint venture with Nestlé.
“Understanding global palettes and having that empathy allowed me to move into my new role,” Barry said. “So it really is a win-win.”
Dykstra said he’s often asked, “Why are these companies really doing this?” Whether people believe him or not, he says PFS aligns with their corporate partners’ mission and values. But it also flows back to them.
“The byproduct has been really great development for their people,” Dykstra said. “If you talk to any millennial, nearly all of them will tell you that they want to work for a company where they can live their values.
“So, if you can offer your employees a way to use their core skills on a very authentic project that’s making an impact on a global issue, that’s a powerful opportunity.”