It is 7:45 a.m., and Dave Cummings sits in his St. Louis Park home office, video chatting via Skype with Stella Kimemia, half a world away in Nairobi, Kenya. They’re talking porridge.
Cummings is a recently retired General Mills food processing engineer. Kimemia is an entrepreneur. Her company, Classic Foods, wants to squeeze more from the corn it mills. It already makes corn flour, a porridge staple. But Classic is looking for a way to turn byproducts — the corn germ and hull — into higher-value stuff than just animal feed.
The answer could be a new multigrain porridge that combines corn with millet and sorghum that Cummings is helping Kimemia develop.
“Dave has opened up our eyes to what other products we can produce,” Kimemia said.
Cummings is hardly alone offering insights from Minnesota to solve food production and distribution problems in Africa. He is one of several hundred volunteers from Minneapolis-based Partners in Food Solutions who each week deliver expertise over an 8,000-mile digital bridge in hopes of feeding the world.
Most PFS volunteers work — or worked — for General Mills and Cargill, although some work for the Dutch food science company DSM and the Swiss food equipment maker Buhler. Wherever they reside, PFS volunteers give a couple of hours a week to make sure hundreds of businesspeople like Kimemia succeed.
Those businesspeople, in turn, buy from African farmers and sell to African citizens. The economic model aims to provide financial sustainability that raises living standards in developing nations as it delivers more and better food to undernourished populations. This is what Partners in Food Solutions calls “a virtuous cycle.”
PFS measures victory in arcane ways. The group recently celebrated the first fortification of wheat flour with vitamins and minerals at a mill in Ethiopia.
“That flour is a staple for breakfast in Ethiopia,” PFS Chief Executive Jeff Dykstra explained in a phone interview from Africa. “It’s a game-changer for micronutrient access that children need.”
PFS’ results have been good enough that the group has become a poster child for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future initiative, the federal government’s plan to address global hunger and food insecurity.
“It is a partnership that has evolved more quickly and more broadly than any of the partnerships I’ve worked on since the inception of Feed the Future, ” said USAID’s Jay Daniliuk. “I’d love to see it replicated.”
Partners in Food Solutions grew out of a 2007 dinner in Davos, Switzerland, where former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked General Mills CEO Ken Powell what his company was doing to solve the world’s food problems.
Powell didn’t have a good answer. He soon set out to find one, gathering his leadership team and telling them, “We need to do more to address food insecurity.”
The company’s first instinct was traditional. It tapped volunteers to hand pack a million meals for hungry people in the African country of Malawi.
As Peter Erickson, General Mills’ vice president of innovation, joined colleagues shoving rice and soy sauce into bags, he had an epiphany. The people surrounding him were some of the finest scientists and engineers the food industry had to offer.
“What if we gave our knowledge and not just our hands?” thought Erickson.
“We have manufacturing facilities located all around the world, ” he reasoned. “And they have technical problems that we solve here in Minneapolis with our technical staff.”
PFS was born of this union of intellectual philanthropy and communications technology. Formed in 2011, the independent nonprofit enlists volunteer food experts from several companies and connects them digitally with African businesspeople looking to improve and expand their operations.
TechnoServe, a long-standing international anti-poverty group, screens small- and midsize African food processors and distributors for suitable candidates.
Businesses that profit from PFS’ volunteer largesse grow healthier and more stable. They are encouraged to buy from farmers in their own countries. This builds a market for local goods and ideally feeds people in a way that breeds self-sufficiency and good health.
PFS has an annual cash budget of $1.7 million drawn from private companies and donors. USAID has made a five-year, $7 million commitment to fund TechnoServe’s communications network.
But Dykstra said the program cannot work without the 20,000 hours of volunteer expertise it taps each year, which it says is worth about $2 million. And those skills could not be exported without the Internet and wireless phone links.
In addition to advice, PFS also works to get African food companies loans so they can apply what they’ve learned.
“Micro-financing is not enough, ” Dykstra said. “Companies need growth capital. Without it, the $75,000 they need to buy equipment might as well be $75 million.”
Bridging the distance
When PFS began, businesses in Africa made digital videos of their operations and mailed them to Minneapolis. Eventually, TechnoServe facilitated an 8,000-mile virtual bridge built from computer networks and wireless phones.
“Technology has leapt ahead to where we have live Skype conversations, and we’re able to take video cameras into plants and have people in Minneapolis see the problems in action, ” said Erickson, who now serves as PFS board chairman.
Although person-to-person talk has largely replaced snail mail, challenges remain.
On a recent morning at Cargill’s offices in Minnetonka, Jill Pearson tries repeatedly to get a phone connection to Hawassa, Ethiopia, home of the Admas Tesfa flour mill and its 44 employees.
“Kokeb, do we by chance have you yet?” she asks, trying to reach Kokeb Million, a TechnoServe representative in Ethiopia. There’s no response.
“He seems to be on, but we have no audio,” Pearson says to two other Cargill employees on the conference call. “We hope he’s listening in and catching some of this.”
Cargill volunteers have helped Admas Tesfa put together a training program. Now, they are working on a business plan with the Ethiopian company. But not this day, as the call never goes through.
“Communication can be an issue, and it’s not always on the African side, ” Pearson said.
In Ethiopia, Skype is illegal, said USAID’s Daniliuk, which means phone calls over sometimes balky connections.
“It’s certainly difficult to be on a phone call where it’s cutting in and out and you can’t understand someone’s accent,” said Morgan Patrick, a General Mills volunteer who calls the country three times a week.
But a recent trip to Africa convinced Patrick that her African counterparts are listening and applying the business solutions she and other PFS volunteers offer.
“The amount of implementation is reassuring, ” she said. “It’s all about the knowledge transfer, not just giving money.”
Stella Kimemia’s case in Kenya shows how.
Kimemia, 35, has college degrees in business and worked at a large Kenyan firm. In 2007 she and a friend started Classic Foods as a dairy operation. She collected milk from small farmers, pasteurized it and sold it through food retailers. The company branched into yogurt-making, and then began milling corn, selling flour to consumers and feed to dairy farmers.
“We are really now doing basic products,” Kimemia told the Star Tribune. “We hope to do more value-added products.”
Enter Partners in Food Solutions and Dave Cummings. A 33-year General Mills veteran who retired in February, Cummings traveled to Tanzania last fall for a Partners in Food confab and then on to Kenya to visit Kimemia at Classic Foods — all on General Mills’ dollar. But most of his contact with Classic Foods comes via Skype, video chatting with Kimemia and Johnson Kiragu, a TechnoServe food scientist. “TechnoServe [is] our boots on the ground in Africa,” Cummings said.
General Mills workers in Golden Valley help Classic extend the shelf life of its milk.
They also worked on the formulation of Classic’s multigrain porridge, experimenting with various ingredients sent by the Kenyan company. “They own the commercialization,” Cummings said.
Classic, which has 35 employees, also runs a juice business. The company recently bought its own purée-making machine, allowing it to buy fruit directly from farmers.
Cummings has floated ideas for new products. With the purée equipment, Classic could make fruit yogurt, and General Mills has lots of experience in that market with its Yoplait business.
Then there’s “fruit leather,” fruit purée that’s spread out and dried. It’s the basis of one of General Mills’ big U.S. businesses: Fruit Roll-Ups. Kimemia likes the idea of producing a first-of-its-kind roll-up snack for Kenya.
“The product is a very good idea,” she said, “and it’s not here in Kenya.”