General Mills volunteers Barmack Rassi, left, Erika Smith and CEO Ken Powell, right, were among those honored in February by U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, second from right. General Mills and Cargill are among those working with USAID to help East African farmers feed their people.

StarTribune, Provided by General Mills

Partners work to bolster African food chain

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY
  • Star Tribune
  • March 4, 2012 - 11:05 PM

The nation's top foreign aid administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah, arrived at the Golden Valley headquarters of General Mills last August with an urgent agenda: saving the lives of several hundred thousand children in Africa.

Shah had just returned from a troubling trip to the Somali-Kenyan border, where he learned that the area's drought and tens of thousands of new refugees were rapidly diminishing the region's food supplies. Widespread famine and death were predicted within months.

Shah, a medical doctor, told executives of General Mills and Cargill that day that mothers were choosing which child to carry dozens of miles to relief camps and which to leave behind to perish.

At one point, Shah told Cargill CEO Greg Page: "Greg, we need you to get a ship, load it and send it [to Kenya]."

Page contacted his board and Cargill family members. The company and family members donated $10 million through the nonprofit World Food Program USA, a longtime Cargill partner, to charter a huge container vessel. They bought enough rice to fill 100 railroad cars and shipped it in 14 days across the Indian Ocean to Kenya.

Shah's dramatic request -- and Cargill's rapid response -- underscore the benefits of a new focus on collaboration between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and key private-sector food companies.

In this case, relief agencies received the rice, which supplemented existing stocks, lowered rice prices in the neighborhood and helped avert an even greater disaster.

"This was an industrial-scale effort," Page recalled in an interview last week. "Providing emergency assistance is the right thing to do.''

In February, Shah returned to General Mills to personally thank CEO Ken Powell, dozens of General Mills volunteers, and Peter Erickson, who is chairman of the Partners in Food Solutions, the nonprofit technology-transfer and assistance nonprofit formed by Cargill, General Mills and Holland's Royal DSM, a food and nutrition company.

The growing, two-year relationship between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), General Mills, Cargill and Royal DSM is using big company food science and transferring simple technology to small African farmers and local companies to help East Africa better feed itself and avert the next crisis.

"The public and private sectors also need to focus on long-term solutions to hunger and work together to ensure that all 7 billion people on this planet have access to safe, nutritious and affordable food," Page said in an interview last week. Cargill is an investor in several African countries.

Page, a fan of Shah's, said he's encouraged by the U.S. collaborative and partnerships with African producers and processors.

Shah, who last worked for the Gates Foundation, has seen his budget trimmed for the past two years by Congress. As a result, USAID increasingly is turning to the private sector to help build food self-sufficiency in several African countries and other economically struggling places.

"President Obama has been clear in that he wants to engage American institutions more directly in our mission of expanding human dignity and economic progress to [struggling] regions around the world," Shah said in an interview last week. "We will always provide food aid in times of need.

"The greater challenge is to help countries become more 'food secure,' so they won't need aid, so they can trade with us, create jobs and grow their economy. We seek strong partnerships with American corporations. We can ... get more value for our taxpayers' money."

Shah presented Powell, surrounded by General Mills employees at the company's technology center, with USAID's "Global Citizenship" award.

More than 300 General Mills employees have volunteered thousands of hours through Partners in Food Solutions that have linked General Mills know-how with small farmers and food processors in Kenya, Tanzania and other African countries. The successful and growing partnerships include:

• SoyAfric, a Kenya-based fortified food processor designed to reduce malnutrition. Partners in Food Solutions worked with SoyAfric to develop new, locally sourced products designed for infants, seniors and people living with HIV/AIDS.

• Project Peanut Butter serves Malawian village with Chiponde, a peanut butter paste high in calories, protein and other nutrients, which has been a locally grown and made lifesaver for thousands of malnourished kids. General Mills, which has been involved in the product's formulation and technical assistance, also leveraged its global network to connect processors with a low-cost provider of milk powder, the most costly ingredient, which is not yet available locally.

"Ninety percent of severely malnourished children will improve with Chiponde," Dr. Indi Trehan, clinic fellow in pediatrics at Washington University, who has worked on the project, said in a press statement.

• Zambia-based COMACO, which curbs poaching of elephants and other wildlife by helping rural families make a living from environmentally responsible farming. The program works with more than 45,000 small growers, training them in conservation-related topics, such as crop diversification and the use of organic fertilizers. Money earned by small-farm families helps them pay for schools, medical care and investments in farms that can be as small as a few acres.

"We've always known that making food in Minnesota and shipping to Africa is not sustainable," Powell said. "Through our employees ... and partners, we make a measurable difference."

Erickson of General Mills told Shah and employees at the award ceremony that General Mills employees apply the same dedication and creativity to "improving the food value chain in Africa" as they do to their day jobs.

"We're harvesting your expertise ... to empower local producers," Erickson told the employees.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •

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