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Tamar Abrams

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General Mills Shows that Exporting Knowledge Can Make a Difference

Posted: 11/22/11 01:28 PM ET

There is a saying in Zambia that goes something like this: "When you run alone, you can run fast. When you run with others, you can run far." General Mills -- the company that satisfies your cravings for Cheerios and Yoplait and Häagen-Dazs -- knows a thing or two about Zambia. It is one of four African countries where General Mills has been actively working to reduce malnutrition and insecurity. They're doing it not through sending crates of cereal but by sending knowledge and technical expertise, according to Peter Erickson, Senior Vice President of Innovation, Technology and Quality.

He says the idea for Partners in Food Solutions originated four years ago at a dinner of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. General Mills CEO Ken Powell was seated next to Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, who posed one question: "What are you doing to help starving people in Africa?" Powell, who had been waxing poetic about the company's philanthropic bent, was silenced. Upon returning to the company's headquarters in Minneapolis, he immediately convened a group of leaders to answer that question.

The earliest effort was called "A Million Meals for Malawi" and involved company volunteers packaging meals on their lunch hour, and before and after work. One day, while participating in the packaging, Erickson had a revelation: "I realized we were wasting an amazing amount of intellectual capital. Instead of packaging meals, we could package our knowledge." And Partners in Food Solutions began to take root. A technical team from General Mills traveled to Africa to find out what issues were contributing to hunger -- a global tragedy that hits sub-Saharan Africa disproportionately. It is estimated that one of every three children in the developing world is suffering from malnutrition.

"We went to villages and discovered that we could have more of an impact higher up in the value chain," explains Erickson. "We decided that if we worked with small food manufacturers in Africa, we would help them grow their businesses and increase their demand at the village level. That's something we have experience with. We know how to make products more nutritious while increasing their food safety and shelf life."

Partners in Food Solutions developed relationships with 30 food companies in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya over the past three years, boosting their ability to be more competitive in providing food aid to NGOs, in serving consumers at the village level and in selling in large cities on the continent. As a result, they are demanding more crops from small farmers who are benefiting by earning more money. Today, says Erickson, "Those 30 companies are sourcing from 90,000 farmers. If each of those farmers is supporting five or six family members, half a million people are benefiting from the program on an ongoing basis. Families are more secure, they are sending their children to school and they are able to afford to buy what they need."

Involving employees of General Mills is a large part of the effort, and has turned out to be a huge win-win for the company. Erickson estimates that 350 of them are volunteering approximately two hours a week toward the program and he recalls a cold, dark Saturday morning in February when one of the Malawi company presidents made a visit to Minneapolis. "We didn't know if any of our colleagues would come," laughs Peter Erickson. "It was one of those mornings when most people don't want to get out of bed, but over 50 people came. We figured out that the combined food company experience in the room was over 750 years! That's what we have to offer."

Partners in Food Solutions is now a stand-along nonprofit and two additional food companies -- Cargill and Dutch company DSM -- have joined General Mills in the effort. Erickson says the goal is to bring in more companies with unique sets of skills in the next few years "to add to the breadth of knowledge." It's not about running fast, so much as running hard. He also hopes to expand the model throughout Africa and Southeast Asia over time. There is so much work to be done in an increasingly global society where, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, there are 925 million hungry people. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has boldly stated, "The question is not whether we can end hunger, it's whether we will."

General Mills employees are doing their share, and Peter Erickson hopes that discussions about what American families can do will crop up at Thanksgiving dinner tables across the country on Thursday. "Any family can make a difference. There are lots of wonderful organizations you can contribute to around the world." Or, perhaps, like General Mills we can each ask our employer the question that started it all: "What are you doing to help starving people in Africa?"

 

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