Aug 10, 2011 • By

Africa’s people and potential

During a recent trip to Africa, to both big cities and small villages, my eyes were opened to the extraordinary impact of General Mills and our partners in two key initiatives.

First, I was struck by how far our work with Partners in Food Solutions (PFS) has come, and how it is changing the lives of the people I met.

PFS is a nonprofit organization created by General Mills that links the technical and business expertise of our employees, along with people at Cargill and DSM (a Dutch-based global supplier of nutrients), to small and medium-sized mills and food processors in the developing world. These food processors, in turn, create a market for small-holder farmers.


It was amazing to have the chance to meet some of the people doing the work in two of the four countries where we operate, Zambia and Malawi (the other two are Kenya and Tanzania).

I was very impressed to see the power of some of the consulting services we’re providing. They’ve led to some really concrete improvements in operations and efficiency. I also saw how eager our people were – and the companies we’re working with – to show us the progress they had made, whether it be basic cleanliness or pieces of equipment used in food processing.

I left with a whole new appreciation for how much change can occur with this technology transfer approach.

I also had a chance to meet with a small-holder farmer who has benefitted from our agricultural extension consulting. One woman I met showed me the crop surplus that our outreach had enabled, and she told me her five children were now able to go to school.

She also showed me something truly amazing – a single solar panel, propped up in one of her grain storage huts that she had been able to purchase with her surplus. She used it to power a television in her hut.


She is now mentoring other farmers and teaching them about the agricultural practices that helped her.

The poverty in parts of Africa is crushing, really overwhelming, but when you look at what she’s been able to accomplish, it gives you a sense for how empowering people with knowledge can transform lives.

The second initiative I took a good look at during my visit was connected to Join My Village, our partnership with CARE International and Merck that supports educating girls and helping women improve their agricultural practices and leverage microfinancing to better their lives.

We’ve been working with about 75 villages in Malawi through this program. I was told that prior to our efforts, farmers were typically losing about 35 percent of their crop from just poor storage – from rodent infestation and other factors.

We taught them how to build simple storage huts up off the ground, using materials available to them with the exception of metal bands on the legs of the hut to prevent rodents from scurrying up. Overnight, they were able to reduce their crop loss from 35 percent to 3 percent.

I received an extraordinary welcome wherever I went – dancing, songs, skits and wonderful greetings by entire villages. The children I met couldn’t wait to show me their school facilities, which we helped build. The women couldn’t wait to tell me how the village savings and loan concept had transformed their lives.

By simply pooling their resources, they were able to take out small loans to purchase items that they could then sell at a small profit in their village. This is a transformational idea – the notion of surplus. Women showed me the goods they had purchased and then resold – dried fish, brooms, dishes, cloth.

The most amazing experience of the trip was meeting one woman who had her own little convenience store.

The walls of her store were covered with goods. She probably had 50 to 60 items in inventory; soap, scissors, aspirin, food, drinks … many things you might expect to find in your corner C-store, only this was in a remote village in the middle of nowhere!

I asked her how she had done it. She told me that she accomplished this thanks to the village savings and loan. She walked me through her journey of how it took her six months to build her inventory, one item at a time.

The women I met in the various villages in Join My Village had one thing in common. They all told me how excited they are about their own futures, and that of their children’s.

This sense of possibility and hope was truly inspiring. One could see that children growing up with the opportunity to attend school and seeing their mothers as business owners have the potential to permanently break the poverty cycle.