Through Partners in Food Solutions, Jeff Dykstra is forging unlikely alliances between the world’s largest and smallest food companies, freeing up latent human potential to build a more robust, secure global food system.
The New Idea
Jeff is advancing global food security by redefining the relationships between global food industry companies and their employees and local small and growing food processing companies. In the most food insecure countries around the world, long-standing aid interventions are usually focused on providing incremental support to smallholder farmers or, in moments of crisis, on providing handouts to consumers (sometimes destabilizing the local economy). But the real opportunity – according to Jeff – lies with small and growing food companies in emerging markets. If they become more robust, these companies could provide greater markets for local farm products and also safer and more nutritious food in country.
Local banks and global philanthropic and investment funds have helped unlock financial resources for agro processors. Even with cash on-hand, securing world-class talent or sparking demand for that same talent locally, is a challenge major challenge for small and growing food companies. Jeff has championed a model that meets the needs of local food companies while providing a way for global industry leaders to invest in food security, rather than just one-off projects or charity. Partners in Food Solutions’ remotely connects expert volunteers from some of the world largest food companies with small and growing food processors across Africa to share their knowledge and expertise in an effort to improve nutrition, local markets and ultimately improve food security on the continent.
In this way, PFS can facilitate innovation, new product development, and higher safety and nutritional standards, all of which can have a far greater and more lasting impact on upstream farmers’ income and community health than traditional aid. Together food professionals around the world and high-potential food companies on the ground can contribute to greater food security, more robust domestic production, and spark more local demand for talent - from factory engineers to food scientists.
According to Jeff, “Food insecurity is not just a humanitarian problem, it’s an economic one. Lack of access to high-quality food causes human suffering and prevents the economic growth needed to end food insecurity.” Across the world, child malnutrition is rampant and millions of adults fail to realize their full economic and human potential because of hunger, malnutrition, and disease. Many countries around the world are food insecure, and with global food demand expected to grow 70-80 percent by 2050, “the opportunity and need to increase local food production are immense.”
Jeff believes that, “In Africa, the problem lies in an inefficient and underdeveloped food value chain, which artificially limits markets for smallholder farmers and consumers. Many small and growing food processors in Africa have gaps in the technical knowledge, business acumen and financing needed to reach their full potential, making the food-processing sector an important target for driving change in the system.”
While the majority of philanthropic resources and investment in the fields of agriculture and food security are focused on the farmer producers, the locally-owned companies that mill the wheat, pulp and box juice or create value-added products, from peanut butter to fortified flour blends, are often overlooked. In areas where some financing may be available the corresponding technical know-how often is not. When expertise is on offer, it is typically in the form of international volunteers who parachute in, or high-priced local consultants. Jeff says “Most solutions fail to deliver on their promise either by focusing too narrowly on the producers, over-emphasizing the lack-of-capital problem, or deploying ‘solutions’ that have high transactional and travel costs, sometimes destabilizing – rather than helping build – the local talent ecosystem.”
While food processing companies in Africa today compete with both global conglomerates and local cottage industries, local producers and consumers struggle to secure steady, affordable access to markets and to safe and quality food. Safety regulations are often minimal, or loosely enforced. African consumers, who already pay more for food as a percentage of their income than people in any other region, are accustomed to choosing between expensive imports or gambling on local products where the quality, safety and shelf-life can vary dramatically. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Jeff doesn’t object to the development community’s focus on producers; he agrees that “there are hundreds of millions of farmers and families across the [African] continent who deserve a better market for their crops.” Where he does differ is in how to best help those producers and the more numerous consumers who, he says “should have local, nutritious, affordable, high-quality food products available.” Rather than focus on outreach, capacity building, and services for farmers, Jeff is laser focused on helping build a robust food-processing sector. “By unlocking the potential of local food processors to produce and market higher-quality, safe, affordable foods, we know we have a unique, value-added, relatively low-cost model that can unleash a virtuous cycle to simultaneously improve food availability and expand market access for large numbers of smallholder farmers.”
Therefore, PFS prioritizes the companies and millers that Jeff believes can have the greatest potential impact up and down the value chain: companies that create markets for the local staple crops most commonly raised by local small farmers (vs. export crops) and those that can have the largest impact on nutrition (innovating around more healthy foods, using fortification, etc). Partners in Food Solutions works closely with USAID and TechnoServe who have field staff in Africa who help identify promising food companies, scope projects, and monitor impact. The process is intentionally designed to surface growth-minded entrepreneurs who are more responsive to local changes and opportunities. The ideal partner is well positioned to create greater demand and better terms for local producers and is committed to providing quality products to consumers.
PFS also collaborates closely with impact investors who provide the financial resources to businesses, further enhancing the impact of volunteer expertise by helping entrepreneurs scale their companies with much needed capital. PFS has a particularly close relationship with Root Capital, founded by Ashoka Fellow Willy Foote. The two organizations are now working hand in hand in West Africa to combine PFS know how with Root Capital financing. Willy says that "by getting big players in the global food industry to the table, Jeff’s helping bring hundreds of years of practical food expertise to promising food companies across Africa.” As importantly, Willy says, “Jeff is quietly cultivating personal empathy among company leaders and many thousands of employees who, through PFS, have the opportunity to contribute to improving food security and nutrition in very practical and meaningful ways.”
In Partners in Food Solutions, Jeff has developed a powerful, practical way for global companies to invest in building a more stable global food system. In the past year alone more than 18,000 hours were contributed by 750+ volunteers from PFS corporate partners General Mills, Royal DSM, Cargill, Bühler, and The Hershey Company. These same companies make annual, unrestricted cash commitments that support PFS’s vision of more global food security and its $1.7M annual budget. By covering their core operating costs, these companies subsidize the costs to African companies who then “pay it forward” through commitments to hiring their first R&D staff or supporting local school feeding programs, for example. “Unlike traditional skills-based volunteering, which involves a few employees leaving their jobs for several weeks and traveling at great cost to engage on a single project,” Jeff says, “our model taps into hundreds—ultimately thousands—of experts, aggregates their expertise and shares it with hundreds of small food companies” he says.
Since the founding of the independent non-profit organization in 2011, more than 700 African companies have benefited from PFS’s infusion of 70,000 hours of expertise. Haron Wachira, an Ashoka Fellow and the entrepreneur behind several food processing companies in central Kenya, likes that “The idea revolves around developing talent, skills, and capacity. But not in the traditional method of people in a classroom where the ‘expert’ see students, out of context, for a short time.” Rather, what PFS provides is what Haron describes as active, practical learning where the peers with expertise you might not have even known you needed are able to walk you through a challenge from beginning to end. It’s hands-on, relevant, and immediate. PFS also offers expert advice and solutions for smaller, short term challenges through its “Quick Wins” and “Ask an Expert” services. Jeff believes that “the key to filling gaps in technical knowledge and improving efficiencies in the food-processing sector is bringing unique and sometimes new players into the fight to improve food security and nutrition.”
Unlike traditional volunteer or consulting approaches, the unique and valuable knowledge these food processing companies gain through their work with PFS stays with them, in the country, rather than leaving when volunteers finish their work and go home or back to the capital city. Because the talent remains, the quality improvements and culture of product innovation and accountability also remains. Today, the African food companies that PFS has supported are supplying both local retail (at kiosks and supermarkets) as well as food aid markets across the continent. In all cases they are replacing inefficient and costly imports with local products. PFS’s presence de-risks investment and increases quality standards across the sector.
Over the next three years PFS is on track to provide direct services and trainings to more than 1,000 food processors and mills, with the help of more than 1,500 expert volunteers. They expect to help facilitate 75+ investments in the companies they serve, which will in turn create 1,000 new jobs and help create and sustain viable markets for more than 1 million farmers and their more than 6 million family members. The local food produced by the assisted companies will nourish tens of millions of people across Africa.
Jeff is now exploring the possibilities of applying the PFS model in other sectors like water, energy, and healthcare.
Jeff grew up in Colorado, had started his family and had many careers – from youth ministry to food and technology marketing to fundraising – when he had the opportunity to move to Zambia with World Vision to help launch a new program in 2006. A casual observation, that the expensive South African peanut butter at the supermarket came across two inefficient borders to land on grocery store shelves when farmers grew peanuts mere miles down the road, stuck with him. He began to question the effectiveness of single-minded approaches to development that he saw all around and why he didn’t see the global business community engaging in any real, strategic way.
Serendipitously, as Jeff’s time in Zambia was coming to a close, he was approached by a friend and mentor from General Mills who suggested helping the company shape a nascent effort for improving food security and nutrition in Africa. Upon returning to Minnesota, Jeff employed a true ‘intraprenuerial’ approach to show key leaders in upper management how their company could play a valuable role in building the capacity of processors in Africa and jumpstart a virtuous cycle of sustainable change among consumers, small food companies and farmers. First as an external consultant and later as the founding CEO of Partners in Food Solutions, Jeff began to create the pioneering long-distance, knowledge-sharing model that is the central pillar of Partners in Food Solutions today.
PFS is an idea that would never have come independently from any single sector. Ashoka believes that it is only from the blending of disparate sectors and actors that an innovation like Partners in Food Solutions could emerge and flourish. Jeff is uniquely well-positioned to champion this idea, having spent half of his unconventional career in global development and the other half in business, leading to a unique and practical understanding of how both of these sectors can benefit from the other and accomplish more together than apart.