General Mills, Cargill, DSM, et al double down efforts to address the challenges facing Africa
PFS works to strengthen food security, improve nutrition and increase economic development across the much-beleaguered continent by expanding and increasing the competitiveness of the food processing sector.
The independent nonprofit’s consortium of industry volunteers supplies expertise – from facility design to product development to providing the technical and business know-how – that African food companies need to grow.
Strengthening the middle of the value chain has a ripple effect, reinforcing markets for smallholder farmers and giving Africans access to more nutritious food: rather critical with more than 146 million people going hungry, according to latest statistics.
The very real challenges
The pandemic, the current cost of living crisis, continual violence and disruption to the supply chain and crippling drought means the continent has seen some of the highest inflation of food prices in the world. As such, numerous countries have seen riots, with hungry people invading private properties in search of food.
“Yes, all these are very real challenges that the continent is going through, but we should also remember that the continent has always had challenges, especially in nutrition and food insecurity,” Johnson Kiragu, East Africa program director for PFS, told Bakery&Snacks.
“The figures that we’re seeing are in the millions. In the Horn of Africa, we have close to 20 million people are extremely food insecure. In Kenya, about 10% of the population of over 4 million people are needing food assistance. That basically means they don't have anything to eat. It’s a dire situation in the in the entire continent.”
“I think it's a high time that stakeholders in this space double down their efforts to try and address the challenges facing the people to give them more hope. It’s also high time that governments in different countries in Africa put their money where their mouths are, because if this is not addressed, I cannot only imagine that it will become worse in the years ahead.”
Knights in shining armour
Enter Partners in Food Solutions, an independent, nonprofit working with a consortium of seven leading global food companies that provide their expertise.
“We work with the food companies in sub-Saharan Africa that have the highest potential for growth. They understand what they’re doing, but they’re facing specific challenges,” said Kiragu.
“Our field staff identify these companies, engage with them and come up with a roadmap of how these challenges can be solved.
“Once that is done, we go back to our partner corporate partners and match them to these challenges … this could be in food safety, in developing new products, how to access markets [and so forth].
“[Our corporate partners] have a combined expertise of over 800 years of experience in the food industry. So we pride ourselves in being able to solve any challenge that a food processor in Africa would be facing at any time.”
Working to change the status quo in Africa
Improving baby porridge and cupcakes in Nigeria
Graceco Industries – which has been producing nutritious foods for Nigerian consumers for more than 40 years, along with the mission to get more Nigerians baking – was experiencing challenges with a new product formulation for a fermented Guinea corn (sorghum) porridge for babies. Despite several trials, the Nigerian food processor continued to have issues with the viscosity of the formulation, as well as an unwanted sour taste.
Enter PFS, which connected Graceco with General Mills’ R&D scientist Hannah Schwebach, who had experience working on retorted enteral (tube) feeding formula for children.
With her extensive research into the largest infant nutrition deficiencies in Nigeria, Schwebach was able to provide valuable insights into vitamin blend ratios and ingredient percentages to improve the flavour and how to improve the thickness of the porridge.
The project was closed last spring and Graceco launched the porridge to much success among consumers.
Graceco also produces a wide range of confectionery products but was experiencing shelf life challenges with mould growing on cupcakes within four weeks of production.
“Despite our decades of experience in confectionery processing, I knew we needed to strengthen our technical knowledge,” said Adedayo Oshinnaiye, executive director of operations and supply chain at Graceco.
To plug the gap in its technical knowledge, PFS connected Graceco with General Mills QRO engineer Linda Olson, and soon was implementing her recommendations like using more advanced cleaning procedures and ensuring the cupcakes are stored at adequate temperatures throughout production.
“We’ve been able to identify the root cause of our shelf life issues and have achieved better results since then,” said Oshinnaiye.
PFS has also paired Graceco with The Hersey Company to work on a cupcake recipe optimisation.
The project was overseen by Hershey procurement analyst Paul Brown, who joined the PFS volunteer network in April 2021.
“Getting more involved with volunteering and the opportunity to learn more about another culture and new market while providing meaningful assistance to a growing company in Africa is what motivated me to join PFS,” said Brown.
The project was able to deliver amazing results, with Graceco’s product margins seeing a 10% increase within a few months.
“Paul has played a key role in helping us communicate our needs to the volunteer teams, manage the team’s responsibilities and project timeline, and even shared his technical expertise with us,” said Oshinnaiye.
Fortifying sunflower oil in Kenya
Another PFS volunteer is Daniel Steeler, associate scientist for Dutch multinational health and nutrition specialist DSM.
Steeler has been volunteering with PFS for the past year and has already been involved in four projects with several PFS clients based in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda.
One project involved working with Western Fresh Industries Limited in Kenya to develop a laboratory to fortify sunflower oil with vitamin A. A third of all children under five around the globe suffer from a vitamin A deficiency, with almost half of these in Africa.
Deficiency of vitamin A is associated with significant morbidity and mortality from common childhood infections and is the world's leading preventable cause of childhood blindness. It also contributes to maternal mortality and other poor outcomes of pregnancy and lactation.
“As a small oil refinery plant in Kenya, we required professional advice that could only come from experts at PFS,” said Benard O. Odero, MD of Western Fresh.
Fortifying palm oil in Rwanda
Yenny Lizarazo, a food safety and quality supervisor at Cargill, helped Rwanda’s Cooperative Le Palmier to fabricate a fortification system for palm oil.
Palm oil is a staple ingredient across Africa, with Africans consuming significantly more palm oil than it produces, importing nearly 8 million tonnes in 2020 to meet demand.
Once the cheaper cousin to sunflower and soy oils, this volatility in availability has impacted price and emphasised the need to increase Africa’s own production capacity.
Kigali-based Cooperative Le Palmier was established in 2015 to ensure consumers have access to affordable and safe palm oil, producing refined palm oil for the retail channel, both in the major cities and smaller rural markets.
“In order to meet the growing demand for cooking oil across Africa, we needed assistance in improving our operations and the safety of our products,” said Rumiya Kamari, MD of Cooperative Le Palmier.
“Partnering with PFS gave us access to the right experts to do that.”
Working with Lizarazo, the company was able to put together the necessary documentation needed to fortify its palm oil, while improving its operations and the safety of its product.
“My main motivation for volunteering with PFS is to gain an experience that allows me to do something different from my daily work and help others,” said Lizarazo.
“Working with Cooperative Le Palmier gave me the opportunity to learn about oil production. And although the regulations are similar, there were some differences so I had to learn about their processes specifically, which was a fun learning experience for me.”
These are just a handful of the stories around the inspiring partnerships between major industry players and PFS.
Listen to our podcast interview with Kiragu to find out more about PFS’ network of volunteers, corporate partners, donors and ecosystem partners.