The impact of volunteering: How one General Mills manager is fighting malnutrition in Africa.
By Susan Kamper, General Mills senior technology manager and Partners in Food Solutions volunteer
Last January, I traveled 10,000 miles, crossed eight time zones and encountered a 110 degree warm-up going from Minneapolis (-24F) to Blantyre (+86F) in the hopes that I could make a difference in the lives of expectant mothers in southern Malawi as a volunteer with nonprofit Partners in Food Solutions (PFS).
I’ve been a volunteer nearly all of my life.
As a child, I volunteered with my 4-H horse to give riding lessons to children with muscular dystrophy. As an adult, I continued to volunteer in therapeutic horseback riding with We Can Ride of Minnesota and as a parent volunteer for my children’s school activities. And, now, the opportunity to volunteer my food science expertise through PFS to impact global hunger truly helped bring my volunteerism journey full circle.
First some context.
Partnering for Solutions
PFS is an innovative nonprofit organization, founded by General Mills, that links the technical and business expertise of volunteer employees from General Mills, Cargill, Royal DSM and Bühler with small and growing food companies in the developing world. Rather than sending technical staff to Africa, PFS has created a sustainable knowledge transfer system that enables volunteer experts to remotely collaborate with African food companies from their offices thousands of miles away.
In addition to industry partners, The U.S. Agency for International Development helps shape and guide PFS by sharing strengths, experiences, methodologies and resources through a public-private partnership formed in 2010. And TechnoServe offers in-depth country knowledge that helps make for successful on-the-ground program implementation.
When I heard about PFS and the work my colleagues at General Mills were doing with food companies in Africa, I wanted to be a part of it.
After even just a few weeks of volunteering, I could see the impact of our work. My first project was developing new products for COMACO’s “It’s Wild!” brand. COMACO, an innovative organization in Zambia, helps curb poaching of elephants and other wildlife by helping families in impoverished rural areas make a sustainable living from environmentally responsible farming.
Most recently, I joined the PFS team working with Project Peanut Butter (PPB), a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance the treatment of severe malnutrition – the greatest contributor to child mortality in the world today – by using effective, locally produced ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF).
Tapping into the extensive food industry experience of volunteers from General Mills and PFS’ other industry partners, we are helping Project Peanut Butter improve efficiencies and increase the quality of the RUTF. We’re also providing marketing support to help the program expand its efforts to other countries in Africa.
The impact Project Peanut Butter is having on children in Malawi, Sierra Leone and Ghana is undeniable.
Defined by a very low weight-to-height ratio, visible severe wasting, or by the presence of nutritional edema, severe acute malnutrition contributes to the death of millions of children a year. Without proper treatment, the majority of children who survive will face a lifetime of challenges affecting their cognitive and physical capabilities.
But, this can be prevented.
Today, PPB operates multiple clinic sites providing food, treatment and training to about 80,000 children per year. The peanut butter paste offers high-quality nutrition children need to recover, survive and even thrive.
As you can see from the images below, this RUTF is life changing for these children and their families.
Dr. Mark Manary, the founder of PPB and Dr. Peggy Papathakis from the California Polytechnic State University, are trying to expand treatment of malnourishment with RUTF to malnourished pregnant women.
This is what brought me to Malawi last January.
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A Volunteer's Legacy
I have been working with Dr. Manary to develop a peanut butter paste for expectant mothers that provides the calories, protein, lipids, vitamins and minerals necessary to support a healthy pregnancy. The new product called “Mamachiponde,” translated to mean “nut paste for mothers” was developed in a General Mills pilot plant in Minneapolis. I was invited to support the food production trials in Malawi to make sure the Minneapolis pilot formula would run on the Malawi plant equipment with local ingredients.
I am happy to report that a clinical trial will take place in southern Malawi over the next two years to determine if Mamachiponde improves maternal and infant outcomes compared to standard care. My hope is this new RUTF treatment will have a positive impact on the health of expectant mothers and their children so that it becomes more widely available.
As a mother and a food scientist, I can’t imagine a more rewarding outcome.
Creating Replicable Economies of Scale
I truly believe that PFS is providing a transformative way to fight hunger. We’re bringing together employees from across our partner companies to offer expertise in research and development, nutrition, engineering, marketing and finance and give food producers in Africa the technical expertise and resources to produce high-quality, nutritious and safe food at affordable prices.
By improving technology at the local level, local food processors are able to expand, hire and source more products from smallholder farmers. These farmers, with additional income, can pay school fees, get better medical care and start new businesses.
The food companies and organizations we are assisting then source from smallholder farmers and serve more than one million consumers across Africa, including many vulnerable populations.
PFS is now utilizing more than 60,000 hours of expertise from employee volunteers and working with 750 food companies throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.
PFS grew out of an acknowledgement by General Mills senior leadership that a food company like ours could make a sustainable impact by sharing its food production knowledge and technical expertise with food producers in Africa. And this model has great potential for other industry sectors as well.
No longer bound by time zones and geographies, there’s a lot companies can accomplish by leveraging their employees’ expertise and desire to make a difference. You may even find, as has been the case for me, that employees will consider it some of the most rewarding work of their careers.