Investing in Food Security — and Jobs — for Africa

Ten years ago, Jeff Dykstra’s wife and two of his friends told him the same thing on the same day: Quit your job and figure out what you want to do with your life. “So I stepped back and thought about what motivated me,” Jeff says. “I’d been living too long with inward dissonance, feeling my work didn’t fit my interests.”

After graduating from Westmont in 1992 with a degree in communication studies, Jeff and his wife, Molly Lounsberry Dykstra ’93, spent three years opening their home in Kansas City, Mo., to high school students as K-Life staff members. “It was a bit like a high school frat house,” Jeff says.

When their first child arrived, the couple decided to move close to family and settled in Minnesota, where Molly grew up. Jeff got a public relations job with Cargill, the largest privately held company in the world. After four years of corporate culture, he joined a start-up business as marketing director. A year with lots of activity but no company revenue gave him a good break before he moved on. In his next position, he developed programs for Fortune 500 companies to train employees online.

Then his wife and friends intervened, and Jeff went to World Vision as regional executive director for Minnesota, responsible for donors in the upper Midwest. “For the first time, I felt a sense of fit,” he says. His work took him to Africa, and he began to grasp the complexity of the continent’s problems. To spend more time there, he asked for an assignment in Zambia developing partners for a World Vision AIDS project. Molly and their three children joined him for two years in Lusaka.

The program trained Zambians to treat AIDS patients, and Jeff worked with World Bicycle Relief to provide transportation for caregivers. Hasbro donated toys for children with the disease. Despite the project’s success, Jeff became convinced that NGOs couldn’t create lasting solutions to the poverty prevalent in the region.

“Few businesses operate in Zambia,” Jeff says. “Unemployment is 70 percent, and Zambians want one thing: jobs. The church and NGOs help out, and civil society is emerging, but the final leg of the stool is missing: business. Investment creates jobs, not NGOs.”

In 2008, Jeff formed African Business Development Partners to connect U.S. companies to Africa and encourage them to invest directly or help African businesses build capacity. General Mills, the sixth-largest food company in the world, hired Jeff to help them leverage the expertise of the company’s 1,300 food scientists and engineers to promote food security in Africa. Agriculture there consists of many small farmers and little food processing. Zambians pay $5 a can for tomato sauce from South Africa even though they grow tomatoes. Working with General Mills, Jeff saw that building capacity for small and medium-sized companies to process food could provide jobs, drive demand for farmers’ crops, and provide better, cheaper, healthier, locally grown food for consumers. More than 300 General Mills employees have advised 28 food-related businesses in four African countries.

This success led General Mills to found Partners in Food Solutions (PFS) to involve other companies, including Cargill. With a grant from USAID and other assistance, Jeff, who leads PFS, seeks to form partnerships with 200 food processors in 10-12 African countries in five years. A key project is developing therapeutic food that can quickly heal malnourishment. “I’m excited about what we can accomplish,” he says.

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One Response to Investing in Food Security — and Jobs — for Africa

  1. Jo Ann Klandrud says:

    This is amazing. I want in.

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