Food Processors in Malawi Receive Training from General Mills Volunteers

2012-11-12 09.25.51 (800x531)By Dr. Jeffrey Resch, Sr. Scientist, General Mills
For most people, the goal of making a better bowl of porridge may seem like a trivial matter, certainly not a pursuit for which one would volunteer countless hours of their free time and make trips around the world. But, for a small group of food industry volunteers, creating a better bowl of porridge is precisely what they have dedicated themselves to achieving.

Their efforts recently culminated in an unforgettable journey to Malawi where they provided training to help local manufacturers understand how to consistently create nutritious, great-tasting porridge for the millions of people who depend on it. The porridge in question is known locally in Malawi as likuni phala, but more commonly throughout the rest of the world as corn soy blend or just CSB.

Because of its nutritious composition and easy preparation, CSB has been long been utilized by organizations like the World Food Program to provide nutritional assistance in areas of food insecurity.  In Malawi alone, over a million school children receive a cup of CSB every day to help satisfy their nutritional needs. The volunteers who embraced the challenge of helping Malawian CSB producers are employees at the Minneapolis-based food company, General Mills.

In addition to their day jobs developing breakfast cereal and snacks, they volunteer their time and skills to Partners in Food Solutions, a nonprofit organization that links the technical and business expertise of over 500 volunteer employees at General Mills, Cargill and DSM to small and medium-sized food processors in the developing world. This particular set of volunteers started their quest to improve CSB through a collaboration with the World Food Program aimed at addressing complaints about Malawian porridge with a bitter taste, bad odor, and short shelf life.

After obtaining and studying many CSB samples from Malawi as well as samples they made in their own research facilities, the volunteers started to see that undercooking and poor quality ingredients were likely responsible for many of the quality issues.  When a volunteer team member visited several CSB producers in Malawi, it became clear there was a huge opportunity to address the quality defects by providing training for the producers on how to properly cook and process CSB and by explaining why those proper steps are crucial for ensuring the final product’s taste and nutritional content.

After gaining those insights, the volunteer effort transitioned into building a CSB training program that would be effective in Malawi. A key ally in this training effort was TechnoServe, a nonprofit organization that empowers entrepreneurs to build successful businesses in the developing world.   Mr. Henry Gaga, the TechnoServe food technology specialist in Malawi, was an invaluable partner in this training effort ensuring that every CSB producer in Malawi would be able to attend the training event and making all the necessary logistical arrangements that would have been impossible to manage from another hemisphere.

The volunteers who traveled to Malawi to facilitate the training, Dr. Jeff Resch and Craig Lundquist, arrived several days ahead of the training.  They made visits to several CSB producers to provide technical assistance and build personal connections with the attendees prior to the training and also to better understand some of their challenges and training needs.  They were also able to witness firsthand a small rural feeding center where mothers and undernourished toddlers were fed CSB and a large city school where CSB was prepared in enormous quantities over open fires to feed 2,500 hungry school kids.

These pre-training visits vividly demonstrated the beneficiaries of the training would not only be the small businesses that produce CSB but also the millions of end users who consume CSB.   On November 12, 2012, it was finally time for the training to take place.  Fifty-eight attendees from eleven CSB producers converged on the Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre, Malawi.  The attendees represented every CSB producer in Malawi, plus one from neighboring Tanzania.  They included machine operators, quality assurance personnel, production managers, as well as factory leadership and owners.

Along with the members of Partners in Foods Solutions and TechnoServe, additional facilitators included Phillip Makhumula, a fortification consultant; Michael Martin and Ray Goodwin from Insta-Pro International, a supplier of CSB processing equipment; Dr. Agnes Mwangwela, a professor of food science from Bunda College in Malawi; and Brent Wibberly, the program manager of the African Alliance for Improved Food Processing.  Also making this event possible was funding from USAID.

The full day of training began with a morning filled with lectures and demonstrations conveying the key concepts of ingredients and quality attributes, fortification, sensory evaluation, and analytical testing.  The afternoon sessions emphasized the fundamentals of processing equipment, extrusion cooking, troubleshooting, maintenance, and safety.

Following the classroom training, customized technical assistance was provided on-site at the facilities of three CSB producers.  Operators and production personnel received hands-on training and experience with CSB processing procedures, trouble shooting techniques, and equipment maintenance.

Feedback on the training program was very positive. Attendees felt the knowledge they gained will help them improve the quality of their products and expand their operations. The volunteers and facilitators were also very pleased with the impact of the training and by the connections made with so many CSB producers. They plan to grow these relationships to help sustain the CSB quality improvements and to continue to build these important Malawi businesses. But beyond Malawi, the volunteers are excited to use this training as a blueprint and springboard for future CSB training initiatives that can help bring about better bowls of porridge all across the globe.

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