Stepping up to the plate: Mandla Nkomo

Posted: 5 July 2024 | | No comments yet

In this series, we speak to dynamic voices in the food industry, showcasing individuals who are embracing new responsibilities and unveiling their visions for the sector.

Stepping Up To The Plate

In a significant leadership shift, Mandla Nkomo, a Zimbabwean national, has been appointed as the new CEO of Partners in Food Solutions (PFS), a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering African food processing companies.

This marks a historic moment as Nkomo becomes the first African to helm the 15-year-old organisation.

In this instalment of “Stepping up to the plate”, New Food sits down with Mandla to discuss his new role, as well as his current concerns in the food and beverage sector and his future goals.

Who are you and what is your new role?

Mandla Nkomo (MK): My name is Mandla Nkomo. I was born in Zimbabwe, but I have lived most of my life in between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and have worked across Africa. I’m a curious person who is always trying to find answers to complicated questions. The challenge I’m most interested in is figuring out how the agri-food landscape on the African continent can be radically transformed. I’ve farmed crops like wheat and maize and vegetables, raised animals and also ventured into food processing. Throughout all these, the questions I’ve been trying to answer are: How do we return greater value to the people that produce the food? How do we deliver good quality products to the consumers? How do we strengthen agriculture?

Tell us about your career to date – what experiences have you had that makes you a great fit for this role?

MK: I studied biochemistry and food science and I started out my career in agricultural production where I spent a few years supporting farmers, helping to solve problems around access to market, finance and technical know-how. Also, early in my career, I helped set up a couple of NGOs in my homeland of Zimbabwe.

I’ve also been in the processing space – from running a small dairy factory in Zimbabwe – I got to understand the complexities of the business, because quite often the market decides what they are willing to pay for the end product, and you are not really in control of many of your costs, such as labor, power, equipment etc. I also worked for many years for TechnoServe, supporting processing companies to stabilize and grow. My 25 years of working experience have given me a good perspective of how the entire sector functions and intersects. PFS is unique in the agri-food space in the sense that it’s one of those few institutions that is making the connection between agricultural production and consumer goods by supporting processors. Working with PFS will be an opportunity for me to contribute to really driving change and transformation in the African food sector, because as Africa grows, she needs quality, nutritious, locally produced food to meet the needs of her population.

Why is it important to bridge the gap between small African food processing companies and major agri-food multinationals?

MK: Bridging the gap between small African food processing companies and major agri-food multinationals is crucial for several reasons. The African food space has been largely informal, especially in the rural areas, but as Africa urbanizes, the food sector is transitioning with a lot of that informality, leading to inconsistencies in quality and food safety. Food processors are also are faced with the challenge of effectively responding to changing consumer tastes and preferences.

In contrast, modern food systems in regions like the United States, Europe and even certain parts of Asia, exhibit high levels of formality and standards, including stringent food safety regulations and advanced processing equipment. There is a significant disparity between African food processing capabilities and those of developed regions.

Facilitating dialogue and collaboration between African companies and global food processors can lead to valuable skills and technology transfer. This exchange can expedite Africa’s transition to a more sophisticated food system, akin to those in developed markets. By leveraging the expertise and resources of global companies, African processors can learn from existing best practices and avoid repeating past mistakes, ultimately leading to a more stable and fully transformed food system on the continent.

How do you envision leveraging the technical expertise of volunteers from companies such as General Mills, Smucker, and Hershey to address the business challenges faced by African food processing companies?

MK: PFS has 15 years of experience in this sector and what we’ve figured out is that for successful engagement to take place between African food companies and volunteers, we have to do the hard work of making a good match. A good match that not only satisfies the career ambitions and motivations of volunteers from our corporate partners, but also effectively responds to the challenges that the African companies face.

When we find that sweet spot, we see a really great impact with high levels of satisfaction from the volunteers and the food processors. Everyone wins and everyone is happy. If we don’t get that right, no matter how good the volunteers’ expertise is or how dire the need of the African company is, we will not be as effective. We cannot leave this to chance, so this is where PFS comes in, orchestrating such ‘matches’  for 15 years (168,000+ volunteer hours) with a very high satisfaction level from all parties.

What are some key opportunities and challenges you foresee in advancing the mission of the nonprofit under your leadership?

MK: The major challenge is always going to be our ability to effectively respond to all the entities that come knocking at our door.

The first challenge I foresee will be ensuring that we are making the right partnerships to move us forward. This starts from properly vetting donors who may want to partner with us, but may not necessarily be a good fit for our model. It’s always going to be challenging as a non-profit to walk away from potential funding, but because we’re a mission-driven organization and we’re very clear and sure about our modus operandi, we would have to make those tough calls about who we partner with.

Some of our partner companies have been with PFS right from the beginning. They’ve experienced a number of leadership changes, but so far we’ve been able to maintain the right level of interest and commitment from their side. It’s going to be a challenge to sustain that and it’s going to require us to continue to keep our ears to the ground and understand our corporate partners. We must always make a case for why it makes sense for them to deploy resources and their staff to support the mission of PFS.

It will also be a challenge maintaining the balance of having a good pipeline of skilled volunteers while identifying and diagnosing the challenges of African food processors and matching them to the right kind of support and projects.

Things are also changing rapidly across the African continent. Whether you look at population dynamics, economic growth or the opportunities that will come from the African Free Trade Agreement, it’s going to be increasingly important for PFS to position itself as an enabler. The challenge is going to be how well we can assess the market conditions in Africa so that we stay relevant.

There are also numerous opportunities for growth and impact. We have the potential to transition our clients into multinational African enterprises, contribute to a sustainable food ecosystem on the continent, and expand support to various food commodities and regions. By creating centers of excellence and focusing on unique ingredients and crops, PFS can play a pivotal role in transforming the African food sector.

How do you plan to ensure the sustainability and scalability of the nonprofit’s initiatives in supporting Africa’s growing food processing sector while also fostering meaningful partnerships with agri-food multinationals?

MK: First of all, we have to identify meaningful opportunities in Africa. These must be meaningful and interesting enough for our global partners who want to invest resources and time. We have to keep that turbine of relevance churning. 

The opportunities in Africa must be relevant for the companies we’re supporting, and also relevant for the partners that we’re trying to bring around the table to support them. This, for me, is really where sustainability will come from.

If we’re not solving significant and meaningful enough problems for African food companies, we’re going to be irrelevant. How do we make sure that we keep on shining the spotlight on what matters, on what is important, and what is worth investing time and resources in for our partners, but also for the companies that we support?

This is not something that just the CEO thinks about; it must be an organizational mindset. We need to be thinking about these things all the time and not get complacent, because the 15 years that we’ve gone through do not guarantee what the next 15 years will look like. We’re going to have to fight for our relevance. We’re going to have to invest in understanding our partners, in understanding the companies we support, and in refining our model to make sure that it stays relevant. That’s the work that myself and the leadership team will really need to put shoulder to the plow for and keep pushing as hard as we can.

What is one news story concerning food and beverage that has stood out to you in recent months and why?

MK: I recently read an article that talked about declining agricultural productivity in Africa that was very sobering. You can see progress towards solving the hunger and malnutrition challenge in every other continent, yet, in Africa, one could say that we are regressing. In spite of the investments being made into primary agriculture, we still have way too many Africans not having one square meal every day. That means our work is not done.

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PFS has done great work and we’ve got the impact numbers to back it up, but are we shifting the needle? That’s why I think that article is good. It puts things into perspective. So yes, let’s celebrate the small victories, but the race is not done.

What are some conversations you hope to have with your colleagues at the time of stepping up to the new role?

MK: One analogy I keep leaning into is that it feels like I’m joining an army that’s been out in the field and before I make any calls on which hill we are taking or which ammunition we’re changing to, I need to understand who is in the army and what they’ve been doing.

So a lot of the conversations are going to be me trying to gain perspective of the different facets of the work that my colleagues have been doing. The conversations are going to be me learning a lot from my colleagues about how we operate this organization, what we do, how we do it, and then to start asking questions about the next steps we could take.

I would hope that at the end of that exercise, we can all crystallize a shared vision of what we want to spend our time and resources on over the next five to ten years. It is not something that must be owned by the CEO alone, but would have the buy-in of all the staff.

I will also pay close attention to our corporate partners and observe the leadership changes that are also taking place there. I will need to build relationships and hopefully we’ll land on safe and calm waters. It’s so exciting.

What is one thing that you hope to have achieved in your professional career by the end of 2024?

 MK: One of the tasks that I have in 2025 is to lead the team through a strategy making process. So by the end of 2024, I hope to get the PFS team in a good space to start the journey of refreshing our strategy. The picture of success for us will be clarity on what problems to solve, where those problems are, and who we need to take along with us in solving them.

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