Eating My Way from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu: Why My Nonprofit Embraces Private Businesses

Photo Credit: Lauren Bell, Peace Corps
Paul Guenette helps to lead ACDI/VOCA, an international NGO that fosters broad-based economic growth, raises living standards, and creates vibrant communities in developing countries around the world. After announcing a public-private partnership between a USAID Feed the Future project in Ghana implemented by ACDI/VOCA and Nestlé, we asked Paul to share why he advocates for corporate partnerships in international development.

I’ve been visiting Africa for over 40 years. It never gets old. Because it keeps changing dramatically. I started in the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa, and more recently lived with my family in Kenya, East Africa. In between, my work in international development has brought me to most sub-Saharan countries. Even twenty years ago, Africa was still a pretty sleepy place for commerce. Foreign aid for economic projects dominated private investment by far, and governments were routinely the biggest business around. Then everything began to change — fast.

From small impoverished farms to bustling markets, I learned a lesson that has helped guide my work.

Africa Needs Food Companies

When change started to move Africa, global trade accelerated, governments went democratic, urbanization led to big cities, governments accelerated privatization, and growing incomes created the “supermarketization” of food systems. Private investment, both domestic and foreign, was finally outpacing donor funding. Infrastructure has greatly improved and the workforce is more educated than ever. Sub-Saharan countries are now “ready” for foreign direct investment by food and agriculture companies. Most have democratic governments and have welcomed a network of commercial banks. They have commercial laws and courts.

Host governments are hungry to welcome multinational food companies. Companies have the capacity to set up and manage food value chains that can reduce waste and feed more people the nutrients they need. Multinational companies also bring name recognition that serves as an example to other investors, which brings more investment and jobs to the region. They demonstrate food system efficiencies for domestic business to adopt and bring needed sophistication to businesses such as packaging and marketing.

Photo Credit: Lauren Bell, Peace Corps

An International NGO Helps

The international nonprofit that I help manage, ACDI/VOCA, has worked in nearly 150 developing countries for over 50 years. We link farmers to markets. Yes, it’s unusual to be a nonprofit that embraces the private companies in the commercial food system. But we’ve learned that functioning private businesses have learned how to survive the hard way. They know the tricks of local cultivation, harvest, and handling, the preferred varieties, and the whims of the marketplace. So we’ve found that to help the rural small farmers, our best approach is to help integrate them into the functioning marketplace. Foreign aid hires us to help rural producers embrace the business sector to join the formal economy and grow their incomes. We are a business matchmaker.

To help the rural small farmers, our best approach is to help integrate them into the functioning marketplace.

Multinationals make great partners to help ACDI/VOCA build food systems in developing countries. In Ghana, for example, Nestlé wants to improve the quality of maize and rice being sourced from rural farmers. So do we! We have combined our donor-assisted technical program that trains rural farmers with the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness firm, Nestlé. We can succeed in realizing both objectives: our goal of improved livelihoods and food security for rural farmers and Nestlé’s promise of good food and good life for consumers.

Our Goals Are the Same

That latest example of building an effective public-private partnership was announced in December 2016. Dr. Emmanuel Dormon, the director of the ACDI/VOCA-implemented Agricultural Development and Value Chain Enhancement (ADVANCE II) project, and Freda Duplan, managing director of Nestlé Ghana, signed a partnership agreement to improve the capacity and lives of Ghanaian farmers.

ADVANCE II, a USAID Feed the Future initiative, increases the competitiveness of the maize, rice, and soybean value chains in Ghana by boosting farmer productivity, increasing market access and trade, and strengthening local capacity. ADVANCE II is committed to developing mutually beneficial business relationships between farmers and their buyers to create opportunities for farmers to profitably sell to high-end markets. This is very much in line with Nestlé’s commitment to rural development. Nestlé creates shared value among market actors by engaging smallholder farmers to produce safe and nutritious maize that can be used in quality foods for consumers.

Photo Credit: Lauren Bell, Peace Corps

Public-Private Partnerships Are the Way Forward

With the investment tide turning in favor of private investment, the public and donor-funded programs are becoming increasingly catalytic, seeking to leverage corporate programs for the common good. In 2015 alone, ACDI/VOCA tallied over 400 public-private partnerships (PPPs) on our programs in 35 countries. It’s all about alignment of incentives. A successful partnership embraces common goals of the two sectors, identifying shared value.

Agricultural input firms want stronger rural distribution networks; nonprofit organizations and local governments want improved inputs like seeds and equipment to help farmers. Private food companies like Nestlé need quality raw materials sourced locally; publicly funded nonprofits like ACDI/VOCA are in position to organize and strengthen groups of rural producers to meet market requirements. People may think that private businesses and nonprofits are worlds apart. But public-private partnership is the best way to move forward — for African economies, small-scale farmers, AND companies.


@Paul Guenette, ACDI/VOCA Chief Communications Officer, is an economic development manager with expertise in agribusiness and trade. Mr. Guenette oversees a communications team and provides leadership in corporate planning and developing public-private partnerships with external corporations.

Guenette has designed and managed sustainable development programs in a career spanning 40 years and 70 countries. His international experience began in Peace Corps Senegal, and includes long-term development assignments in Mauritania, Indonesia, Barbados and Kenya heading agribusiness programs that incorporated policy reform, cooperative strengthening, equity financing and investment promotion. Guenette speaks fluent French. He earned his B.A. at Kalamazoo College and his M.B.A. at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.