Africa calling

Don Larson thinks food processing can resurrect poverty-stricken regions, and he's starting in Mozambique

Don Larson and his family donate time and resources to local children's centers in Mozambique, including these children of Iris Matola Rio, about five miles from the Sunshine Nut Co.'s first factory. Other than Larson in the center, his family includes William (from left), 15; Cassie, 22; his wife, Terri; and Brent, 19. 

By Michael Hughes

Don Larson believes food processing can transform destitute African countries, starting in Mozambique.

The industrial engineer moved to the Southeast African country in 2011 after his life came to a crossroads. At that point, Larson couldn't get much closer to the top of his profession. He had spent 25 years building and transforming factories for major food processors. He and his family had nice cars, private schools and a large house with a pool. He was fielding another lucrative job offer in a career that had taken him all over the world. But many of those locales teemed with wretched poverty – hungry and diseased children, desperate mothers and fathers, nearly forgotten orphans.

Larson knew about the transformative power of markets, their ability to create wealth; it's what he spent his life doing. But the dichotomy of his world – abundance for him and his family versus destitution in developing nations – triggered a spiritual journey. After all, Larson said, much of the Bible admonishes the faithful to feed the poor and care for widows and children.

"I'd like to develop a mechanism that will take care of that and transform not just by giving but by helping long term," he said. "A lot of people get to the end of their careers and they give it all away to charity. But why not do it as part of the business model and get to enjoy it and see the changes that are able to be made?"

Thus was born the idea for the Sunshine Nut Co. Larson went to Mozambique to prepare the groundwork: testing out the government, the financial incentives, logistics, infrastructure, supply of raw materials, utilities, water supply, waste treatment and air pollution control standards, whether he could get packaging and pallets in, whether he could get the right employees and technical expertise.

In October 2013, the Sunshine Nut Co. started roasting, seasoning and packaging cashews for shipment to retailers. His first shift has 23 production people, and he plans to add a second shift soon. Many are adult orphans (Larson and his wife volunteer at the local orphanages) who have embraced the concept. "Given that, now I can scale," Larson said. "And scaling's the easy part. Putting another factory in another country will be easy now." The Sunshine Nut Co.'s first wave of hires included many young adults who come from children's centers and have difficult stories of survival. Thirty percent of the company's distributions will help care for orphans and vulnerable children. 

Expansion is all part of his grand plan. Larson's career travels gave him the opportunity to view numerous attempts to help the poor. Charity has poured billions of dollars into Africa. Consultants have advised farmers on ways to increase production and schemed to export fresh produce to Europe.

But after recipients eat the food donated by charity, they need food again. African farmers and their families often can't eat everything they harvest before it rots, so increasing production, Larson noted, would be waste. And exporting fresh produce from areas without modern road systems through ports where ships might sit for a week or two before they sail is a recipe for calamity – as one shrimp exporter Larson knows discovered.

"But think about if people were capable of the elements of food processing," Larson said. "If you had the means to store food to last a year, you'd plant everything you possibly could. And you'd be in great shape."

Larson saw many Africans make a nascent attempt to develop markets. It's common to see dozens of women on the roadside selling produce, earning very little money each day.

"Not only is there no market but they're wasting their time on the little market there is," Larson said. "If you provide the market, you provide them the ability to do other things, to educate, to take care of their families."

South African and U.S. retailers are enthusiastic about the Sunshine Nut Co.'s products, Larson said. Europeans, because of their interest in social projects, could be another market.

A market for the women's processed produce would allow them to spend more time producing more since a market draws a supplier base. This is why, Larson said, he is working in Mozambique instead of a fancy office in a first world country.

"If I'm in country, I'm going to invest in country," Larson said. "I'm going to make sure that the supplier base is good, and I'm going to do whatever I can to nurture the entire cashew industry and the production of cashews. And there's nothing more effective than a company that nurtures its supply base because they adhere to higher standards, requirements, they get feedback supplier scorecards, the whole works."

African suppliers that hand over underweight cargo to a large multinational might not get another chance, Larson said. But if cartons of shelled cashews come in 1.23 pounds short, Larson lets the supplier know. The next shipment makes up the difference, and subsequent deliveries are spot on.

This is part of the "concept of progression" Larson used often in his industrial career. Most people have an end objective and try to move people there. But instead of completing that journey in one fell swoop, Larson aims to take people maybe one-tenth of the way at first.

"You give a task, a goal or whatever, and you see how the people handle it. You monitor everything. You set that as the expectation. Once you achieve that or you don't, you can determine how you move people along this line of progression."

All of Larson's turnaround assignments involved assessing people, where they were, and how comfortable they were with change. Usually, a certain percentage of them grasped the concept and helped bring the rest along.

The same is true in Mozambique. Rather than upend his workers' lifestyles, Larson figures out how to incorporate local culture into operations. The local populace already grows, cracks and consumes cashews, but in transferring that to a factory setting, absenteeism became a problem.

The root cause is that Mozambicans must tend their farms, he said. And a culture derived from generations of subsistence farmers isn't familiar with a 9-to-5 job. So Larson devised an absenteeism performance plan. Later on will come a performance plan.

He admits he is learning as he goes – much like coming into a factory laden with poor work systems, learning the culture and changing it bit by bit to eliminate waste, increase quality and improve production.

Larson aims for his company to help teach the principles of work, markets, international food quality requirements and profitability. He would like all his employees to own their own business one day and is working with schools and universities to advance educational options.

"There is nothing holding them back as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Of the profits the Sunshine Nut Co. hopes to realize, 30 percent will go back into the farming communities, 30 percent will care for orphans and vulnerable children, and 30 percent will go toward new food processing companies to grow the concept in different regions.

A number of countries already have asked him to expand. When Larson gets time, he'll search for other good, small farm-holding cooperatives with raw materials sufficient to replicate the Mozambique project.

Larson and his wife have spent their life savings on the Sunshine project, and they never will have the posh lifestyle they once lived.

But that's not what they're about, he said. Now, they step out of their front door into desolate poverty each day and seek higher treasures.

"This has just been so much fun to learn all these new possibilities," Larson said. "It's not easy to do what I'm doing, but it's very rewarding, and we're looking to see some real tangible results starting to happen."

Michael Hughes is the managing editor for the Institute of Industrial Engineers.