The Sunshine Nut Company provides tasty employment in Africa

Former food company executive Don Larson founded The Sunshine Nut Company to create good jobs and bring other benefits to Africans.

By , Skoll World Forum

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    A man holds up cashew nuts in a warehouse in Bouake, Ivory Coast, in 2012. Former food executive Don Larson has established The Sunshine Nut Company in Mozambique that will provide a processing plant for cashews, increasing incomes for farmers and creating jobs for plant employees.
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It was 2007, and I was disillusioned with corporate life after building and starting up the world’s largest, fully automated cocoa-processing line. 

My plans were to take the company to $1 billion in revenue. I had left a promising career at Hershey’s in 2005 to venture onto a playing field I thought I could control, but the investors accepted a purchase offer that would give that opportunity to the largest chocolate maker in the world – a Swiss company.

It had been a painful lesson, wanting me to leave the food industry behind. It left me feeling hopeless that I could do long-term good under another’s authority – as peoples’ motives seemed to change as time progressed.

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So I embarked on a spiritual journey that led to self-reflection. It included an in-depth analysis on my motivated abilities from SIMA International. A 28-page report summarized to "Don likes to engineer and implement unique, comprehensive solutions to daunting multi-faceted problems."

As the journey progressed, I reflected on an instance that had been haunting me since 2004.  I was in the Ghana airport back and had recently turned 40. I was moved into Commodities as Director of Cocoa Operations for Hershey to bring innovation and opportunity.

We had just surfaced from the African bush assessing the cocoa crop that would bring delicious chocolate to the mouths of millions. As we sat in the lounge, a conversation which had started with a group of college graduates turned uncomfortable when they discovered that I was one of the largest cocoa buyers in the world.

Looks of warmth and welcoming turned to looks of disgust as they remarked that people were in poverty because of the prices Hershey was paying for the cocoa.

Wait a minute! We were buying all that cocoa from these farmers through the commodities market. Hershey was the company providing income for millions of families. We were part of the solution, not part of the problem. It’s the market (the law of supply and demand) that dictates the price.

These graduates talked abou "Fair Trade" as the solution, but artificially raising the price of a good eventually creates an imbalance in supply that would lead the prices to come crashing down for lack of demand. I think "Fair Trade’"is an option at small scale for people willing to support the movement.

That airport conversation kept me unsettled because a long-term business model designed to eradicate poverty didn’t exist.  Now it was 4 years later, and I had just been told my passion was to solve the most difficult of problems with comprehensive solutions.

Not many get to see the impoverished lives in Africa. It was something that was indelibly etched in my mind.  It wasn’t long on my journey before the idea popped into my head “build food factories in third world nations to bring lasting economic transformation.”

The more I pondered this possibility, the more focused a concept became. The concept I have named “The Sunshine Approach.” It is a business model that brings hope, philanthropy, purpose, dignity, and competitive excellence. I would bring the elements of my past into this concept.

Those elements were high-performing teams, competence, competitiveness, leverage, scalability, and common sense.

I had staffed that cocoa -processing factory with a team of five multi-disciplined engineers instead of the average 20 employees in similar factories around the world. When you run equipment at peak efficiency with a lean team, and you make it fun to work there – it makes it hard for your competitors. There is nothing better than tapping into the unlimited potential of employees. People need to see their value in the chain, be appreciated for their contribution, and given the freedom to excel.

What is possible in rural Africa?

At a meat-processing company in my early 20s, I was the sole engineer for two factories and handled 37 capital-equipment installation projects involving 73 new pieces of production machinery over a span of five years. This also included the design and building of plant additions and a distribution center. This experience gave me the confidence to handle any project – especially in third world conditions.

When asked to help the Hershey plant in Mexico during the country’s devaluation in 1994, I moved the Giant Kiss production from an automated line in Hershey to a fully manual line in Mexico and was able to demonstrate significant savings using people instead of machines. This experience serves well for Africa, where my desire is to employ people. As an industrial engineer with a minor in automation, I have learned there is no machine or robot that has the versatility and capability of a human mind.

When a new CEO arrived at Hershey in 2001 and brought in his external team of purchasing consultants expecting to cut out millions of dollars, they found little because I had captured that opportunity five years earlier. Suddenly I was in a newly created position as Director of Global Sourcing with an edict to the entire company from that new CEO stating “I don’t want a penny spent without Don Larson approving the buying strategy.” 

I had the time of my life those two years leveraging and negotiating over $100 million in savings to the company’s bottom line. That led to an annual oversight of $1.4 billion in another newly created position of Director of Strategic Sourcing.

It pains me to see the waste of resources in Africa. The process of volume aggregation and leverage can make a dollar seem like multiples of a dollar.

Back in 1997, Hershey had introduced boxed chocolates to the USA. The 75-year-old factory in Nova Scotia was unable to scale its production and was losing millions. I relocated in a month to manage operations and immediately stopped the hemorrhaging. Over the next three years, we went from 250 employees to over 700. It will be much easier to scale manual operations in Africa when growth occurs.

Common sense is needed in solutions. When you witness pallets of cheap liquor in tiny bottles arriving in remote villages at harvest time, while the children are hungry and diseased, you realize that giving the farmers additional money beyond the fair market price might not be the best plan. 

 I did some free consulting for the Tanzanian government in 2009. They toured me around the country looking at farms. Farmers didn’t need to know better techniques, as some were teaching them. Half of their crop was rotting in the fields. They needed a market. The consultants told them to export fresh produce to Europe, but they didn’t have the roads, ports, or discipline to be viable.

They needed food processing – the ability to convert their harvests to shelf stable. Food would then be good for years – allowing export and stopping hunger in periods of scarcity.

The Sunshine Approach incorporates the above elements and purposely focuses on Transformation. I knew about the triple bottom line model of financial, environmental, and social. But giving to the poor and needy wasn’t enough. It had to go beyond social to include transformational. That is why I coined the term "Quadruple Bottom Line’."  The Sunshine Approach would incorporate financial, environmental, social, and transformational objectives.

This business model is built on a 90 percent distribution of the company’s net proceeds back to the poor and orphaned in Africa. The sale of products in the world’s finest retailers provides the engine for transformation. It would involve small farm holders in Africa and pay them fairly. We would locate food-processing factories near the farming communities to bring them a market and jobs. These world-class factories would be used to teach food processing at the local universities.

The 90 percent distribution would include 30 percent going back to the farmers through "hand-ups" not handouts – projects like clean water wells, nutritional supplements, and so on to raise the standard of living. We will leverage purchases of fertilizer, tree saplings, building materials, well-drilling, medical supplies, etc., with the allocated proceeds to make every dollar seem like multiples.

Another 30 percent would go to orphan care. Our factories would hire a large percentage of young adults leaving these orphanages, further educate them, and look to promote them into positions of leadership.

The final 30 percent would build food companies in other African nations in different food categories to spread the prosperity resulting from The Sunshine Approach.

So I am now on the road to execution of this model. That road led me to Mozambique where I have lived with my family the last two years building The Sunshine Nut Company. Our small roasting factory’s 50 employees will mean employment for over 1,000 employees in the shelling factories and 50,000 farming families receiving fair pricing for the cashews we purchase.

Look for the sale of these delicious products to be the engine to drive transformation among the poor, the orphaned, and those wanting opportunity.

Providing hope never tasted so good.

Don Larson is founder and CEO of The Sunshine Nut Company. 

This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.

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