Saving the Lives of Starving People in Africa Shouldn't Be This Hard

In California, El Niño has partially relieved the state’s four-year drought. But in Eastern and Southern Africa, the weather anomaly has led to the worst drought seen in nearly a century, causing massive crop failures, livestock deaths, and misery. Up to 20 million people are desperate for food.

Lubbock, Texas-based Breedlove Foods is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to target this devastation. Since the anti-hunger nonprofit was founded in 1994, it has distributed 1.5 billion servings of food in over 65 countries including the United States.

Breedlove Foods is an interesting operation. It describes itself as a "commercial-sized, nonprofit food processor," and it has own food plant, creating foods that are "nutritionally complete" and can be scaled for different needs. "We can package food for the needs of the individual, to shipping millions of servings in multiple ocean containers."

The goal of its latest campaign, called “Breedlove for Africa: Spreading Hope One Meal at a Time,” is relatively modestgetting three shipping containers of 3 million highly fortified, nutritious, dehydrated lentil and vegetable meals to the most vulnerable populations at a cost of $150,000. Breedlove board members have generously offered to match the first $75,000 raised.

The food processor has asked its development and humanitarian relief assistance specialist Mark Wentling to run the effort. Wentling has an impressive background, working for decades in Africa for the U.S. Agency for International Development and NGOs including CARE. He has visited or worked in all 54 African countries. In addition to English, he speaks French, Portuguese, Spanish, Ewe, Hausa and Kiswahili. He has written three books about Africa with a fourth on the way. He moved his family to Texas to work for Breedlove last June and has recently started teaching a course in international development at Texas Tech University.

“The main way that Breedlove Foods has funded its efforts is when there is a humanitarian crisis or disaster in the world, it has a partnering organization that raises the funds to get the food to where people need it,” Wentling told Inside Philanthropy. “For the past two or three years, Breedlove has partnered with USAID, which has paid for the food and shipped it to countries and partners that it has selected.” Breedlove has recently partnered with World Vision to ship one of those free containers to Zimbabwe, one of the countries hardest hit by the drought.

Although in the past, Breedlove has benefited from grants from such funders as CH Foundation, Talkington Foundation, and Forrest Foundation, grants have been more scarce lately. With so many of the biggest global development and health funders focused on creating long-term change, it can be tough to find support for the short-term work of actually responding to emergencies. (We've vented on this issue repeatedly at IP, especially in the context of refugee crises.)

Breedlove has tried innovative ways to get the word out about the African relief effort. One of them is AfriCook, a culinary competition held at Breedlove Foods in November 2015. Seven African students from Texas Tech University cooked and served meals from their native countries. The competition garnered a lot of attention as it kicked off the fundraising campaign. It is still about $18,000 short of meeting its goal. “And that is a just a drop in the bucket compared to the need,” said Wentling. He blames a shortfall on donor fatigue, yet he is grateful for the support Breedlove has received. “Most of the donations we received have been small amounts— $50, $100 from lots of people in the area. We have been on most of the local radio stations and TV stations. We haven’t ceased in our efforts to get the word out.”

Small donors have used the donation button at because it’s the easiest way to give, although the company will also take credit card donations over the phone or accept checks at its mailing address in Lubbock. Breedlove did get one anonymous, $10,000 donation postmarked from California. But the search continues for other donors. 

“Because of my years of working in humanitarian assistance I’ve been able to work my own personal network," Wentling said. "That’s how we got the World Vision grant. I have also been in contact with people from CARE, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, and Save the Children. Sometimes, they are very interested. For others, just taking one container is a bureaucratic burden for them, and it doesn’t fit well with their programs.”

The costs involved in providing relief include not just the food and shippin, but distributing it when was it arrives in Africa. It’s easier to get NGOs to participate in the effort if the food reaches the destinations without any costs on their part.

“My aim of coming here to Breedlove after almost 45 years of working in Africa is to help feed more hungry people," Wentling said. "We just want to increase our capacity to do more good. There is certainly a lot of potential, and there’s certainly a lot of need out there in the world."

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