Dr. Steve Sonka

Steve Sonka is Emeritus Chaired Professor of Agricultural Strategy at the University of Illinois. Currently he also serves as Fellow at the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland and Senior Economist at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. A co-founder of the Centrec Consulting Group, LLC, in Savoy, Illinois, he was a partner there for more than 25 years.

At Illinois, he was the first faculty member to hold the Soybean Industry Chair in Agricultural Strategy, funded by Illinois soybean farmers.   During his tenure at Illinois, he served as the Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement, the first Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory, and the first Director of the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Post-harvest Loss. He provided research and strategic support for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Waste and Spoilage Initiative and the current YieldWise Initiative.

From an Iowa farm family, Dr. Sonka received a Bachelor’s degree (1970, with distinction) and a Ph.D. degree (1974) in economics from Iowa State University. He joined the University of Illinois faculty in 1975.  Since then, he also has held assignments with the Monsanto Corporation; New Zealand’s AGMARDT Foundation; Arthur Andersen & Co.; and the Institute of Agribusiness, Santa Clara University.

Dr. Sonka’s teaching and research emphasize strategic change and decision making in the food and agribusiness sector.  He has authored or coauthored over 220 books, articles and publications.  In 1983, he authored Computers in Farming, the first text devoted to computer use in the sector.   An internationally known scholar, he has been recognized with national professional awards for the quality of both his teaching and research.  Dr. Sonka is well known for his unusual ability to relate that scholarship to practical issues of importance to decision makers.  His international experiences include consulting and lecturing on every continent except Antarctica.

Jim Kirkwood

Jim Kirkwood brings 38 years of cross-functional experience in the Food, Ag and Pet Food industry including assignments in Innovation, R&D, Marketing, General Management, Operations, Central Research and Quality

Jim recently retired from General Mills Inc. as Chief Science and Technology Development Officer and Vice President, GTECH; (General Mills’ Global Center for Technology Creation). In this role, Jim led a team of research scientist and engineers in identifying and developing broadly applicable strategic technologies to “change the game” and enable sustainable growth for all of the company’s Global Operating units. He was responsible for leading GMI’s central technology organization which included developing technology in Crop Bio sciences, grain, macro ingredients, advanced packaging/process technologies as well as technologies to maximize consumer experience in the areas of taste, texture, and trust. His team additionally was responsible for advancing the company’s connected innovation effort.

Jim founded the GTECH organization in 2006 after spending the previous 10 years leading application R&D and innovation efforts in several key business units. These included Director roles in Pillsbury’s Refrigerated/Frozen Baked Goods Division, and VP of R&D for Snacks and Small Planet (organic) Foods Innovation. During his tenure in Snacks, several large and very profitable new businesses were created including the Sweet and Salty and Fiber 1 Snack franchises.

He also spent five years as Vice President of the GMI One Global Meals Platform where he led support for the six Divisions which offer Meals and side dish products. His team’s responsibilities included the stewardship of product quality as well as the development of new products, new differential technologies, product/package Improvements and productivity for the Brands in the Meals Global platform including Green Giant, Old El Paso, Totino’s, Progresso, Hamburger Helper, Wanchai Ferry and Betty Crocker Potatoes.

Cross-functionally Jim served in General Mills Supply Chain, Sourcing Technology and Supplier Quality Assurance leadership roles. Prior to General Mills, Jim also served in various cross-functional leadership positions at Heinz, Quaker Oats and Kellogg including General Manger/Marketing Director for the Kibbles ‘n Bits Pet Food business, Director of New Products Marketing for Quaker Pet Foods and several R&D product, process and package development roles in the food and pet food business.

Jim’s education includes an MBA from the University of Chicago and a BS in Chemical Engineering from Purdue University.

Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson is deeply committed to the advancement of agriculture, making it more productive, efficient and sustainable around the globe. Raised on his family’s farming operation and having spent his lifetime working in agriculture, Mark’s most recent work with Context spans more than two decades of leading strategy and management consulting engagements for industry-leading agriculture, biotechnology and food companies, and governmental and non-governmental agencies and institutions. He has been central in shaping Context’s international agricultural development practice through grant-making strategy, program design and monitoring and evaluation engagements with prominent foundations and agencies including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Mark’s proven leadership in guiding large-scale client engagements across diverse geographies consistently produces on-time, in-budget results.

Joanne Hale

Joanne Hale combines two graduate degrees in agriculture and economics (Stanford and University of California/Davis) and 11 years of agricultural volunteer work (Papua New Guinea and Philippines) with 20 years of high profile professional positions in Asia, Central Asia and Africa.   Her 11 years of grass roots experience with basic agricultural challenges and critical food security concerns were key to her success in Washington DC as the USAID Deputy Director of the Office of Southern Africa, managing a $500 million portfolio for ten countries focused, inter alia, on economic reforms and joint business ventures. Her proven leadership was subsequently showcased as the USAID/Nepal Director of a $190 million portfolio and a staff of 100. Her management and supervisory capabilities were underscored as the USAID/Uzbekistan Director of a $150 million program focused on agricultural and trade reforms. Joanne’s consultancies with USDA included leading the strategy design for Five Year Agricultural Food Security Programs in Malawi and Rwanda under President Obama’s Feeding the Future Initiative. She played the lead role in the design of a privatized 15-country West African regional fertilizer and seed program. As a Context Network consultant, Joanne conducted in-country market analysis and value chain assessments for plantain, matooke and enset food staples in Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, Joanne is as a faculty member of the Food and Agribusiness Institute in the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, California. She is also on the Board of Directors for Context Global Development.

Will Rogers

Will is currently serving as Program Director for CGD, overseeing implementation of agricultural development programs across Africa. Will is an experienced international development and consulting professional with over 13 years working in agricultural development program management, donor engagement, program design, value chain analysis, competitive landscape assessment, market entry strategy, adjacency analysis, product positioning and strategic intelligence. Will has experience working with Fortune 500 companies and leading private foundations in the agriculture, industrial, technology and consumer sectors. He has an enthusiasm for Food and Ag Technology and is eager to use his consulting abilities to find innovative ways of identifying and deploying these new solutions to aid development efforts in emerging economies. Will has lived and worked in Western Europe, China, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Most recently, he was based in Accra, Ghana where he managed programs across West Africa focused on designing new value chain models for staple grains and RTB (roots, tubers and bananas) crops.