Nigerian entrepreneur promotes the continent’s role in the global food system
When Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli thinks about Africa’s potential, she wants to see a mindset change, beginning in the supermarket. “We have to recognize Africa’s place in the global food system,” the Nigerian entrepreneur said in a speech at MEDA’s annual convention in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Nwuneli has over 25 years of international development experience. She is a recognized author, public speaker, philanthropist, and consultant. Nwuneli worked as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company in the US and South Africa. She returned to Nigeria in 2000 to become executive director of a foundation that supports young entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses. For the past 14 years, she has focused on transforming the African agriculture and nutrition landscape.
“God has given Africa a natural endowment in agriculture,” she said. “Most things that you throw on the ground grow.” But she believes the contribution Africa has made to global diets, and its future potential, often goes unrecognized.
People are unaware that okra is derived from a Nigerian Igbo word. They don’t know that 70 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, she said. “We’re more connected to Africa than we know.” Understanding Louisianan gumbo’s Nigerian roots and coffee’s Ethiopian roots are important steps in shifting how the world views Africa. “My friend says that if you had a Coke or a coffee today, you have Africa to thank for it.”
She dreams that international products will end up on grocery shelves in Lancaster and across North America. She also wants to see products promoted as Nigerian, South African or Tanzanian rather than just being called African. “We’ve seen how sushi in 20 years transformed the way the world views Japan. It can (also) happen in Africa.”
Nwuneli has curated an African food preparation event with philanthropist Bill Gates, and an African food festival at Harvard University to raise awareness. She encouraged the audience to participate in her dream of getting more African food on global shelves.
Nwuneli has an ambitious vision of how this will come about: through the efforts of one million entrepreneurs. “It’s not about alleviating poverty — it’s about creating wealth.” Life experience has taught her that altering the narrative about Africa is an important goal. “Changing the narrative of Africa changes how you view the people.”
Raised in Enugu, Nigeria, she moved to the US at age 16. She was constantly confronted with a single, outdated story about Africa. Nwuneli was born eight years after the Biafran conflict of the late 1960s resulted in millions of deaths in Nigeria. But in the US, she still saw images of a needy child presented as the face of the continent. The face of poverty was consistently shown to be a female farmer from Africa. “This is a stubborn image that has stayed in my mind.”
She doesn’t downplay the challenges facing a continent whose population will nearly double to 2.4 billion by 2050. People need to understand that we are facing a global food crisis, she said. Massive floods in Nigeria in October killed hundreds of people, displaced over 1.5 million, and led to crop failures. War in Ukraine has worsened fertilizer shortages and increased food inflation. For some of her Nigerian teammates, the daily diet is zero-one-zero: “skip breakfast, have lunch, skip dinner.”
African entrepreneurs face critical realities every day, she said. Climate change, high post-harvest losses, limited processing, a hostile regulatory environment, and gender inequality all pose barriers to success. Female farmers produce 30 percent less than their male counterparts, as they lack access to fertilizer and other inputs. Extreme weather connected to climate change could set back progress by three decades, she said. Furthermore, many people think African farmers are not entrepreneurs. “That mindset has to shift.”
Still, she sees signs of promise ahead. “What gives me hope as an entrepreneur in Africa is technology.” Digital innovations can allow firms to leapfrog throughout the agricultural value chain, she said. Tools allow entrepreneurs to gather data in unprecedented ways. Over the years she has come to recognize that financing is key for small-scale farmers to get ahead.
But she isn’t thinking primarily about charity. She recognized that private sector initiatives need to drive growth. Ensuring that models are cost-effective and that innovations are demand-driven, needs to happen when companies are founded, she said. “Microfinance wasn’t helping women entrepreneurs, because their business models were faulty.” Providing money for ventures that were losing money was unsustainable, so Nwuneli had to shift her mindset.
Twenty years ago, she started a non-profit called LEAP Africa. The LEAP acronym stands for leadership, effectiveness, accountability, and professionalism. This youth-led organization works to inspire, empower and equip dynamic, principled, and innovative African leaders. It now operates in eight African nations.
In 2010, she established Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition. Sahel is a management consulting firm committed to transforming Africa’s agriculture and nutrition landscape. It has worked with MEDA in Tanzania. Nwuneli has considerable experience in the food processing business as well. She and her husband founded AACE Foods, which sources from over 10,000 farmers. It produces a range of spices and other packaged food products for local and international markets.
The company has 150 full-time staff, 90 percent of whom are women. It also works with 2,000 distributors. Another of her ventures, Africa Food Changemakers, supports entrepreneurs in 37 countries to start and grow resilient and sustainable agri-businesses. “Our vision is a million entrepreneurs transforming the continent and ensuring we feed ourselves and the world.”
Over the course of her entrepreneurial journey, she has learned a lot about the challenges of scaling social innovation. “Pilot programs are nice, but we need scale.” Her mission is to help entrepreneurs scale their businesses and transform the landscape.
“Our vision is a million entrepreneurs transforming the continent and ensuring we feed ourselves and the world.”— Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli
Getting there will require prioritizing and investing in local organizations, she said. Of $9 billion of US foundation funding in sub-Saharan Africa from 2011 to 2015, only 5.9 percent went to local organizations. “We need to build the capacity of local organizations and partner with them. This is critical.”
In 2018, local and national non-governmental organizations received only .4 percent of inter-national humanitarian aid directly.
“We must shift funding to local organizations and avoid the temptation to crowd them out. Interventions can be dangerous to the local markets.” More investment is crucial, but that funding must focus on medium and long-term needs, she said. “Food aid can be damaging for small businesses in Africa because it distorts the market.”
She told a story of looking for whole grain rice in a Senegalese market, and the only rice she could find was from the US. “Instead of working through local farmers, who already grow the rice, and ensuring that it can get to the most vulnerable, we are bringing in rice and displacing the farmers.”
Changing narratives about Africa is critically important, she said. “All of us must become mindset champions.” She hopes that when people think about the region, they will think of innovation driven by Africa’s vibrant entrepreneurs. She pointed to several MEDA clients who spoke at the convention as examples of this change. “You’ve seen entrepreneurs who are creating jobs, who are creating wealth, who are fixing the ecosystem, who are driving change — but they need your support to scale. They’re not just going to scale in Africa, they are going to scale globally.”
“When you invest in entrepreneurs, you invest in nations.” Disasters help to sift out the resilient, the resourceful, and the brave, she said. Nwuneli speaks frankly of her Christian beliefs. She was introduced to the Christian faith by university students who came to her home. That message became “the driving force in my life.” “I believe people of faith are special. I believe that God has called us for such a time like this. The inequities in our continent, Africa, and across the world, are only growing.”
She urged people to invest in keeping with the legacy they want to leave. A legacy of service and impact for future generations. She quoted a young African speaking to a president. The youth said his generation is no longer asking God to grant them the serenity to accept the things that they cannot change. Instead, they are asking the Almighty to give them wisdom and courage to change the things they cannot accept.
“There are things we cannot accept and values that we share around poverty, around inequity,” she said. “We need the courage and wisdom to change them. And we can change them, in our lifetime. I look forward to celebrating more successes with MEDA, as we transform our continent, and God gives us the courage to do so.”