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The entrepreneur turning West Africa’s food into its “new gold”

Ndidi Nwuneli is bringing her region’s food and agriculture systems into a new era

Courtesy of Ndidi Nwuneli
18 May 2021
18 May 2021

This post is also available in: Français

Ndidi Nwuneli will speak at the Global Landscapes Forum’s upcoming digital conference Restoring Africa’s Drylands: Accelerating Action On the Ground, 23 June. Register to join here.

It comes as no surprise that Ndidi Nwuneli was raised in a household that intentionally lacked a television in lieu of giving her and her siblings stars for reading a certain number of books within a week. The Nigerian has since gone on to earn degrees from the U.S.’s Wharton (during which she and her mother exchanged handwritten letters weekly) and Harvard universities, launch her career as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, and now embody the pinnacle of what it means to be a “serial entrepreneur.”

She’s the co-founder of AACE Food Processing & Distribution, whose mission it is to uplift the best of West Africa’s cereals, grains, herbs and vegetables, as well as the co-founder and managing partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition and Nourishing Africa. The number of boards on which she sits include the Rockefeller Foundation, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), AGRA, Nigerian Breweries Plc. and the African Philanthropy Forum.

But what makes Nwuneli unique in her ambition is that, harkening back to her childhood, values come before all else. “I believe that it critical for young people to develop a moral compass, because it determines how far you go in life,” she says. This propelled her to establish LEAP Africa in 2002, which aims to give young Africans the leadership and professional skills to usher the continent into an era of sustainable prosperity. Here, she tells Landscape News about this journey as well as her own.

You’ve had a career that’s brought you through working on projects in so many sectors. Why did you ultimately focus on food and agriculture?

Growing up, our home was surrounded with trees – mango, papaya, guava, cherry. I grew vegetables in our backyard, and my first commercial transaction was one day when all the branches fell off of an avocado tree that had never borne fruit the whole time we lived in that house. We looked outside and couldn’t figure it out, but then we saw all these huge avocados. For 10 years, not one fruit. And then one day, humongous avocados. So I put them in plastic bags and took them to the market to sell wholesale. I was 12 or 13.

But I think what really got me into this agricultural sector was coming to the U.S. and seeing that the face of Africa was a hungry child. I mean, people would tell me stuff like, “Oh, my mom says, ‘Finish your dinner. There are hungry children in Ethiopia.’” And all these infomercials, “Send 10 dollars to a child in Uganda.” And then you see starving African children. That really made me angry, because I didn’t recognize that face. That’s wasn’t my reality.

Then 2008 was the world food crisis, and I happened to be in Senegal. I had never seen some of the food issues like I saw them there. That African hungry child picture, I saw it in parts of Senegal. I was shocked that they were importing rice – broken rice that is more expensive than whole grain rice – from Thailand. Or I would see bags of U.S. rice with a big tag, “Donated by the good people of America.” I started seeing distortions and how policies and interventions were driving up the prices and creating inefficiencies in the system. This drove me ultimately to start AACE Foods and Sahel Consulting.

Farmers harvest pineapples in Nigeria. Terry Sunderland, CIFOR
Farmers harvest pineapples in Nigeria. Terry Sunderland, CIFOR

You’ve referenced Nigerian agriculture as its ‘new gold.’ What do you mean by this term, and how is the narrative around Nigerian and West African food changing?

Nigeria has historically been an oil-dependent country. But what we realized over the last few years with the oil shocks, the move to renewables and other issues is that we’re naturally endowed for agricultural excellence. We can generate revenue and create jobs by investing in the food and agriculture sector and transforming it into a profitable sector. In fact, the African Development Bank estimated agribusiness can be a more than USD 1 trillion industry in Africa. My conviction is to ensure that we become net exporters of food and also that the nutritious food produced in our countries is available, affordable and acceptable for the local populations.

You’ve penned 11 books and a number of articles, in which you’ve addressed a range of problems in West African food systems, from the rise of fast food to food fraud.  What’s the starting point for transforming this region’s food and agriculture?

I think there are three catalysts. One is policy at the national, state, local and regional levels. And this policy needs to take an ecosystem approach, where all the ministries and stakeholders are working together. Because if not, who suffers in the end? The local consumers, the local farmers. This is what keeps happening over and over again in West African countries, because nobody takes an ecosystem approach. COVID-19 was the first time people started asking me about overcoming our silos, like how to link infrastructure, health, gender, climate and trade interventions into agriculture interventions – that is an ecosystem approach.

And then the second key intervention is focusing on SMEs. I think this is where we’ve often missed the mark. You see all of these interventions for smallholder farmers on one end, and then you see all these interventions focused on multinationals on the other. But you want to change the way farmers work, or how they grow their crops? Go and get an SME that’s committed to backward integration to transform the way it works with farmers and its sources. And that way you have sustainable development because farmers just improving their productivity without demand is a waste.

The third thing is closing the gender gap. Everybody talks about the power of closing a gender gap, how it contributes to GDP growth, etc. But in the food and agriculture sector, it’s even more important because women are often the custodians of the household and the decision-makers around nutrition and food consumed. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle.

Nwuneli with fellows of LEAP Africa's Social Innovators Programme. Courtesy of Ndidi Nwuneli
Nwuneli with fellows of LEAP Africa’s Social Innovators Programme. Courtesy of Ndidi Nwuneli

SMEs are often overlooked as solutions. How is AACE Foods engaging with them?

AACE works with 10,000 farmers, and we can incentivize then to change behavior because they have a guaranteed off-taker. Through our work with Sahel Consulting, we’re working in the yam, cassava, maize and dairy value chains, supporting SMEs to play a catalytic role and scale. For example, Sahel is implementing the Advancing Local Dairy Development in Nigeria (ALDDN) program, where we work with six processors committed to local sourcing. Because of this commitment, we can put thousands of dairy households into clusters and teach them how to supply high-grade milk along with how to improve their nutrition and livelihoods. These farmers are willing to change behavior because of the demand, because they know then there’s a sustainable income stream linked to that behavior change.

I firmly believe that SMEs are the hidden middle. If they’re efficient and if they scale, then we can have the catalytic effects that we expect in the ecosystem because they are the conduits.

You mentioned the necessity of West African countries becoming both net exporters of food while also making that food accessible to their own vulnerable populations. How is this two-sided equation accomplished?

Right now in Nigeria, 57 percent of household income is spent on food. So nutritious food is not affordable for the average consumer, and to the most vulnerable it’s definitely not accessible. That’s why one out of every three Nigerian children is stunted. So the challenge for us is how to increase the productivity of our farmers, reduce post-harvest losses and enhance processing capacity locally so that more people can access more affordable, nutritious food.

In 2020, I was appointed by the government as the coordinator of the Technical Working Group for Agriculture, Food security, and Rural development as we plan for 2050. One of the things we’ve debated is whether, as a country, we should be prioritizing import substitution versus export-led growth versus food self-sufficiency. However, we have decided to prioritize food self-sufficiency – the production and processing of food that is nutritious, affordable and accessible, and we’re going to invest in starting an enabling environment to reduce inefficiencies in our ecosystem.

That’s the first priority, and every country has to prioritize its own citizens because if children are not well nourished, it affects brain development, which can determine their future outcomes.

Second is import substitution. Where we can grow and process locally, we can reduce our import bill. This requires policies that foster backward integration, and clear incentives that promote local sourcing and discourage imports. It also requires that companies invest in innovation, to find local substitutes for their imported raw materials and inputs.

The third priority is export-led growth. I put it as number three because if you address the first two, you’ve already won more than half the battle. Even with export-led growth, Africa has to prioritize exporting processed products, instead of commodities, to ensure more value creation and revenue growth locally. This is where government policy that’s enabling, consistent and supportive has to come in, and with the ecosystem approach, ensuring aligned incentives and effective communications between all of the critical actors.

Schoolchildren in Ghana. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
Schoolchildren in Ghana. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

You founded LEAP to educate and equip Africa’s youth to become better leaders and entrepreneurs. How do you hope that this rising generation is going to lead the continent differently?

LEAP’s mission is to inspire, empower and equip the next generation of principled, dynamic and visionary leaders that will transform Africa. Young people are often told that they’re leaders of tomorrow. At LEAP, we say, you’re leaders of today and tomorrow. As a young person, you have energy, you’re willing to take risks. You’re the most creative. It is important that we ensure that young people realize that they are change agents, and that they can make a difference in their spheres of influence. We provide life, leadership and employability trainings, internships and mentoring. We also enable our youth to start change projects in their communities to improve the lives of others.

The LEAP team is really focused on secondary education as well. We’re engaging people younger, between the ages of 13 and 15, and through the support of the MasterCard Foundation, training teachers to deliver our curriculum in six African countries. And that’s a way of scaling, so the curriculum is embedded within the school system, and you’re able to replicate the same components.

Your identity as a Christian is such a core part of who you are, and one that you do not hide. Could you tell a little bit about your experience living out your faith?

My commitment to living a life of purpose and integrity is deeply rooted in my Christian faith. God is the source of my vision, passion and strength, and I can’t separate it from who I am. I’ve gotten bolder about talking about my faith in the business world, and that’s because it’s such an important part of who I am, my ethos and my compass. And I think for us, as individuals, women and business leaders, you have to walk into every room with your authentic self. I firmly believe that none should be forced to hide who they are, provided  we treat each other with respect and dignity.


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