Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is an expert on African agriculture and nutrition, philanthropy, and social innovation. She has over 25 years of international development experience and is a recognised serial entrepreneur, author, public speaker, and consultant. Through her work in the private, public, and non-profit sectors, she has led the design and execution of high-impact initiatives focused on policy, strategy, organisational design, ecosystem solutions, and growth.
Ndidi Nwuneli is the Managing Partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Ltd., which works across West Africa shaping agricultural policy, creating catalytic ventures, and implementing ecosystem solutions. She is also the co-founder of AACE Foods, which sources from over 10,000 farmers and produces a range of packaged spices, seasonings, and cereals for local and international markets.
Ndidi is the founder of LEAP Africa which inspires, empowers, and equips a new cadre of principled, disciplined and dynamic young leaders in Africa. She is also the founder and chair of Nourishing Africa, a digital knowledge and data business focused on enabling agribusiness entrepreneurs to scale.
Ndidi started her career as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, working in their Chicago, New York and Johannesburg Offices.
She holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree with honours from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She was a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business & Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.
Ndidi was recognised as a Young Global Leader and Schwab Social Innovator by the World Economic Forum and received a National Honor from the Nigerian Government. Ndidi serves on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation, AGRA, Nigerian Breweries Plc. (Heineken), Godrej Consumer Products Ltd. India, Fairfax Africa Holdings Canada, BusinessDay Newspapers, Royal DSM Sustainability Board, Netherlands, and the African Philanthropy Forum.
She is the author of “Social Innovation in Africa: A Practical Guide for Scaling Impact,” published by Routledge. Her new book titled “Food Entrepreneurs in Africa: Scaling Resilient Agriculture Businesses” will be published by Routledge in 2021. She is a TED Global speaker and her work has been featured on CNN, BBC, and a range of international and local media outlets.
I grew up in Enugu. I was born and raised in Enugu. My parents are both Professors and I’m from a family of five, four girls and a boy, I am the middle child. My family is very loving and supportive. My mum is American and they still live in Enugu. Thank God they are still healthy and strong, and they are fantastic parents.
When I look back at my childhood, I’ll say my parents were incredible role models and supporters and they prioritised Nigeria, they believe in Nigeria’s future, and my mum is a historian, so she taught us about Nigerian history. My father is a Pharmacologist, but he taught us to be proud of our culture. So, I’m very proud to be Igbo, I’m proud to be Nigerian, I’m proud to be African and I value the importance of values and ethics.
My parents instilled very strong values of hard work and ethics in us through the way they lived their lives, through the choices they made and through how they gave back to the society. I am a middle child, so, I have two younger and two older siblings and they are all amazing. My two older sisters set a very high bar. My immediate elder sister won several awards in Nigeria. She won best JSS exam, best this, best that and every time I’ll go and receive prizes in her honour. So, to have these siblings, you can’t go wrong.
I remember when I sat for my JSS exams, the teachers came and said, ‘copy from her she’s an Okonkwo’, but they didn’t know I was a Christian who had sold out for God, so I covered my books and said “nobody can copy from me because I’m not copying from anybody”. But it’s so amazing to live up to these expectations because your siblings have gone ahead of you and are so brilliant. I think for me, that set a very high bar. My immediate sister went to Harvard and is now a Professor of Economics. All my siblings are extremely accomplished. Being with them is like iron sharpens iron and till today, they are my biggest role models and supporters.
I set up LEAP Africa in 2002, and it’s now 18 years old and we work in 6 African countries and I’m really proud of the LEAP team. I started LEAP because I was really angry about the state of affairs in Africa. In 2002, we were now in a democracy, and I was in Latin America, Guatemala, when I came with the idea for LEAP. I looked out of the window I didn’t see any potholes, I didn’t see any police, they didn’t take the light, and Guatemala is supposed to be one of the poorest Latin American countries.
I asked “what is going on here? Why can’t we get it right?” So, I came up with four words: Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Professionalism, that’s what LEAP stands for. The desire is that we have to infuse these qualities into our young Africans so they can believe in themselves and they can become leaders of today and tomorrow.
I was told that we’re leaders of tomorrow, but I realised that these same people who were telling us that we’re leaders of tomorrow in the 70s, were telling us that we’re leaders of tomorrow in the 80s, were telling us we’re leaders of tomorrow in the 90s and they are the same ones still in power, and that it was imperative that we change our mindset, that we can lead today and tomorrow. When you are young is when you have energy, you’re willing to take a risk, you have time and you’re most creative. That’s when you should lead, not when you’re in your 70s and should be resting.
We wanted to redefine leadership as an act and not a position. What makes you a leader is not a title, it’s what you do with that title, and you don’t even need a title to lead; the conviction that you could see a problem in your society, have a vision for how to solve that problem and galvanise others to join in that vision, that’s what defines leadership.
So, we developed a curriculum to teach leadership. We also incorporated ethics into our training, a bottom-up approach to teaching ethics and succession, so that once you’ve started something, you also pass it on to others. That’s one of the problems we have in Nigeria and Africa. LEAP was the first organisation to pioneer training on succession planning and to write eleven books to help young people and business owners build companies that will outlive them.
What has changed since it was started?
I stopped running LEAP day-to-day since 2007. It has been under new management. After I left, Mosun Layode, who runs African Philanthropy Forum, took over. Then he had Olubode, and now we have Taiwo.
What has changed? First, it’s still young people running LEAP. It’s an organisation for young people by young people and that is something we don’t want to change. Our values of integrity, ethics and accountability have not changed. But what has changed is that we’ve leveraged technology to scale. There is no way that you can scale doing one-on-one training which is what we’re doing. When we started, we used to train people one-on-one. We go to universities, churches, mosques, we go to communities, and we realised we can only reach hundreds, we can’t reach thousands, we can’t reach millions, and to really make this change happen across Africa, you have to reach millions.
So now, our curriculum focuses on teaching teachers to deliver our curriculum. We teach teachers in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Ghana, they deliver our curriculum. Our curriculum has even been translated into Amharic which is the Language of Ethiopia. That same curriculum has been tried and tested but we’re scaling. So, that’s one thing that has changed, technology.
The second thing is when we started LEAP, we focused on having a Nigerian Youth Leadership Awards to recognise young Nigerians to show alternative role models because at that time, people said I want to be a youth leader but I don’t know who to look at, so we started the Annual Nigerian Youth Leaders Awards. Now, we call it the Social Innovators Programme and Awards that every year, we select people who are already social innovators, we give them funding and enable them to scale. So, that’s something else that has evolved.
Every organisation needs a strong board and our board has changed. We started off with some phenomenal board members who are pioneer board members, but as they served their term and the needs of the organisation changed, we needed new skill set. So, we have more in the media now on the board because we realised the power of the media to change mind sets and to scale.
We have a lot more people with technology background on our board because of technology and how important it is today and obviously; we have people who are still entrepreneurs and are still dynamic in the space.
Across the world, there’s been a natural challenge between the police and young people, between the police and people of colour. It’s rampant across the world, across Africa. What inspired me about EndSARS was how organised it was, how decentralised it was, how dynamic the leadership was, how consistent and transparent they were. I was inspired that every day we got account of how much money has been raised and where that money had been distributed.
In the protest there was food, there was health care, there was even a charging point for phones. That level of organisation was unmatched and to see them cleaning up after every protest was phenomenal.
So, from an organisational perspective, I applaud the young people. I am an advocate for peaceful protest. The tragedy that occurred was what blew my mind. I cried and cried and my heart was broken. People were calling me, CEOs, and were crying. That’s why you can never underscore the sacrifice of those who have paid the ultimate price with their lives.
It got people who were in the comfort zone out of their comfort zone to say we have to fight for this country. But we have to do it peacefully. So, the looting and all the things that occurred after, I don’t subscribe to it at all. The violence, is unacceptable, the physical backlash against the police is unacceptable. So, I condemn all of those. It goes against the ethos of a peaceful protest and diminishes all the good work that was put forward.
But what excites me in the movement is how the diaspora is coming out to say we are Nigerians, what can we do? I was so excited. That type of interest in our country, we have to maximize it, we have to channel it and make sure that we continue to tell positive stories about the breakthroughs and changes that will emerge from EndSARS.
Advise on next steps after EndSARS protest
Everybody has to look at themselves and understand their appetite for risk, their financial capacity, their skill set and what they can bring to the table. Some of us are storytellers, amplify the voices, tell the story. Tell the stories across the board. There’s a role for the visionary, the person who will come up with the ideas, the person who’s going to say “I’m going to run in 2023, I’m going to create a political party”. There’s a role for the caretaker. They’re the people behind the scenes, the lawyers who are doing the revision of the constitution, the healers: emotional and physical headers, the doctors, the therapists, there are roles for all of us.
My role is a connector. All of us have a role to play so nobody should say they can’t do anything. Some will be in front, some will be behind, but everybody has a role to play. This inflection point, we cannot ignore it. It will be part of our history and it will redefine the future of this nation.
Immediately after I was depressed, but when I started getting messages from young people to say “Ndidi we have this idea can you advise us? We want to start this, what do you think?” I was so excited, I said wow, this is exactly what I was hoping would come out of this, like 20 new ventures, that are around people having power, people transforming their communities, reforming elections, and that’s what keeps me hopeful. Also, the fact that the young people have the energy, they have the time and they are willing to take the risk, go for it. We have to support them. But everything has to be done with integrity and in a transparent manner because that’s the credibility we cannot afford to waste.
Would you say the youths have been pushed to the wall?
We were inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. What we saw in the United States, inspired the believe that it can be done. What the BLM movement has done is that, companies that never had blacks as board of directors, now have them, companies that never had black products on their shelf, 15 per cent of their products now have to be sourced from black owned companies. We can see tangible impacts from the BLM movement and they haven’t stopped. They’re still putting pressure on companies.
For me, when we see something happen in other parts of the world by our people, we realize that if they could do it, so can we and if they could do it in such an organised fashion, so can we. I think it was the cascading of events that led to this spark and the partnership across the divide that led to this spark.
Police brutality has been happening for the last 20 years, but the now, we have social media, we have our telephones. The power of the telephone we didn’t have in the 80s and early 90s. Nobody can disprove what is recorded live. That power is unmatched and that’s what young people know how to use better than all of us.
Passion for Agriculture
I’m now deeply immersed in agriculture and food security, and what sparked my interest was that, when I first moved to America, the face of Africa was a hungry child. Every dinner party I go to people will say, “Where are you from?” My parents used to say “finish your food; there are hungry children in Biafra”. The concept of Africa was this strong association. In 2008, I went to a conference in Oslo; I was hearing statistics that blew my mind. 40 to 60 per cent of our vegetables go to waste and it was the heart of the food crisis in 2008 and during the food crisis people couldn’t afford food.
I was angry, that this continent, naturally endowed for agriculture has no business importing food. So, I decided to start a bunch of companies and the first one was AACE Foods, co-founded with my husband in 2009. AACE Foods is a local agro processing company that is a catalyst, proving that we can source locally and process healthy food for the local market.
We have a young team running it. We produce a range of spices, we have beans flower, and we’re introducing a range of snacks. We work with 10, 000 farmers, we source locally, and we’re proudly Nigerian. Now we export to South Africa, Europe and we’re starting small exports to the United States and England. It proves to you that you can start a company locally, source locally and meet the needs of your people and employ people.
The greatest benefit I have had from starting AACE Foods is seeing our factory workers and the impact health insurance has on families. When we have our Christmas parties and I see all these families, it just makes me so excited.
We started a literacy programme and now, they know how to read and write and can move up in the company. It is about the joy of starting a manufacturing company and then you see the impact not only on the suppliers, but the farmers, the staff and the distributors.
And then we started Sahel Consulting which I run every day and that also is 10 years old this year. We’re doing a lot in of things in dairy, cassava and yam and we’re basically transforming the dairy sector.
We have staff in Kaduna, Katsina, Adamawa, Jigawa, and Plateau States. We have put these nomadic communities in clusters and supplying solar panels, boreholes, teaching them farm feed and fodder, doing livestock training and support and they produce fresh milk and supply to the dairy processors. I have a dynamic team also running there.
Has Nigeria really grasped the potential in Agriculture?
Unfortunately, not. We still have a long way to go. We still think of Agriculture as a science or as a rural development initiative. The government is very much involved in agriculture as a rural development initiative. We need to shift that mind-set. There are countries that have transformed their economies with agriculture and food as the driver. I want to shift us from agriculture to a food ecosystem, where you’re thinking about processing high-quality food. So, we’re not exporting cashew, to India, it’s cleaned in India, processed in India and then sold to the United States.
The same with our cocoa, exporting cocoa and reimporting chocolate. We need to shift that mind-set to a food ecosystem where we are saying from farm to fore, where we have food that is available and affordable.
If we cannot reduce the cost of food and ensure the availability and affordability all year round of nutritious food in our country, we have failed our people. It’s not the government’s role to be involved in the sector, they should get out of the sector they’re the ones distorting the sector. They should create an enabling environment instead.
Talk about infrastructure, the transportation cost, it’s easier to bring a container of food from London to Lagos, than from Kano to Lagos, because of extortion and bad roads. It might take you four days to get your produce from Kano.
Government needs a streamline of policy. What we have is just a flip-flopping of policies and it is very hard for private companies to invest when there’s no consistent policy framework. We need security in our farms, we need security in our factories and a private company can’t do everything when it comes to securing the environment to thrive. Most of our farmers tell us that they can’t even stay in their farms anymore because they’re worried about being kidnapped or extorted.
There’s money in this sector but we are only scratching the surface because we continue to focus on primary production.
Current increase in food prices
I think it’s a combination of things. Because we don’t have transparency around food prices, there’s a lot distortion. The second part and the real issue is that we have to sort out our logistics challenges. You have a curfew in Kaduna for four days, no truck can move and Kaduna is so pivotal, so, you’ve basically stopped food supply.
Now, the trucks were loaded, so half of the supply has gone bad. Unless you see food as essential, during the lockdown, I had to lobby for the government to see food as essential because they were going to exclude food when they were talking about essential workers.
Our logistics issues have to be addressed. We have to institute clear systems and structures and rebuild our value chain. The cassava growers don’t work with the cassava processors who don’t work with the chefs who use cassava. We have to create cohesive value chain. And then our tariffs and quotas. If it’s easier to import maize from the United States, why should I grow it here? I’ll prefer to import.
Unless you align your tariffs and quotas with what you’re supporting locally, you’re going to fail and our farmers are going to be upset because they’ve made investments and they can’t compete. Climate change is real. This year we’ve had drought, we’ve had flooding in at least five states in Nigeria and our farms were covered in water.
Nobody talks about the loss of these farmers and every year it is getting progressively worse. So, how do we help these farmers mitigate against climate change? How do we help them adapt to climate change? What new techniques? Our extension services have completely failed. So, there’s so much to do.
Celebrating 10 years of Sahel
First, I’m grateful to God, it’s been an amazing experience. I didn’t study agriculture, so to come into this sector and become an expert is indeed God’s grace. I’ve just written a book called Food Entrepreneurs in Africa: scaling resilience agriculture businesses’ which will be published early next year and learning about the sector, the more I know this is where God wants me to be at this time. He’s called me into this sector to shape the future of our food ecosystem.
What am I excited about? I’m so excited about the impact we’ve made, the number of organisations we’ve helped, the countries we worked in: we worked in Ghana, in Benin Republic, Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and Nigeria and the value chains; they just gave me so much joy. We’re celebrating with a conference on the 4th of November, it’s a free conference. We’re really excited we’ve gotten some phenomenal speakers. We’re also going to be showcasing Nourishing Africa.
We launched a new digital business this year called nourishingafrica.com. Sahel incubated it but it’s now a stand- alone business run by young people as well. We’re just excited to make a difference in the sector and for the future. I believe that we have to continue expanding and deepening our work.
We want to partner with a lot of other organisations to work across Africa and we want to see if in our life time, we can reverse the trends in this sector. We want to become a net exporter of food, ensure that there is nutritious food for our people and that we change the narrative about what it means to be African and healthy. And that African food becomes recognised globally as one of the best foods.
Words of encouragement
I go through good and bad days as well. It’s natural and it’s normal. But I believe all of us were made for a time such as this and it is not an accident you’re born here, that you’re a Nigerian, it’s not an accident that you’re living in this time period. What you have to do is dig within yourself and really ask God what you’re called to do at this time. Ask yourself what makes you angry. There might be many things that make you angry, prioritize them. What makes you the most angry about Nigerian situation, your personal circumstance and then ask God what you can do about it because He has allowed you to see what nobody else can see. How can you channel that anger into positive change?
If it’s not anger that motivates you, then ask yourself what gives you joy? What gives you energy? What can you do for free? Because we’re either motivated by joy, and love or by anger. Everybody has to figure out their own source of motivation. But whatever it is, channel it and say there’s a reason why I’m angry or why I have joy, what am I supposed to do about it?
There’s nowhere else that’s better for you to exercise that joy or anger than in Nigeria. Because there are so many untapped opportunities and if you can make it here, you can make it everywhere.
The resilience, the community, the strain, the support network that you can build in this country is unmatched. So, don’t give up on yourself, don’t give up on your dreams and don’t give up on Nigeria.
There are institutions set up to help you, LEAP Africa is one, Nourishing Africa is another. LEAP Africa is in the area of youth development and Nourishing Africa is in the area of agriculture and food security set up to help you succeed. I’m sure that there are many others in other sectors, once you’ve discovered that sector, reach out.
I believe everybody needs an accountability partner; everybody needs a champion. Some days when I want to give up, I call my champion. They are people who say “You have what it takes; I’m praying for you, I’m rooting for you”.
Cultivate a relationship with one person and say you’re my champion so whenever I call you and I want to give up, pump me up. I’m going to tell you that you’re fearfully and wonderfully made, that God has blessed you with talent and courage and a voice, you’re beautiful inside and out, you’re a gift to our generation, to our country and you have so much left undone and God is waiting for you to birth.