Ndidi Nwuneli is working to unlock the potential of the agriculture and nutrition landscapes by supporting entrepreneurs and local farmers. She founded LEAP (Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability, and Professionalism) Africa in 2002, an organization which aids budding entrepreneurs through training programs, publications, and e-Learning.
Seeing the desire in Nigeria and West Africa for local food and sustainable agriculture, what Nwuneli calls “new gold,” she also co-founded AACE Food Processing & Distribution to cultivate regional produce, spices, complimentary food, and exports. They also help farmers with micro-finance and new and emerging farming technologies. She also co-founded Sahel Capital Partners & Advisory to provide agriculture and nutrition consulting, training, policy research and implementation support across West Africa.
Food Tank had the chance to speak with Ndidi about her passion for change, business ventures, and what drives her to keep pushing through boundaries.
Food Tank (FT): One of your goals for AACE Foods is to spread local spices and foods throughout Nigeria. How close are you to achieving this goal, and what is next?
Ndidi Nwuneli (NN): The passion and sense of urgency behind the creation of this organization was motivated by three facts. Firstly, according to the 2013 Demographic and Health Survey, 37 percent of Nigerian children under 5 years old are classified as stunted, and 18 percent are considered wasted. This contributes to Nigeria’s high infant mortality or maternal mortality rates in our country. Second, researchers at the University of Agriculture Abeokuta estimate that 40 to 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown and harvested by small-holder farmers across the county are wasted annually. Third, 90 percent of the processed food consumed in Nigeria is imported.
AACE Foods aims to directly address the high levels of malnutrition in Nigeria and capitalize on the dearth of locally manufactured food products by processing and packaging nutritious food sourced from smallholder farmers within Nigeria. The company provides support to the farmers, empowering them with training and access to microfinance and storage technology.
FT: Sahel Capital has a strong focus on Nigeria’s agricultural business. What do you see has changed the most significantly since the beginning in both the company and in the local agri-business of Nigeria? How have you seen this impact the local economy?
NN: When Sahel Capital Partners & Advisory Ltd. was established in 2010, we were the first company of our kind in West Africa. [We] focused exclusively on unlocking the potentials of the agriculture and nutrition landscapes, and over the past seven years, we have seen a radical shift, especially in Nigeria. With the downturn in the global economy and the rapid decline in oil prices, agriculture is now regarded as the “new gold” and there is increasing interest from the public, private and nonprofit sectors and significant investment in the sector. In addition, agriculture is being rebranded from one dominated by poor farmers who struggle for survival to a viable sector for business growth and profitability. This investment has translated into 4 to 5 percent growth rates in the agriculture sector, while other sectors have essentially experienced negative growth rates. We are also excited to see a shift from investing in inputs for increased crop yields to a focus on nutrition-sensitive agriculture.
FT: A big part of Sahel Capital’s mission is to improve the quality of life of farmers in Africa. Can you detail what that means to you?
NN: Agriculture in West Africa has been historically dominated by small-holder farmers who cultivate less than one hectare of land and exist on a subsistence level. At Sahel, we are committed to working with private, public, and development partners to improve the livelihoods of these farmers by putting them into clusters and exposing them to best practices, new technology, and improved inputs, such as seeds and crop protection products to increase their productivity and yields. In addition, we are committed to linking them to off-takers and markets, and partners who can work with them to improve their harvest and storage techniques, as well as invest in on-farm processing to reduce post-harvest losses.
FT: You did a field study project with the Center for Women and Enterprise (CWE) and that inspired your work with LEAP Africa. Can you tell me more about that experience and what it was specifically that helped you start LEAP?
NN: During my MBA at the Harvard Business School, I volunteered with the Center for Women and Enterprise (CWE) in Boston. This experience was transformational in two ways. First, it exposed me to a dynamic social entrepreneur, Andrea Silbert, who is the founder of CWE. Observing her leadership style and passion for social change inspired me and exposed me to critical leadership principles. Second, CWE’s programmatic approach and engagement with aspiring and emerging entrepreneurs shaped my outlook on enterprise development opportunities in Nigeria, and ultimately influenced the programmatic approach at the FATE Foundation, where I served as the Pioneer Executive Director and then at LEAP Africa.
FT: What was the need or gap you originally saw before founding LEAP Africa? In your opinion, have you closed this gap?
NN: I established Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability & Professionalism (LEAP) Africa in 2002. The vision for LEAP Africa was inspired by God, based on the conviction that Africa desperately needed a new generation of visionary, ethical, creative and disciplined servant leaders and that a small group of people who shared the same vision could work together to change their communities, countries, and Africa. Between 2003 and 2016, LEAP has worked across 26 states in Nigeria providing leadership training, and coaching to 50,000 entrepreneurs, youth, teachers, and community organizers. Our youth beneficiaries have launched over 1,000 change projects to improve the lives of others in their communities. LEAP has also pioneered curriculum and published eleven books on succession, ethics, governance and management.
FT: You have been included in the Forbes list of the 20 Youngest Power African Women. What is one piece of advice you would give to other young women and future entrepreneurs?
NN: There is so much that I would want to tell my younger self, but if I had to pick one simple advice, it would be ‘Live your life with open hands!’ When you open your hands, you position yourself to give and also receive. Be prepared to give your time, insights, knowledge and resources to others. Giving opens your heart to the needs of the world and also takes your eyes off your own lack. When you open your hands, you can let go a little easier of people, projects, and linkages that are not meant for you at a particular time. This is one lesson that we often learn the hard way. As passionate people, who also love deeply, we often hold on too tightly, which can be a strength and also a weakness. When you open your hands, you remain flexible to what God has in store for you. This advice is often extremely difficult for A-type personalities who like to set stretch goals and work towards achieving them. However, the sad reality is that there is never a straight path to success. Cultivating a stronger relationship with God enables you to be sensitive to the Spirit and to understand exactly where you need to be at every point in your ‘University of Life.’ This basically means that you welcome new possibilities that God has set before you and are willing to go down a path that may often seem unchartered and unclear, but is likely the shortcut to achieving God’s plans for your life. Recognizing the setbacks and failures are great learning experiences and do not define your future.