Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is a co-founder and the managing partner of Sahel Consulting, which works across West Africa to shape policy, and implement solutions in the agriculture and nutrition ecosystem. She is the chair of Nourishing Africa, a knowledge and finance hub that enables entrepreneurs in 34 African countries to scale their agri-businesses. She is also the co-founder of AACE Foods, which sources from over 10,000 farmers in West Africa and produces a range of packaged foods for local and international markets.
Ndidi holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. She was recognised as a Young Global Leader and Schwab Social Innovator by the World Economic Forum and received a National Honour from the Nigerian government. She is also a well-known author and public speaker, and serves on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation, GAIN and AGRA.
“Who will be the Joseph of this generation?” This pertinent question is asked by agricultural and nutrition expert, Ndidi Nwuneli. She has devoted her life to the food security sector by being a leading voice in the transformation of Africa’s food and agriculture landscape.
Born and raised in Nigeria before moving to the US at sixteen, Ndidi realised that, to those outside the continent, the face of Africa was that of a hungry child. “I didn’t like that image of Africa. I didn’t like the TV ads asking for donations for the poor children of Africa. This didn’t match my own experience.”
“I believe God has endowed Africa with agricultural excellence. There is no reason why we should be a net importer of food, or have one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. There is no reason why we should have the management inefficiencies, the high costs, or the fragmentation that occurs in our sector.”
Unfortunately, most people think about the agricultural sector in a very fragmented way. “They think it’s just about farmers – no, it’s not. The furniture in your office, the clothes you wear, the body lotions you use, the paint on your walls – these are all linked to the agricultural sector. It affects every aspect of our lives. Everyone is connected through the agricultural sector, and we have to start thinking about it from an ecosystem perspective to truly solve its problems.”
Ndidi points out how much of God’s wisdom in the Bible is displayed practically throughout the food and agriculture ecosystem – how many of the stories revolve around agriculture, farming and crops. Jesus also used analogies about farming – telling parables about pruning, different types of soils, and many others. “Joseph was the first social innovator in the food and agriculture sector described in the Bible. Under his leadership, the Egyptians were able to gather and store excess food during seven years of abundance, and to effectively distribute and feed their people during the seven years of famine. Even other nations came to buy grain from them. He essentially used warehouse receipt systems and operated what we call a ‘commodity exchange’ today.”
As Ndidi notes, “Food is life, food is medicine. In the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, the food they consume (or not) affects their brain development. In South Africa one out of every three children is stunted, in northern Nigeria it is one out of two. Nutritious food is vital to our existence as human beings.”
Yet with Africa’s natural resources, its rich soil, water, and sunlight, the question is why we haven’t managed to leverage these assets. What should be done to enable the continent to achieve its full potential?
Ndidi responds that the first aspect is changing the prevailing public mindset. “Many don’t recognise the opportunities that exist from farm to fork. There is a lack of awareness in our education systems – the best and the brightest do not go into this sector because the narrative is that it is a ‘poor man’s business’. Yet this is an incredible way to create wealth, and to transform lives. Who will be Africa’s Joseph? Who will be the next leader transforming the food and agriculture landscape? We need that talent!”
The second aspect is creating an enabling policy environment. Ndidi explains, “Because of our colonial history, most of the infrastructure on the continent is from farm to port – not from farm to factory. For example, Africa cultivates about 70% of the world’s cocoa, but the infrastructure from the farms to the chocolate factories doesn’t exist. Someone needs to build it, but for that to happen we need an enabling policy environment that prioritises food self-sufficiency before export-led growth. Most African countries, however, are focused on exporting raw materials, which leaves them exposed to the vicissitudes of global commodity exchanges.”
The third is a commitment to enabling SME businesses to grow into multinationals. “SME’s are the lifeblood of the food and agriculture sector. In fact, about 80% of the food consumed in Africa is produced by this private sector called ‘the hidden middle’. They process food, provide logistics, provide finance – we need to enable them to scale.” For this reason, she interviewed over 80 entrepreneurs from across Africa for her recent book Food Entrepreneurs In Africa – Scaling Resilient Agriculture Businesses, to empower others to do the same.
Ndidi is passionate that “we need to ensure that we have affordable food, that is available, and accessible, to the masses of people on our continent.” So in 2009, she co-founded the agro-processing AACE Foods as a proudly African food company that could compete with the best in the world, and thereby displace imports. She also co-founded SAHEL Consulting in 2010, which partners with governments, companies, and leading international development organisations to launch sector-specific interventions (for example, in the diary, maize, yam and cassava industries) that promote sustainable agricultural development across Africa.
Among the many challenges in this landscape, Ndidi mentions that ‘food fraud’ is a massive problem not only in Africa, but worldwide. Food fraud refers to the misrepresentation of food products, such as selling ‘honey’ or ‘salmon’, while the contents have been adulterated or even substituted. “In the US, the food fraud industry is a $10 billion industry. In Africa, it is estimated that over 50% of the food products we receive is fraudulent.”
Ndidi recalls one test of integrity early on, when a bulk buyer of their chilli pepper insisted that they match the price of a competing supplier. Upon investigation, they found that the competing product comprised of cornflour, coloured with a carcinogenic red dye, and chilli extract to infuse the signature smell. “At that point, we as a company had to decide what values we stand for. Do we care about money, or do we care about producing healthy and nutritious food for our people?”
Ndidi is excited about the emerging young leaders on the African continent. “We have dynamic young people, who have energy, who are willing to take risks, and who are extremely creative in leveraging innovation and technology.”
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? “At the end of the day, you will have to define what your company will be known for. Being ethical will often mean that you will face additional challenges, that you will not grow as fast as you would like, or become as rich as you would like. But eventually people will come to you when they are looking for integrity, because you put a stake in the ground. There should not be any double standards – you should not have lower standards for poorer people, because we are all equal in the eyes of God. If you glorify Him, He will supply your needs, He will fight the battles on your behalf, and He will amplify your impact.”