Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is an expert on agriculture and nutrition, entrepreneurship, social innovation, and youth development. She has over 25 years of international development experience and is the founder of LEAP Africa, Changing Narratives Africa and African Food Changemakers. She is also the co-founder of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Ltd. and AACE Foods Processing & Distribution Ltd.
Ndidi serves on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), AGRA, Nigerian Breweries Plc. (Heineken), Godrej Consumer Products Ltd. India, the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum, and the Bridgespan Group.
Ndidi holds an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree with honors 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, a visiting Scholar at Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, and an Eisenhower Fellow.
Ndidi is TED speaker, was recognized as a Schwab Fellow and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and has received numerous awards and recognitions including a National Honor by the Nigerian Government and the 2021 Harvard Business School Distinguished Alumni Award. She is the author of “Social Innovation in Africa: A Practical Guide for Scaling Impact,” and “Food Entrepreneurs in Africa: Scaling Resilient Agriculture Businesses,” both published by Routledge and “Walking for God in the Marketplace.”
In this inspiring interview she speaks to us on her journey through career. Read and Be Inspired!
It’s such an honor to be sitting with you again, please tell us what embodies Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli
I am the daughter of the most High God, a wife, mother, daughter, sister, auntie, friend, social entrepreneur, author and public speaer. I am proudly Igbo, proudly Nigerian, Proudly African!
How did the desire for quenching hunger in Africa come about?
Agriculture was my favourite class during my secondary school years as a student at Federal Government College Enugu. However, it was really my encouters in the United States that propelled my passion for transforming the food ecosystem in Africa. At dinner parties and events, people would tell me that their parents always insisted that they finished their dinners because they were starving children in Africa. The realization that the face of Africa was a hungry child and the face of poverty was a female farmer from the Continent made me angry. It was a dangerous single story which the media had perpetuated and I decided to commit my life to changing that narrative. Through my work with Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Ltd, AACE Foods and African Food Changemakers, we are addressing critical bottlenecks in the food ecosystem, enabling the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises and launching and scaling sustainable solutions.
There must have been a drive, tell us your secret.
My primary motivation for life and work is my faith in God. I rely on this foundation of faith as the source of my vision, passion and strength, and this has helped me overcome obstacles in my career. I also stay focused on the impact I am having in my journey, including small milestones and quick wins, which keep me motivated to keep pushing forward. I am very disciplined about how I spend my time and juggle my various roles as a serial social entrepreneur, Board member for local and international organizations, wife, mother, sister, auntie and friend. I also work extremely hard and have high expectations of myself. I invest in building and sustaining strong networks and relationships. I am not afraid to ask for help from other entrepreneurs or experts when I need it. I am prepared to learn from others and to begin again.
My mantra steams from a popular African proverb which I have adapted: If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go with others. My version is – If you want to go fast and far, leave your egos and logos at the door, and work with humility, integrity and excellence – focusing on a shared vision and goals!
As a female entrepreneur, can you highlight some major challenges you’ve encountered?
Women still face immense struggles in their efforts to achieve their highest potential in many sectors in Nigeria. I have encountered obstacles related to gender roles, stereotypes and expectations. Everyday, I have had to prove myself over and over again.
I would like to encourage young women to recognize three things:
First to be recognized as an equal in the work place, and to receive your fair share of the income and profits that you generate, manage your time and resources effectively. You must put in your best and ensure that your voice is heard, loud and clear. You must never use your role as a wife, mother, sister, or daughter, as an excuse for underperformance. Invest in life-long learning, always upgrading your skills and surrounding yourself with at least three critical people – a mentor, a champion and a critic. A champion serves as your biggest cheerleader, encouraging you to dream big and achieve results. A critic tells you the truth about your short-comings and provides constructive feedback. A mentor shows you what is possible through their life example.
Second, women are natural givers. Giving opens your heart to the needs of the world and also takes your eyes off your own lack. However, you also have to be prepared to ask for help when you need it, especially as you embark on the journey of marriage and motherhood. Your vulnerability makes you human and does not detract in any way from your self-worth.
Third, as you rise in your profession or industry, leave the door open for other women to enter. Be the first woman president, CEO, leader of an organization, but never the last one. Ensure that you are mentoring and grooming other women to take over from you. Fight against the stereotype that women do not support other women. Instead be recognized as an individual who supports others. Madeline Albright has a quote which I love – “There is a special place in hell for women do not support other women!” I know you want to go to heaven…so start today to serve as an advocate and champion for other women.
Would you say that Africa is slowly coming to terms that women should be involved in every sector, especially in the area of having their own businesses?
African women have always been entrepreneurial, diligent, resilient and hardworking. The major barriers that we face are linked to systemic biases and discrimination that persist and the limited financial and human resources, networks and support systems available for scaling the women led-businesses on the Continent. As a result, most women-led businesses remain micro or small, operating in sectors such a retail, beauty, fashion and primary production. The World Bank Gender Report on Nigeria revealed that female farmers generate 30% less output than their male counterparts and 60% less profits. These gender gaps are unacceptable, and have to be changed urgently through the design and implementation of clear policies that close gender gaps, and the insitution of clear quotas in the areas of financing, market access and support that ensure equity.
Tell us about LEAPAfrica and how it all started.
I established Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability & Professionalism (LEAP), Africa, in May 2002 based on two convictions. Firstly, Africa desperately needed a new generation of visionary, ethical, creative and disciplined servant leaders; secondly, a small group of people who shared the same vision could work together to change their communities, countries, and the Continent.
Since its inception, LEAP has pioneered leadership, employability, civics, ethics, governance and succession training programmes for youth, teachers, business owners, and civil society. The organization has impacted over one million people indirectly in eight African countries. Its annual Social Innovators Programme and Awards has supported 250 social innovators to scale their work. LEAP Africa has also published eleven books and introduced an eLearning curriculum on ethics, leadership and personal development, which are widely used.
In addition, it has recently launched the LEAP Leadership Institute (LLI) to reach 10 million youth organizers and teachers. Beyond the indicators of our impact and reach, I am most proud of the institution that we have built, synonymous with good governance and ethical leadership.
I am also proud of the alumni of LEAP’s programs who are now leaders in Africa’s private, public and nonprofit sectors. They credit LEAP with providing the foundation for their success. For example, Amal Hassan, founder/CEO of Outsource Global, was a beneficiary of our 2006 program in Kano. This program equipped her with the skills and tools to establish a thriving ICT company that employs over 1,000 young Nigerians. Mosun Layode, one of our pioneer staff who served as my successor at LEAP, is currently the African Philanthropy forum’s executive director. She remains an active supporter of LEAP and credits the organization with providing a conducive environment for her to learn and grow into a leader in the African nonprofit landscape. Behind these two stories are countless other young Africans who challenge the status quo, run for public office, and break barriers in their communities.
I am excited about LEAP’s future as it focuses the next decade on utilizing a systems-level approach to transform secondary education in Africa and raising change agents by facilitating the scaling of social enterprises and nonprofits working to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs).
What is Africa going to be looking like in the next 5 years in the area of hunger?
As a continent naturally endowed for agricultural excellence, Africa holds significant potential to not only feed itself but also attain food self sufficiency but also nourish the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic coupled with continued impact of climate change and the conflict in Russia/Ukraine has further highlighted the fragility of the African food ecosystem and the urgent need to look inward to invest in ensuring food self-sufficiency. These shocks have also reinforced the importance of human diets in boosting immune systems and ensuring food security and nutrition.
The reality is that there will be future shocks linked to climate change. As critical stakeholders, we must collaboratively and urgently rebuild the African agriculture and food landscape. This will require a concerted effort to support Africa’s youth entrepreneurs engaged in the agriculture landscape. We must invest in private-public partnerships to create an enabling environment for enhanced value chain competitiveness, transitioning our subsistence farmers to thriving agribusiness entrepreneurs, leveraging digital tools, and climate adaptation strategies. We must also unlock catalytic financing mechanisms, infrastructure including roads, rail, storage, and sustainable energy solutions, which are critical to reducing post-harvest losses, and fostering local value addition and a vibrant ecosystem for nutritious food. Also, we will need to invest in food safety and high standards for our products and build more robust market and trade linkages on the Continent, leveraging the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) to ensure greater regional and international trade. Finally, we must prioritize the agency, resources, assets, and skills for women as critical stakeholders in this ecosystem.
No external force can fully address Africa’s agriculture and food challenges. Africans must drive and own the transformation required in the sector. Second, entrepreneurs across the different value chains in Africa must be at the forefront of this transformation; they are the lifeblood of this sector. These African entrepreneurs require support, knowledge, financing, and tools to scale their businesses and leverage the available technology and innovation to leapfrog. They must effectively position and prepare themselves to maximize the opportunities in this sector, projected to exceed $1 Trillion in market value by 2030.
I hope that my work through Sahel Consulting, AACE Foods and African Food Changemakers will inspire more young people to engage in building the food ecosystem. I also hope that my recent book – “Food Entrepreneurs in Africa: Scaling Resilient Agriculture Businesses” will inspire, equip, and support African entrepreneurs to build successful agribusinesses and transform the landscape. It will also inspire policymakers, development partners, and researchers to create an enabling environment for agribusinesses to thrive.
Tell us 5 fun facts about you.
- I was born in a car.
- I have the best siblings in the world and I am a middle child, which has also made me a freedom fighter.
- I love singing and listening to Gospel music.
- I love historical novels and movies.
- My two children light up my life and also challenge me to be a better person on a daily basis.