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Ndidi Nwuneli is a woman of many parts. She is the founder of LEAP Africa and co-founder of AACE Food Processing and Distribution, an indigenous agro-processing company. She is also a partner at Sahel Capital, an advisory and private equity firm focused on the agribusiness sector in West Africa. She has 20 years cognate experience in international development and has worked and lived in West Africa, North America and the Middle East.

She started her career as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, working in their Chicago, New York and Johannesburg offices. In 2000, she returned to Nigeria to serve as the pioneer Executive Director of the FATE Foundation, a leading entrepreneurship development organization. She established LEAP Africa and NIA in 2002 and 2003 respectively.

LEAP is a respected leadership development organization that has worked across Nigeria providing leadership training and coaching to thousands of entrepreneurs, youths, teach­ers and community organizers. Ndidi was recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and was awarded the national honour – Member of the Order of the Federal Republic by the Nigerian Government. In 2011, Forbes Magazine listed her as one of the 20 Youngest Powerful African Women and in 2013, during the celebration of its 25th an­niversary in San Francisco, the Global Fund for Women, honoured her too. Today, she serves on the boards of numerous international and local boards including Nestle Nigeria Plc, Ni­gerian Breweries Plc, Cornerstone Insurance Plc. and USAID’s Advisory Committee on Vol­untary Foreign Aid.

Ndidi recently completed a non-resident Fel­lowship at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she worked on a book focused on – Scaling Social Innovation in Africa.

In this interview, she bares her mind on is­sues affecting the country, farmer and entre­preneurs. Excerpts.

Tell us a bit about your back­ground. What was your child­hood like?

I was born and raised in Enugu to the family of Professor Paul and Professor Rina Okonkwo. My parents who worked at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, were extremely devoted to raising hard working, disciplined and ethical children. My par­ents and my two older sisters – Dr. Adaora Okonkwo Ogbuefi and Prof. Una Okonkwo Osili, were my earliest role models and con­tinue to inspire and challenge me. My parents exposed my siblings and I to the concepts of patriotism and service from very young ages. Despite their Ivy League education, they both chose to devote their lives to teaching in the Nigerian tertiary education system, fighting against all odds to ensure some level of excel­lence in their respective departments.

LEAP Africa, which you found­ed, has spurred catalytic growth in leadership. You have a clear voice on social entrepreneurship. What inspired this initiative?

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 indeed the Africa.

Since its inception in 2002, LEAP Africa has emerged into a respected leadership development organization that has worked across 26 states in Nigeria providing leader­ship training, and coaching up to 50,000 entre­preneurs, youths, teachers and community organizers. Our youth beneficiar­ies have launched over 1,000 change projects to improve the lives of others in their communities. LEAP Africa has also pio­neered curriculum and published 11 books on succes­sion, ethics, gov­ernance and man­agement. LEAP organizes an an­nual CEOs Fo­rum, which at­tracts over 800 people and an annual Social Innovators Awards and Programmes. This year’s edition is holding in A b u j a in No­v e m ­ber.

What inspired the creation of AACE Foods?

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 per cent of Nigerian children under five years old are classified as stunted and 18 per cent 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 40-60 per cent of the fruits and vegetables grown and harvested by smallholder farmers across the county are wasted annually. Third, 90 per cent 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 foods sourced from smallholder farmers within Nigeria, in partnership with community groups and non-profit associations. The company provides support to the farmers, empowering them with training and access to microfinance and storage technology.

The company offers spices, spreads, sauc­es and complementary food for commercial and institutional buyers, including food pro­cessors, caterers, restaurants, hotels, whole­salers and retailers. Our products are sold in Shoprite, GAME, Park & Shop, Ebeano and some of Nigeria’s leading FMCGs utilize our bulk products for producing spices for instant noodles and other food. We offer 12 spices and seasonings – chili, ginger, garlic, pepper soup, yaji, black pepper, turmeric, jollof rice spice, fried rice spice, yellow pepper; herbs (moringa) and two complementary foods – Soyamaize and SosoNourish.

How would you describe your entrepreneurial journey on the Nigerian terrain – what have been the highlights and challenges?

My journey as an entrepreneur in Nigeria over the past 15 years has been extremely challenging and wonderfully rewarding! The highlights have been having the unique op­portunity to move visions inspired by God from concept papers and business plans to action and seeing their impact on the lives of a wide range of people – includ­ing the employees and their families, the beneficiaries (in the case of LEAP), customers and farm­ers (in the case of AACE) and cli­ents and investee companies (in the case of Sa­hel), and all the stake­holders across the v a l u e chain. I feel e x ­tremely blessed to have been given the unique opportunity to birth companies that will out­live me. My greatest achievement has been training and grooming exceptional young people – some of them have worked with me directly and others who have just been a part of training programmes that I have organized via LEAP, Sahel or AACE. Watching them grow and blossom in their careers and in life has been extremely rewarding.

I am also extremely proud of AACE Foods. When friends call me from Enugu or Abuja to report that they bought our spices or com­plementary food on the shelves of leading supermarkets and it has transformed their meals and family life, I am thrilled. We are committed to producing proudly Nigerian products, creating jobs for countless unem­ployed youth and improving the livelihoods of our smallholder farmers. We are taking baby steps towards achieving these goals, but I thank God for every breakthrough!

In terms of challenges, beyond the infra­structure, corruption, skill gap and cost of do­ing business issues that every entrepreneur faces, I have been amazed at how difficult it has been to change mindsets of the average Nigerian or purchasing manager at an FMCG that locally sourced and processed products are just as good, if not better than imports.

What are your hopes for the future of agribusiness in West Af­rica?

My dream for West Africa is to see agribusi­ness being regarded as a viable and profit­able industry, and farmers are respected for their contributions to economic growth and development. I earnestly desire to see farm­ers achieve yields that match or outstrip their counterparts in the United States and Asia.

I would like to see a time when there is single digit post-harvest losses linked to the use of cost effective storage technology, ef­ficient logistics utilizing ICT, strong linkages between farmers and markets and a thriving agro-processing industry that is demand-driv­en and caters to the needs of the people

I hope for the day that agriculture will contribute significantly to economic growth and where all West African countries, as op­posed to only Cote d’Ivoire, are net exporters of food. I hope for and want to see that day nutritious food is affordable, available all year round, and accessible for all groups of people, especially the poor.

What keeps you going even when the chips are down?

My relationship with God is my anchor. I gave my life to Christ when I was 13 and I have never looked back. He is the s o u r c e of my peace, joy, vi­sion, a n d strength. He has also blessed me with a close circle of family and friends who serve as my champions – prayer partners and advocates. They hold me up and push me through all of life’s challenges. Finally, I am blessed with children who are full of life and energy – it is difficult to find the time to wallow in self-pity when one is around them!

What are those things you are most passionate about?

My faith, family and country, that very or­der.

What in your background would you say prepared you for this role?

First, my parents provided me with a strong foundation in integrity and a very strong work ethic. Second, I was fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to attend and graduate from two exceptional schools. I obtained my first degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Third, the training and exposure that I re­ceived as a business analyst and an associate with McKinsey & Company in Chicago, New York and Johannesburg was invaluable. Fi­nally, I have committed myself to live-long learning and I often enrol in courses or seek out experts, mentors and friends who I lean on for advice.

Did you have a privileged back­ground?

I grew up in a middle-class home. How­ever, in the late 80s and early 90s, life was very tough for the university faculty, as the military government withheld their salaries for months on end. In spite of this, my par­ents worked diligently to provide for us. They also exposed us to the world of work from a very early age and I started working from as early as 11, watering our neighbour’s garden for pocket money and by 16, I was covering my own expenses.

As a youth, what influenced your choice of career?

My mother exposed all of her children to different professions, and extracurricular ac­tivities to enable us gain a breath of experi­ences. Based on the strengths and weakness­es that she observed, she encouraged us to explore paths that matched our strengths and personalities. I was very good in mathematics and enjoyed managing money and activities. My mother observed this and encouraged me to study business.

She helped me select the best schools and encouraged me to excel in my work.

What is your definition of style, how do you like to dress and what outfits are you most comfortable wearing?

Comfort is my definition of style. I also love to support Nigerian designers.

What life philosophy do you live by?

I live each day as if it could be my last day on earth. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. As a result, I strive to ensure that I am obe­dient to God’s call on my life, I put in my best into everything that I do and on a daily basis I show love and appreciation to my close knit family and friends.