The Case For African Optimism. Q&A With Ndidi Nwuneli

An entrepreneur, social entrepreneur and author, Ndidi Nwuneli is above all an optimist about Africa who puts her faith into practical action. Her influential book, “Social Innovation In Africa”, inspired by her experiences as the founder of LEAP Africa, will soon be joined by another, “Food Entrepreneurs in Africa: Scaling Resilient Agriculture Businesses”.

Driving Change spoke with Ndidi just before a conference on “Zero Hunger: Africa’s Private Sector Driving Innovation & Growth”, held to mark the 10th anniversary of the creation of her agriculture consulting firm, Sahel. We asked her how Africa’s efforts to feed itself are going.

Ndidi Nwuneli (NN): We have 10 years to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 2, zero hunger, yet it is 2020 and we have actually seen almost a doubling of food insecurity around the world. Instead of getting better, our indices are getting worse, not only around malnutrition, but obesity, and all the related diseases.

Our focus is on the role of private sector as the engine of growth and change. We believe private sector has to take a lead in innovation, catalytic financing, and addressing zero hunger by leveraging innovation and technology. We’ve convened about 20 amazing speakers, like Dr Rajiv Shah of the Rockefeller Foundation; Dr Agnes Kalibata, the UN Special Envoy on the food system summit; Lawrence Haddad, the ED of GAIN, the global alliance to improve nutrition; and last, but definitely not least, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank. I’m looking forward to a very exciting and engaging summit, and we have over 2000 people registered, so it’s going to be really interesting to see how private sector actors across Africa and across the world can collaborate to address zero hunger.

Driving Change (DC): The outside world has often looked at Africa both as a source of food and also as a place beset by a very inefficient, sometimes catastrophically so, food ecosystem. Give us a sense of how Africa is catching up, or could catch up, with the rest of the world in terms of its food system, particularly through that lens of ending hunger.

NN: So Africa is naturally endowed with agricultural abundance. There’s no reason why we’re a net importer of food or wine, or why one out of every three African children is stunted. And, like you said, it’s really hinged on policies, fragmented ecosystems, histories of focus on primary production instead of processing, and a really disjointed ecosystem that is plagued with challenges around infrastructure, access to water, energy, and roads, which make our value chains very uncompetitive.

Now what new technology and innovation allow us to do is to leapfrog. And as you know, Africa has embraced cell phones and digital ag in way that other regions have not. Over 600m Africans will have access to a cell phone by the end of 2025. And we can leverage cell phones, not only to get access to data for weather patterns, or access to markets, but also to train our farmers and provide ongoing support. So there is an opportunity to leapfrog and an opportunity for Africa to demonstrate how to do it the right way.

The rest of the world went through a very unhealthy pattern of agriculture, which contributed to the climate change crisis we currently face. There is a unique opportunity for African farmers, Africa’s private secto, and policymakers to collaborate to ensure that we learn from the mistakes of other regions and embrace technology and innovation and collaborate across food ecosystem to build back better and also to leapfrog.

I spent the last year writing a book called “Food Entrepreneurs in Africa: Scaling Resilient Agriculture Businesses”, learning from those entrepreneurs who have scaled on this continent. I really believe that we can address the food insecurities that currently face us and we can also ensure that we can feed ourselves and feed the world. I believe that in the next 10 years, we can transform this food ecosystem, working in our countries, working in our regions and then collaborating globally, to take on key challenges for our current food ecosystem and address them collaboratively.

DC: So what are the two or three highest priorities, the things that need to be changed in order to make that possible?

NN: There are two key interventions required. The first is that we need investment in catalytic financing. And we need a whole range of options when it comes to patient capital that comes in at every point of the value chain to address the huge ecosystem challenges, bottlenecks across the entire ecosystem. We need to mobilize that capital locally, from pension funds on the continent, from our private sector investors, from our philanthropists. But we also need to galvanize funding from the rest of the world.

I really believe that you can make money on the African continent in the food ecosystem, I mean, we have currently 1.2bn people; by 2050 2.4bn people. Everybody needs to eat three times a day. And we can de-risk investment in agriculture and food by partnering with insurance providers, partnering with public sector officials who can provide them the risk  capital as well.

The second intervention is policies. We need an enabling policy environment, we need an ecosystem approach when it comes to policy, and we need to stop working in silos. We need to design ecosystems that work.

When I think about these ecosystems, and the actors required to build back better and streamline policies, it is actors in food and agriculture, actors in health and nutrition, gender, climate, financing, innovation and technology infrastructure. Each of our countries, at the local state, federal and regional levels, needs to have these actors sit together to plan for the future.

DC: How is catalytic capital different from traditional aid or traditional investment in Africa?

NN: There are a broad range of financing options available, but when you come with catalytic financing it is patient; it is tailor made to the particular investment opportunity; and it doesn’t just look at financial returns, it looks at social returns. And to be catalytic, it picks investment opportunities that can serve as triggers for other actors in the ecosystem.

DC: You mentioned the book you have been working on. Can you give us one inspiring example that gives readers a sense of what is now possible in Africa in terms of entrepreneurship?

NN: here’s There are so many examples, so many. If I have to pick just one, there’s a company in Kenya called Twiga Foods. It actually started off as a company that was going to be exporting bananas to the Middle East, and quickly realized that we needed to set standards for the fruit industry in Kenya to be able to meet international demand. And what they then did was ask, “How can we leverage technology to connect our farmers to small retailers in the city of Nairobi?” They essentially figured we have cell phones, we’re going to connect farmers directly. They built a whole supply chain of farmers, helping the farmers meet their standards. So now, within 14 hours, a small retailer can order fresh fruit and it will be delivered to the small retailer.

Now they are serving 14,000 retailers, and they’re working with hundreds and hundreds of farmers. They’ve raised $16m and are expanding rapidly. Not only have they improved the lives of the farmers who are now earning more money, because you’ve cut out all the different glitches in the value chain, they’re also ensuring that retailers have access to fresh produce. And the customer has fresher food and a healthier lifestyle. So the entire chain is more efficient, more transparent, they’re getting lots of data. They are enabling the leapfrogging that we talked about. During this COVID-19 era, where we’re all forced to embrace technology in ways that we never did before, this company was already ahead of the curve.

That’s just one example, but there are so many examples of companies, from seed systems, to commercializing great research, to improving, nutritious food. I’m so inspired by these entrepreneurs who are at the cutting edge of what is possible and inspire us to see what is possible in our own ecosystem.

DC: You have been working on an entrepreneurial project of your own, Nourish Africa. Tell us a bit about how that is going.

NN: So we started Nourishing Africa because we felt this is a $1 trillion industry in Africa and that entrepreneurs should be growing their businesses, scaling up, yet many of them lack access to data, to financing capacity, support networks. So Nourishing Africa is a one stop shop for entrepreneurs who are going to transform the African agricultural landscape. We’re providing all the support the data, the knowledge, the capacity support they require. Our vision is a million entrepreneurs on the platform. So I tell people, it’s Facebook, LinkedIn, and WebEx, all wrapped together for African entrepreneurs in food and agriculture.

What we’re so excited about is that it has taken on a life of its own. I meet people who say I’m part of Nourishing Africa, I’ve benefited from Nourishing Africa. Right now we have over 650 active entrepreneurs and agri businesses on the platform. We have been able to connect them to funding and networks, amplify their voices and change their narratives. And we are gradually growing. We have entrepreneurs from 34 countries, which is so exciting, and partners across the board. It shows you what ecosystem solutions can do. When you gather people together, you amplify their voice: they can shape policy, they can learn, they can grow. And they can trade with each other and network with each other to create more wealth, work together to solve problems that affect them and affect others in their communities.

DC: Let’s turn to COVID. How is Africa coming through this crisis?

NN: A lot of people expected Africa to really be hit by this health crisis. In the beginning, there was a lot of fear. But Africa has not been hit by the health crisis in the magnitude the West has. What we have been hit by is the economic crisis, which has set back some of our countries 30 years. Nigeria is experiencing a recession. I don’t think we’ve had one this deep in about 20 years. Many other countries are facing that negative GDP growth wave.

There’s a sense of urgency for all of us to figure out how to work collaboratively to grow the economy to create jobs. We have also been hit by declines in remittances. As you know, many in the African diaspora, who used to send money home. are affected by COVID, especially the job losses in the countries they are living.

You see statistics like 57% of household income spent on food, when we’ve experienced an inflation rate of 17% in the last four months. That means that the average family cannot have access to nutritious food, and definitely cannot enjoy three meals a day.

So what does that mean for us? As actors in the food ecosystem, we have to not only push for innovation and technology, we have to lead the way on what is possible.

I spent the last few months as the coordinator of a visioning exercise for Nigeria, for 2021- 26, 26-30 and then to 2050. This has been an exciting opportunity to say how can we build back better. Agriculture will serve as a great, great opportunity for building back better because, as I mentioned, we are naturally endowed with agricultural abundance. It’s going to take bold action, decisive action. It’s also going to take leaders who can see a better future and a new way of doing things. For this visioning exercise I’m working with a group of 25 people appointed by the government to change the narrative. We are already coming up with very tangible and implementable actions at the national level and at a regional level.

DC: One of the inspirations for Driving Change is our desire to inspire many more talented people to go into public policy, into public service – to be a new generation of inspired, servant leaders. Leadership in Africa is a big passion of yours – you founded LEAP Africa nearly 20 years ago, to encourage better leadership. How do you see the leadership challenge in Africa today?

NN: I share your conviction that leadership is critical for any transformation to occur. What we’ve been doing, at least over the last 18-19 years, is about creating the next generation of principled, dynamic, credible leaders in Africa. LEAP itself stands for leadership, effectiveness, accountability, and professionalism. Africa desperately needs these four attributes, and so does the rest of the world.

One of the things we do at LEAP is work on changing mindsets – which is what is needed all over the world right now. The concept of leadership has been distorted. At LEAP we teach that a leader is an individual who has a vision for positive change and galvanizes others to affect that vision, to impact the lives of people.

So from when I started LEAP to this day, it has become ever clearer that we need a concept of integrity, that character has currency, and that authenticity is critical to effective leadership. That mindset shift is where we start. What we teach young people and what we teach entrepreneurs is that leadership is an act, not a position. It is what you do that defines your leadership, not the positions you have.

We also distinguish between leaders and rulers. And there is a difference between those right now in Africa and across the world. We must not confuse the two. There’s a leader, there’s a ruler. And just because you have a title that does not make you a leader. So what we try to do with that program is help young people actually start initiatives to affect positive change in society. Through these initiatives they build their leadership muscles. They have started social change project in their communities, in their country. And I’m proud to say that many of our alums are leading today in the public and private sector, and they have a tangible impact on the lives of people.

Now we work in six African countries. What gives me hope is that you can start with a group of people and create an army of change agents. We need enough people who believe this, who live it, and who can effect change one person at a time, one community at a time.

There’s a quote from JFK, which I used to post on our walls when we started LEAP. It is about a pebble, a pebble that creates a ripple, which creates a wave, which can pull down the mightiest walls of oppression.

I’m still an optimist that we can create those waves of social change in our community, in the health sector, in the food sector, in the governance sector across the board, creating those waves that will push down some of the mightiest walls of oppression that we continue to face. That’s what gives me hope. That’s what gets me excited every day as I embark on fighting some of the causes that I’ve taken on in my lifetime.

DC: What a fantastically optimistic note to end on. Thank you, Ndidi, for talking with Driving Change.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

Driving Change

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