“Do not follow the path, go where there is no path and leave a trail.”
My name is Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, co-founder of AACE Foods and founder of LEAP Africa and Managing Partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition. I am a serial social entrepreneur, a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, Board member, author, philanthropist and a proud African.
Propelled by my Christian faith, a purpose driven life has been my mantra from a very young age. My mother – Prof. Rina Okonkwo – helped me identify my interests and strengths in business and management. She encouraged me to apply to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for my undergraduate education, which provided an excellent foundation for me to build a career in the business world. At 20, when I graduated and started my professional career with McKinsey & Company in their Chicago office, I worked in a range of sectors. However, I was drawn to the social enterprise and consumer goods sectors, because they had a direct impact on the lives of people.
I also spent some of my summer breaks working in emerging markets and was most fulfilled when I engaged on projects focused on wealth creation and entrepreneurship development! This propelled me to leave McKinsey and return to Nigeria to serve as the pioneer ED for the FATE Foundation, founded by Mr. Fola Adeola and to go on to establish a range of organizations and initiatives.
For everything I have started I have been propelled by a very clear personal vision, and also believed that every organization that I establish should have clearly articulated missions, visions and values.
…on LEAP Africa
I established LEAP Africa in 2002 based on two convictions. First – that Africa desperately needed a new generation of visionary, ethical, creative and disciplined servant leaders and second – that a small group of people who shared the same vision could work together to change their communities, countries and indeed the world. Over the past sixteen years, the LEAP Board, team, and volunteers have worked diligently to achieve its mission and vision. It is currently expanding its reach beyond Nigeria to six African countries, in partnership with a range of other organizations.
…on AACE Foods
The passion and sense of urgency behind the creation of AACE Foods was motivated by three facts. Firstly, according to the 2013 Demographic and Health Survey, 37% of Nigerian children under 5 years old are classified as stunted and 18% are considered wasted. This contributes to Nigeria’s high under five mortality rates.
Second, researchers at the University of Agriculture Abeokuta estimate that 40-60% of the fruits and vegetables grown and harvested by small-holder farmers across the country are wasted annually. Third, 90% of the processed food consumed in Nigeria is imported. AACE Foods’ vision is to be the preferred provider of food in West Africa, thereby contributing significantly to the improved nutritional status of our people, and better livelihoods of our farmers.
…on Sahel Consulting
Sahel Consulting’s vision is to be recognized as the most trusted consulting partner and point of reference in the African agriculture and nutrition landscape, integral to building effective and efficient value chains and attaining food security. Through our pioneering work in dairy farming through the Nigerian Dairy Development Program, our work in seed systems, value chain and policy analysis and our cutting edge research, we are starting to live up to our vision.
…on Support Systems
God remains my source of strength and wisdom. I am also blessed with a very close and supportive family, and biological and spiritual sisters who uphold and encourage me. I also have some amazing mentors and champions, and I lean on them during my tough days. I believe in asking for help when I need it and God always sends angels to support me.
I believe that everyone should surround themselves 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.
…On Talent and Turnover
Your ability to attract and retain talent will determine the success of your organization. I strongly believe in the importance of instituting systems and structures around human resources from day one. This includes a clear recruitment process, complete with screening tools and interview standards, an employee handbook that clearly stipulates your expectations, as well as their rights and responsibilities, and a clear training and promotion plan, as well as a disengagement process.Only hire and retain team members who share your values of hard work and integrity. Invest in them, through training, provide them with opportunities for growth and personal development and enable them to have ownership in the business, where possible.
…On Doing it All
It is only by the grace of God, and yes, sometimes balls drop. However, I am quite disciplined about how I use my time. I try to organize my home like I organize my business, with systems and structures. I do not currently have a very balanced life, but I am working at improving on this as my children grow older.
It has been a joy and privilege to work in the African agricultural sector. Every single positive intervention in the sector has enormous impact. Every time I visit the AACE Foods factory and interface with our workers – many of them who were previously unemployed and now have a stable income, health insurance and a warm meal, I am overwhelmed with joy. Similarly, our ability to source from over 10,000 farmers, whose lives have been transformed through training, the provision of microfinance and the introduction of technology, has been fulfilling. The best part is seeing our products on the shelves of Shoprite, Ebeano, or Spar, in IDP camps or even in a friend’s kitchen and recognizing the many people and steps involved in getting it from the farm to the fork…and the impact along the way.
Key Success Principles
There’s a lot to share here, so let’s begin
- Choose a life partner who shares your dreams and visions and will support you to achieve your highest potential and vice versa! Choose someone who is your friend first, is kind, patient and disciplined. Surround yourselves with friends who make you a better person.
- Invest in lifelong learning, always upgrade your skills. Be proactive, develop and implement new and exciting strategies to respond to changes in the marketplace.
- In every season of your life, be sensitive to exactly who you should be spending your time with and what you should be spending your time on. Learn to let go a little easier, realizing that God places people and projects in your life for a season, a reason and a lifetime.
- Recognize that setbacks and failures are great learning experiences and do not define your future. Be encouraged by these truths that have helped me in my journey:
- You may not know what the future holds, but you know who holds the future!
- God who has started a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.
I spend time with my husband and children. They are so full of life and energy, and always challenge and inspire me.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.