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‘Wife, mother roles not excuse for poor entrepreneurship’

Ndidi Nwuneli was listed as one of the 20 Youngest Power African Women by Forbes in 2011. Ndidi serves on many international and local boards including Nestle Nigeria Plc. She is also an entrepreneur, agricpreneur and author, and the founder of LEAP Africa as well as the co-founder of AACE Food Processing & Distribution. In this interview, she speaks about what made her venture into agricultural business and how to build a successful businesses. 

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Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Professionalism (LEAP) Africa, is a non-profit organisation committed to inspiring, empowering and equipping a new cadre of African leaders. How far have you gone in achieving this goal?  

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LEAP Africa was established in 2002 based on two convictions. First – that Africa desperately needs 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.

Since its inception, LEAP has pioneered leadership, civics, ethics, governance and succession training programmes for youth, business owners, civil society and the public sector. Through Youth LEAP, we have trained over 60,000 youth, teachers and practitioners. The over 1,000 change projects launched by our youth as a prerequisite for completing the programme have impacted over 250,000 people in communities across Nigeria. Many of our alumni are celebrated leaders across Nigeria.

Through Biz LEAP, we have trained and supported entrepreneurs across Nigeria, many of whom have transformed their businesses from one-man enterprises, to institutions that collectively employ thousands of people. Our research team has produced 11 books and mini-series which are actively used by entrepreneurs, managers and institutions across the globe. 

What do you think should be done to encourage more women to get involved in entrepreneurship?  

We must introduce entrepreneurship education and experiential learning in the primary and secondary schools. Programmes such as Junior Achievement focus on this, but we need many more interventions in the primary schools. We also need to showcase and celebrate more female entrepreneurs as role models. 

You have also gone into agricpreneurship, what are your discoveries and what do you think Nigeria can do to benefit more from its array of agriculture crops?  

I am actively engaged in Africa’s agribusiness sector through my roles as the co-founder of AACE Foods and Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition.

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 infant mortality or maternal mortality rates in our country. 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 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 food 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.

What are the challenges you have faced since you ventured into agricultural business and have you overcome them?  

The biggest challenge has been finding committed and capable team members who are passionate about the agricultural sector. Sadly, many people who studied agriculture in the university did not choose the course. It was typically their 4th or 5th option. In addition, the way that agriculture is taught in our universities is as a science and not as a business. As a result, we have had to train and retrain our team members and really instill a passion for agriculture in them. We launched the Sahel Scholars Programme in 2017 in UNN and expanded to OAU and ABU this year, to change the mindset of students about agriculture through our one-day conferences in each of the universities – our internship and scholarship programmes.  

What do you have on ground that made your businesses succeed?  

Our businesses have clear missions, visions, values, and clear systems and structures. We also have strong boards of directors and a commitment to transparency and accountability. We are also eager to empower committed team members and to give them ownership and responsibility. These have all been critical elements of our success.   

How many jobs have you created so far through this business?  

Sahel and AACE Foods are still SMEs, but are growing rapidly. AACE has 83 full time employees, and engages many contract workers. Sahel has team members in Lagos, Oyo and Kano. We also engage short-term consultants in countries across West Africa.  

What is the secret of a successful business?  

Lead by example, have strong governance and an active and credible board of directors, have a plan A, B and C and invest in others.  

What advice do you have for other young entrepreneurs?  

If there is one lesson that I would like young people to take from my life it is rooted in an African proverb which states, ‘Do not follow the path, go where there is no path and leave a trail’. This essentially means that they have to fight to withstand societal pressure to conform. Instead, they should actively seek out God’s plan for their lives and remain grounded and rooted in the values of service, honesty and hard work.   

What key things have you learned doing business?  

Always have a strong dose of humility – and be prepared to learn from others and to begin again.  

How can we support and improve innovation in Nigeria?  

In 2016, I wrote a book published by Routledge titled ‘Social Innovation in Africa: A Practical Guide for Scaling Impact’. I spent over a year conducting research for that book, during which I interviewed over 80 social innovators across Africa. The biggest take away for me was that we have to develop more innovative business models that address the needs of the masses of people in society. 

What five things do start-up entrepreneurs need to know?

As you embark on this adventure, I strongly believe that you will succeed if you follow five simple steps: 1) Check that you are motivated by a desire to solve a problem and create value, that is rooted in God’s plan for your life; 2) plan effectively – develop a mission, vision, values and a clear business plan; 3) carefully build a dream team, composed of a strong board and committed employees; 4) Institute effective financial management systems and structures and  finally; 5) remain proactive, developing and implementing new and exciting strategies to respond to changes in the marketplace. 

What advice do you have for other women entrepreneurs?

I will therefore like to encourage women entrepreneurs to recognize three things: First, to be recognised as an equal 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 shortcomings 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. 

Third, as you rise in your journey as an entrepreneur, leave the door open for other women to enter. Be the first woman to have achieved one feat or the other, but never the last one. Ensure that you are mentoring and grooming other women to take over from you. 


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