Heating up the debate about food

A Nigerian market

A Nigerian market like this will stock many imported products. Photo courtesy of IITA 

At first glance the immaculately turned out Ndidi Nwuneli seems a typical Nigerian ‘repat’. That is a clan member of the well-off, very well educated Nigerians who have left behind their high-flying careers abroad and are filling up the posh bars of Lagos in droves.

They are attracted back to their home country not just by nostalgia but by the wealth of opportunity they see this English-speaking country of 146m people offering. A ‘brain gain’, reversing the more common ‘brain drain’ that has long typified developing countries, Nigeria’s repat trend is attracting attention both in Africa and beyond.

But, for the record, Ndidi doesn’t see herself as a repat.

The 36-year-old, who went to university in the United States and has lived in various US cities as well as Johannesburg in South Africa, Dakar in Senegal and Ramallah in Palestine, says being back in Nigeria since 2000 is ‘long enough’ to have graduated from the ‘repat’ tag.

Furthermore the former employee of global management consultants  McKinsey and Company is not involved in the traditional fields of endeavour for these repats of finance and information technology. Instead, Ndidi believes her contribution to a better Nigeria lies in making the neglected field of agri-business fashionable.

Here’s the back story. In the 60s and 70s, when many African countries gained independence, the vast majority of people were farmers. But African leaders across the continent resolutely ignored agriculture, pouring resources into cities, which soon became overpriced and overpopulated.

Not much has changed. Poor agricultural policy continues to help turn droughts, like the current one in the Horn of Africa, into famines. As recently as last week, the World Bank vice president for the Africa Region, Nigerian Obiageli Ezekwesili, told CNN that better agricultural policy is Africa’s biggest challenge. However, given the increasing importance of food for an ever-growing world population, agriculture is also Africa’s biggest opportunity.

This is where Ndidi, her husband and their family-run food business comes in. She firmly believes “West Africa can feed itself” but she is also acutely aware that it is failing to do so. Her home country of Nigeria is one of the worst examples.

She claims: “Ninety per cent of the food on our shelves is imported.”

And, as if this wasn’t a shocking enough statistic, she adds: “We have calculated that 40-60 per cent of fruit and vegetables grown in Nigeria go to waste because there is no processing and very little preservation.

“It hurts me to see so many fruit and vegetables go to waste.

 “Or, take the example of fresh milk: you can’t get fresh milk in Nigeria. We have tones of cattle around the country but we import milk, we import cheese and we import yoghurt.

“It wasn’t like that when I was growing up.”

The reason Nigeria has fallen so far behind when it comes to all sort of manufacturing is its chronic, and legendary, electricity problems. One of the world’s big oil exporters has one of the world’s most unreliable electricity supplies. Not surprisingly the average Nigerian puts the blame for this squarely at the feet of corrupt politicians.

Running a manufacturing plant on diesel-powered generators drives the price of manufacturing through the roof. It’s not cheap to import basic food products (as any trip to a Lagos supermarket will show you) but it’s cheaper than running a factory on generator-power.

There are high hopes that Nigeria’s electricity problems may be sorted out in the next few years – with some optimists willing to believe parts of Nigeria will have reliable electricity within a year. Even if that unlikely scenario comes true it will take years, and a concerted effort, to rebuild Nigeria’s manufacturing sector.

In the field of food Ndidi plans to help drive that change from the front. AACE Foods is a small company that creates spices, sauces and jams and sells mainly to commercial fast food companies and caterers as well as a dozen or so supermarkets.

“We started with the most basic form of preservation but I have big ambitions for the company,” says Ndidi.

She wants nothing less than to help displace imports at the same time as contributing to improved local nutrition. Plans include expanding into refrigerated food products and creating a product that will help malnourished children.

While doing this AACE foods will continue to source its products from local cooperatives and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) that help address rural poverty.  And, to the surprise of the tax office, continue to pay its taxes: this is, after all, a country where people are reminded of the importance of paying tax through roadside billboards.

“When we handed in our annual accounts the tax office thought we must be lying. They said a company as small as yours doesn’t do this sort of reporting,” says Ndidi with a somewhat chagrined smile.

This determination to act ethically in business is a throwback to Ndidi’s former life as founder in 2002 of a not-for-profit organisation called Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Professionalism (LEAP) Africa.  It provides leadership training to existing business owners but also has a particular focus on youth – encouraging them to create positive changes in their communities.

Last year LEAP Africa’s activities included its 5th CEOs forum, attended by 600 businesspeople and funded by the Ford Foundation. The ‘Integrity Institute’ worked with 392 students to tackle corruption in their communities and its ‘Leadership, Ethics and Civics’ programme was taught in 28 schools with students creating 200 positive social projects as part of the course.

To give one example, St John Anglican High School in Abeokuta established a library for the inmates of Oba Prison.

Unsurprisingly, LEAP Africa’s work has a high profile, with an impressive list of multinational and local funders and partners. Although Ndidi is no-longer leading LEAP Africa she is still a high-profile promoter of its work. She is a business columnist for the newspaper Business Day and was this month named by Forbes magazine one of the top 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa.

She uses this profile not only to talk about the need for great business leaders but also stimulate discussion about the business of agriculture. In a recent column she pointed to a newly enacted Nigerian law which requires oil companies operating in the country to invest 10 percent of their income in local banks and insurance companies. She said that under a similar ‘local content’ bill local supermarkets and restaurants should be required to increase the percentage of their products which are sourced from Nigeria.

“Is that taking on globalisation? I don’t think so. I think Nigeria has not been as strategic as it should be when it comes to this sector.”

Even though it takes time away from her core business of selling AACE Food products, one of the ways Ndidi is working towards the goal of creating a stronger agri-business sector is through campaigning to change university curricula. She is arranging meetings at Nigerian business schools to talk about the need for students to learn about agricultural production and meeting agricultural school leaders to talk to them about the need to develop better agri-business lessons.

And, as if she wasn’t busy enough, she co-runs an agri-business consultancy which, among other work, helped international NGO Oxfam look at programmes that can help promote food security – an issue which has really come to the fore since the food crisis in developing countries of 2008.

Add it all up and it comes to a small ethical business, run by a woman passionately punching above her weight, so that one day Nigeria, and West Africa, might live up to its potential.


Chrisanthi Giotis