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Don't think of Africa as a hungry child, says a champion of Africa's food prowess

Ndidi Nwuneli speaks at the 2022 Goalkeepers Global Goals Awards, hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in New York City. The event recognizes the work of those who help advance the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals in their communities and around the world.
Mike Lawrence/Getty Images for Gates Archive
Ndidi Nwuneli speaks at the 2022 Goalkeepers Global Goals Awards, hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in New York City. The event recognizes the work of those who help advance the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals in their communities and around the world.

You might not know it, but you're probably consuming food that comes from Africa on a daily basis.

Yet between sips of Ethiopian single-origin light roast coffee, our thoughts of African agriculture might be of destitute farmland and impoverished faces wanting for more.

Ndidi Nwuneli believes that perspective is profoundly incorrect. She has been working for decades trying to change the narrative that African countries have nothing to contribute to the global food supply. She's founded multiple organizations — such as LEAP Africa and Sahel Consulting — that aim to bring agricultural and economic prosperity to bright young entrepreneurs in Africa. She is also a podcaster, TED speaker, and powerful voice in the world of African agriculture.

We spoke to Nwuneli about her work, how young entrepreneurs are the engine of agricultural innovation, cooking with Bill Gates and even the World Cup.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe yourself to someone who is unfamiliar with what you do?

I'm a social entrepreneur. I live in Lagos, Nigeria, and I have worked in the international development landscape for about 25 years. I first started in the area of youth development and then transitioned to focusing on economic empowerment of women. For the last 14 years I have been exclusively focused on the food and agricultural landscapes, basically ensuring that Africa nourishes itself and the world.

Why have you chosen to dedicate your life to African agricultural development?

When people think of Africa, they think of a hungry child, and we're very aggressively trying to change that. Because if people don't believe that Africans can change their future and transform their landscape, they're going to continue to frustrate their efforts by trying to solve problems for the [African] people who can solve it themselves.

You know, we are the birthplace of coffee, we have the best coffee in the world. We are the biggest contributors of cocoa in the world. You actually interact with food from Africa without recognizing the source on a daily basis.

How is your perspective on tackling problems related to agriculture and youth movements different from others who have tried to address these problems?

I think the first thing that makes my approach different is that I believe that small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] are the engine of innovation, and that supporting them to scale on the African continent is the best solution and the most sustainable solution in the ecosystem.

If you help farmers grow more food, but they don't have customers to buy the food and they're not connected to markets, then you have more waste. But if you help those who buy from the farmers, the consumers are happier, the farmers are happier and the [agricultural] ecosystem grows.

We're working with thousands of SMEs to create this $3 trillion dollar industry the African Development Bank says our food ecosystem should be. We believe that if you can drive demand for African products within the continent and abroad, we can change the ecosystem and we can also change the way people view Africa.

Does your previous work on youth movements have a connection to the work you do now in food and agriculture?

Yes, Africa is a youthful continent, 70% of our population is under 35. Nutrition and access to nutritious food is critical for young people. But young people also make a huge part of the labor force for agriculture. Through the work I do with LEAP Africa, we train young people in public schools on leadership and social innovation to become entrepreneurs to start and scale successful food companies and agribusinesses in Africa.

Can you give us an example of someone who has directly benefited from your work?

One is a company called JAM The Coconut Food Company. It's a woman-run business started by a woman called Ebun Feludu and the majority of the staff are women. She makes coconut balls, the best snacks you've ever tasted. She benefited from a six-month program [Changing Narratives Africa] to learn about how to package her story, get on global platforms and increase her revenue growth.

Now she's been able to get her products on some of the global shelves and is taking the best coconut products from Nigeria to the world. We're so proud because as she grows, the women who work with her benefit. Their livelihoods are improved and also the farmers that she sources from benefit.

Has 2022 been a good year for year? Do you have any memorable moments to share?

[Sigh] 2022 has been a very, very difficult year. It culminated with Bill Gates [who is a funder of NPR and the Goats and Soda blog] making fonio [an African grain used in a salad] on a global stage with celebrity chef, Chef Pierre Thiam, from Senegal. Seeing a world-recognized leader prepare African foods grown by African women on a global stage was for me a very emotional moment.

I know the World Cup likely doesn't have any direct relationship to sustainable agribusiness in Africa, but did Morocco making it to the semifinal round do anything to change these narratives about Africa on the global stage?

Well, I was extremely proud that Morocco made it. I was hoping that Senegal would have joined them and Ghana as well. What we saw even at the end of the World Cup was still very, very exciting. When I look at the French team, I see a lot of my African youth who brought so much energy and zeal and passion to the game. [It shows that Africa] continues to change mindsets, breaking stereotypes, breaking boundaries and demonstrating what excellence is on all fronts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Max Barnhart
Max Barnhart is the 2022 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at NPR. He is a 5th year Ph.D. candidate and science journalist studying the evolution of heat stress resistance in sunflowers at the University of Georgia.