Goats and Soda: NPR
Mike Lawrence/Getty Images for Gates Archive
You may not know it, but you probably eat foods that come from Africa on a daily basis.
Yet between sips of Ethiopian single-origin light roast coffee, our thoughts on African agriculture might be destitute farmland and poor faces wanting more.
Ndidi Nunweli thinks the perspective is deeply incorrect. She has worked for decades trying to change the narrative that African countries have nothing to contribute to the global food supply. She has founded several organizations – such as LEAP Africa and Sahel Consulting – which aim to bring agricultural and economic prosperity to bright young entrepreneurs in Africa. She is also a podcaster, TED speaker and a powerful voice in the world of African agriculture.
We spoke to Ndidi about his work, how young entrepreneurs are driving 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 doesn’t know what you do?
I am a social entrepreneur. I live in Lagos, Nigeria, and have worked in the international development landscape for about 25 years. I first started in the field of youth development and then transitioned into women’s economic empowerment. For the past 14 years I have focused exclusively on food and agricultural landscapes, essentially ensuring that Africa feeds itself and the world.
Why did you choose to dedicate your life to African agricultural development?
When people think of Africa, they think of a starving child, and we are trying very aggressively to change that. Because if people don’t believe that Africans can change their future and transform their landscape, they will continue to thwart 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 largest cocoa contributors in the world. You actually interact with food from Africa without recognizing the source on a daily basis.
How is your perspective on solving problems related to agriculture and youth movements different from other people who have tried to solve these problems?
I think the first thing that makes my approach different is that I believe that small and medium-sized businesses [SMEs] are the engine of innovation, and that supporting them on a large scale on the African continent is the best solution and the most sustainable solution for the ecosystem.
If you help farmers produce 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 farmers, consumers are happier, farmers are happier and [agricultural] the ecosystem is growing.
We work with thousands of SMEs to create this 3 trillion dollar industry that our food ecosystem should be according to the African Development Bank. We believe that if you can stimulate the demand for African products on the continent and abroad, we can change the ecosystem and we can also change the way people perceive Africa.
Does your previous work on youth movements relate to the work you do now in food and agriculture?
Yes, Africa is a young continent, 70% of our population is under 35 years old. Nutrition and access to nutritious food are essential for young people. But young people also constitute an important part of the agricultural workforce. Through the work I do with LEAP Africa, we train young people in public schools in leadership and social innovation to become entrepreneurs to start and grow successful food and agribusiness businesses 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 is a female run business named 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 how to showcase their story, access global platforms and increase revenue growth.
Now she has been able to put her products on some of the global shelves and is taking the best coconut products from Nigeria to the world. We are so proud because as she grows, the women who work with her benefit. Their livelihoods are improved and the farmers she sources from also benefit.
Was 2022 a good year for the year? Do you have any memorable moments to share?
[Sigh] 2022 has been a very, very difficult year. He peaked with Bill Gates [who is a funder of NPR and the Goats and Soda blog] make fonio [an African grain used in a salad] on a world stage with celebrity chef, Chef Pierre Thiam, from Senegal. Seeing a globally recognized leader bring African food grown by African women to the world stage was a very moving moment for me.
I know the World Cup probably has no direct connection to sustainable agribusiness in Africa, but did Morocco reach the semi-finals did anything to change those narratives on Africa on the world stage?
Well, I was extremely proud that Morocco did it. I hoped that Senegal would have joined them as well as Ghana. What we saw even at the end of the World Cup was still very, very exciting. When I look at the France team, I see a lot of my African youth who brought so much energy, 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.