Ndidi Nwuneli, Nigerian Serial Entrepreneur & Global Leader of Tomorrow

The NextWomen Africa Theme.

Serial entrepreneur Ndidi Nwuneli is one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders. 

In 2002 she founded LEAP Africa, to provide leadership, ethics & management coaching for youth, business owners, social entrepreneurs and the public sector. The following year she launched a non-profit, NIA (Ndu - Life; Ike - Strength; Akunuba - Wealth), with the aim of empowering female university students to achieve their highest potential in life.

Nididi is also co-founder of AACE Foods, an indigenous agro-processing company, and a director of Sahel Capital Partners, a leading advisory firm focused on the agribusiness and manufacturing sectors.

Ndidi has seventeen years experience in international development. Through her work with Sahel and AACE, she has shaped agriculture strategy and policy and supported a range of clients in Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia, including ECOWAS, Oxfam International, AGRA, USAID, UNECA, and Technoserve.

Ndidi started her career as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, working in their Chicago, New York and Johannesburg Offices, with a focus on fast moving consumer goods. She returned to Nigeria in 2000, to fulfill her passion of promoting entrepreneurship and leadership development in Africa.

Ndidi holds a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School and received her undergraduate degree with honors in Multinational and Strategic Management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Ndidi has received numerous honors and awards. In addition to being recognized as a Global Leader of Tomorrow and Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos, she received a National Honor, Member of the Federal Republic, from the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2004, was recognized as the Young Manager of the Year 2005 by THISDAY Newspapers and received an Excellence Award from the Africa Business Club at Harvard Business School in 2007. 

We spoke to Ndidi about the startup scene in Nigeria; the lessons corporate America could learn from the Nigerian way of life; and the three shocking facts which led her to found a social enterprise to fight malnutrition.

TNW: What projects are you currently working on? What are your hopes and aspirations for 2013? 

NN: I currently split my time between AACE Foods, Sahel Capital and LEAP Africa. All three organizations are at defining moments in their histories. LEAP turned ten in 2012, and is embarking on a new strategic repositioning in 2013, as well as a succession process. In addition, it is publishing three new books in 2013 – one focused on young people titled “How to Get a Job” and two for our business owners focused on corporate cultures and creativity. 

AACE Foods, our agroprocessing company recently moved into our own factory, and we are focused on scaling up our sales and operations. We are also expanding our partnership with small holder farmers across Nigeria and diversifying our product line to include complementary food. 

Sahel Capital, our advisory/consulting firm, is focused on expanding our scope and scale. In 2013, we plan on engaging in more partnerships and principal investments. 

TNW: Which African leader (past or present, business or political) most encompasses the values which LEAP tries to promote? 

NN: LEAP’s mission is to inspire, empower and equip a new cadre of African leaders by providing the skills and tools for personal, organizational and community transformation, while our vision is be recognized as the premier resource centre for developing dynamic, innovative and principled leaders, who will drive Africa's realization of its full potential. 

Given our mission and vision, Nelson Mandela is one African leader who encompasses the values that we promote. He is authentic, principled, and dynamic. In his life’s work as a freedom fighter, and later as a president, he led by example, made sacrifices for others, took bold decisions and maintained his humility. 

Africa needs more Nelson Mandelas and LEAP has been working diligently over the past ten years to ensure that we do!!! 

TNW: What business and leadership lessons did you learn during your time in corporate America and took back with you to Nigeria when you returned in 2000? What could corporate America learn from the Nigerian way of life?

NN: My experiences as a business analyst and associate with McKinsey & Company, one of the leading consulting firms in the world was extremely valuable. I gained critical problem solving, analytical, communication and time management skills. I gained exposure to the leading companies in the world, who were my clients and an appreciation for the importance of systems and structures in building ensuring institutions. The experiences and exposure definitely transformed my outlook on life and enhanced my skills. I have definitely applied these skills to my work in Nigeria.

During my time in the United States, I benefited immensely from the support of pioneering African Americans who established programmes and networks such as INROADS, SEO and even at McKinsey - the Black Client Service Staff community, to ensure that more people of color could enter the corporate world and succeed! More than anything my exposure to these networks gave me a deep appreciation for the sacrifices that others had made to ensure that I could get my foot into the door in corporate America and a burden to try to leave the door open for more people of color to achieve their highest potential in life.

In terms of what corporate America can learn from the Nigerian way of life -  I believe that Nigerians are some of the most resilient people on earth.

The ability to adapt and cope in any situation and to do so with a smile, is one of the key qualities that we can teach corporate America.

TNW: We have published articles which state that empowering female entrepreneurs in developing countries, especially in the area of agriculture, is the key to turning around the current economic downturn. Do you agree with this? How can female entrepreneurs in developed countries help to empower their counterparts in Africa?


Empowering women to start and grow their businesses is critical to our development, but educating women is the real silver bullet.

Africans are naturally entrepreneurial and the average African woman has a business, but it is typically a micro or small business. In the agricultural landscape, women dominate, however, they operate at the lower end of the value chain, with limited access to markets, and limited innovation. Programmes that are focused on providing business education, adult literacy, inputs, processing support and access to financing and markets will make a real difference. 

TNW: Tell us a little about the startup scene in Nigeria. What kinds of new businesses are emerging? What are the particular challenges faced by women looking to start their own businesses in Nigeria?

NN: Nigeria has some of the most entrepreneurial people in the world. Women are actively starting businesses in a range of industries, including the creative sector – fashion design, music, art, culture and a range of supporting and related subsectors such as beauty, photography, etc. There is also tremendous growth in the information, communication & technology (ICT) sector, agribusiness and agroprocessing, events planning, catering, education and a range of services.

They continue to face a range of challenges in terms of access to financing, links to networks and growth. According to a recent survey conducted by SMEDAN and the National Bureau of Statistics -  42% of the microenterprises in Nigeria are owned by female entrepreneurs. However, only 13.57% of the SMEs are owned by women, a clear indication that they struggle with business growth.

TNW: In addition to LEAP, in 2003 you also founded an organisation called NIA to empower female university students to achieve their highest potential in life. What do you see as the major obstacles which prevent young women from reaching their full potential?

NN: The biggest obstacle is the personal mindsets of the young women and societal expectations of them.

For most young women in Nigeria, their primary goal is to graduate from university and move into the home of their rich husband, and then quickly give birth to a son to secure their place in the marriage.

Sadly, few recognize the importance of  setting and achieving their professional goals and becoming economically self-sufficient until it is too late, and they are often forced to stay in bad and abusive marriages because of societal pressure. In addition, society still places limits on women, and gender roles are still being defined, which limit the advancement of women in the public and private sectors.

NIA focuses its efforts on changing the mindsets of women to enable them understand that they can achieve whatever they commit to doing, through hardwork and discipline. It also showcases women who have achieved success in the private and public sectors and exposes these young ladies to role models and mentors. The NIA girls also serve as “big sisters” to girls in secondary schools, inspiring the next generation.

TNW: Since 2004, LEAP has celebrated and supported 65 young social innovators who are positively transforming communities across Nigeria. Which projects supported by the Social Innovators Programme have made you most proud?

NN: LEAP is very proud of the successes of many its Social Innovators Programme and Award recipients. The initiatives of these youth are still relevant to the society, innovative, breaking new frontiers and attracting support of international entities. Some of these youths that I will mention are:

Toyosi Akerele: Founder CEO, Rise Networks, Nigeria's Leading Social Enterprise with a strategic focus on Youth and Education Development.

Tolulope Sangosanya: Founder Executive Director, LOTS Charity Foundation, a registered charity organization that caters to the physiological, social, educational, psychological, medical, and emotional needs of street kids and vulnerable children

Ogenefego Isikwenu: Founder, Teo Inspiro Communications, a management consulting and social development organization concerned about the future of Africa; especially young people between the ages of 10-30years.

Lanre Messan: Green Yaggy Project, a multiple award winning social transformation project, poised to help young people bring their ideas to life while adopting positive behaviours towards change in Nigeria, with programs cutting across business, entertainment, science, community development, behavioural change and patriotism.

Chris Ibe: Founder, African Youth Initiative on Crime Prevention, a registered non-governmental and not-for-profit organization which organizes leadership and crime prevention programmes in communities, tertiary and secondary institutions across Nigeria.  

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

NN: I am fortunate to be blessed with quite a few role models and mentors. My parents – Prof. Paul and Prof Rina Okonkwo and my two older sisters – Dr. Adaora Okonkwo Ogbuefi and Prof. Una Osili were my earliest role models and continue to inspire and challenge me! My parents exposed my siblings and I to the concepts of patriotism and service from very young ages. Despite their Ivy League education, they both chose to devote their lives to teaching in the Nigerian higher educational system, fighting against all odds to ensure some level of excellence in their respective departments.

During the dark Abacha years, when many Nigerian professors fled abroad, my parents stuck it out, going for many months without salaries.

In addition, holidays at our home were devoted to giving to others, and trips to the Motherless Babies home and other charity organizations formed a critical part of our socialization.

My mentors are Chief Mrs. Stella Okoli, the managing Director of Emzor Pharmaceuticals and Chief Mrs. Taiwo Taiwo, the managing director of Shonny Investments. They both served on the Board of the first nonprofit organization that I managed – FATE Foundation and were incredibly supportive throughout my tenure as the pioneer executive director. They are two amazing women who have combined their roles as entrepreneurs, mothers, sisters, daughters and wives in such an amazing way! They inspire and challenge me to be the best that I can be. Another mentor of mine is Prof. Debora Spar, the President of Barnard College. She was my professor at the Harvard Business School and has really been a terrific champion and role model.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

NN: AACE Foods is a social enterprise which I co-founded in 2009 with my husband, Mezuo Nwuneli who serves as our managing director. The passion and sense of urgency behind the creation of this organization was motivated by three facts.

Firstly, according to the 2008 Demographic and Health Survey, 41% of Nigerian children under 5 years old are classified as stunted, 14% are wasted and 23% are underweight.

This contributes to Nigeria’s high infant mortality or maternal 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 county 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 local 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 offers spices, spreads, sauces and complementary food for commercial and institutional buyers, including food processors, caterers, restaurants, hotels, wholesalers and retailers. 

Sign Up to our Newsletter

So you enjoy The NextWomen. Why not sign up to our monthly newsletter?
You get a Letter from the CEO :-), the chance to catch up with the best of our recent articles - and some extra things we throw in once in a while.

We try hard for smart reading.