Ndidi Nwuneli, MFR, has over fourteen years of experience in international development. Following her early years as a management consultant with McKinsey & Co., Nwuneli returned to Nigeria to fulfil her passion of promoting entrepreneurship and leadership development. She served as the pioneer Executive Director of the FATE Foundation, and then established LEAPAfrica, which provides leadership, ethics and management training and conducts leadership research, and NIA, which empowers female university students to achieve their highest potential in life. Nwuneli is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, USA and serves on numerous boards.
A commitment to excellence
We lived on the University of Nigeria Enugu Campus for the most formative years of my life. During this time, I attended the University Primary School and then Federal Government College Enugu, before Nigeria in 1991, to enrol at The Clarkson School. My parents instilled very strong within us from very early ages.
They revealed to us the importance of always for and achieving the best. Phrases such as ‘90% is not good enough’ , ‘Does the person who got an A have two heads?’ were often heard in our home. They taught us the value of education and encouraged us to read widely, write poems, journals and biographies, and to develop our talents. My mother created a learning environment for us at home, supplementing our formal education with numerous activities, which she developed and executed. In addition, our parents were extremely involved in our education and professional pursuits. They remained cheerleaders and champions for us, always pushing us to apply to the best schools, the most reputable organizations and to excel in those environments.
This commitment to excellence has and continues to inspire and challenge us to be the best in everything we set out to do! A heart for service 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.
The value of hard work and Integrity
My and father often you told us that a measure of an individual’s worth was not based on his riches, but on the depth and quality of friendships that he or she had. Both parents modelled the ethical behaviour that they expected from us, rejecting opportunities to ‘reap where they did not sow’ , and choosing to live honourably! In addition, pocket money was not a part of my childhood. Instead, my mother encouraged me from 12 years old to work – first as a ‘gardener’ for our neighbour, where I watered her flowers every evening, and as a librarian for the Niger Wives Library. The little money that I earned from these positions taught me the value of money, and how to live ‘within my means,’ an invaluable lesson given that in the non-profit sector, I have had to manage funds scrupulously to achieve results.
Pride in our Heritage
Our friends and colleagues marvel at the fact that despite our interracial heritage, my siblings and I speak Igbo fluently, all four girls married Igbo men from Anambra State and that we continue to engage in local, regional and international efforts to uplift our people. These results did not happen by chance. Our parents introduced us to the Igbo language, exposed us to every aspect of our rich history and culture and ensured that we spent significant time with our grandmother and other relatives in Awka. Throughout their struggles in the country, they remained positive about Nigeria’s future, and continued to encourage us to come home and contribute to its growth and development.
Treading the Narrow Non-profit Path
I never actually planned to work in the non-profit sector, at least not at such an early age. My plan was to establish a successful career in corporate America and then return to Nigeria to give back and serve. This was the path that was extolled in my undergraduate years at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard Business School– LEARN, EARN & THEN SERVE. However, God had different plans for me, which unfolded through a series of miraculous events. First, in April 1995, during my final year in University, I received a courier package from ARM, one of Nigeria’s leading asset management firms, inviting me to work with them for the summer. ARM and I cannot clearly trace how they found about me, because I had never submitted a CV to ARM and would not have ordinarily contemplated a job in Nigeria during the dark Abacha years.
When I returned to the United States and joined McKinsey & Company, a leading international management consulting firm, I was fortunate to get staffed on a few projects with non-profit clients. I enjoyed these projects immensely, and felt a deep sense of satisfaction from contributing to the lives of others, as opposed to merely growing shareholder value. McKinsey offered to cover a portion of the cost of my MBA from the Harvard Business School, with the understanding that I would return to the firm.
While at Harvard, I chose to devote a portion of my elective study to entrepreneurship and non-profit management and volunteered with the Centre for Women & Enterprise in Boston. In addition, I turned down attractive offers with consumer goods companies, and chose instead to spend the summer between my 1st and 2nd year of Business School in the West Bank, working with the Centre for Middle East Competitive Strategy. This internship also proved to be a defining one. First, it exposed me to resilient Palestinian entrepreneurs who despite greater odds that many face on the African continent, were excelling. It also challenged me to consider what difference I could make in my own country. As a result, upon graduating from the Harvard Business School, I spent the summer of 1999 serving as a consultant for the Ford Foundation office of West Africa, where I supported two of their micro finance grantees–COWAN and FADU. This experience crystallized my desire to establish a non-profit in Nigeria, and also enabled me to work with Dr. Adhiambo Odaga, who was then a program officer at the Ford Foundation, and has become my mentor, and remains one of my greatest role models to this day. After my stint with Ford, I returned to McKinsey’s Chicago office in October 1999 to fulfil my obligation, but Nigeria remained on my mind. A telephone call in early 2000 from Mr. Fola Adeola, the founder of Guaranty Trust Bank, in which he offered me a few positions in the private sector, and then mentioned an opportunity to help establish the FATE Foundation–created the perfect opportunity to serve.
Despite all opposing counsel, I took out a loan to repay my debt to McKinsey and returned to Nigeria in May 2000, a few months after my 25th birthday. FATE Foundation’s mandate was to create wealth in Nigeria, by training, mentoring and supporting unemployed youth to become successful entrepreneurs who could create jobs for themselves and others. Through tremendous hard work, and the terrific support of a visionary founder – Fola Adeola, a dedicated board, funders, volunteers, and mentors, FATE was able to launch its School of Entrepreneurship, a Mentoring Program and a range of other services, in July 2000. Unfortunately, my tenure at FATE was short lived, as I was compelled to return to the United States in January 2002, because my new husband and long-time friend–Udemezuo Nwuneli decided to pursue his MBA at Harvard. While in the United States, I established FATE USA and continued to support FATE’s efforts. It is important to note that FATE Foundation continues to thrive under the dynamic leadership of its chair, board and current executive director. Additional information about this pioneering organization can be found at www.fatefoundation.com.
Why crawl when we can LEAP? LEAP Africa was born during a family vacation in Guatemala in March 2002. As I toured the country with my husband, I asked myself a question – ‘why is this country, one of the poorest countries in South America light years ahead of the average African nation?’ Propelled by my anger about the state of affairs on the African continent, and the realization that many of our so called “leaders” were not addressing the challenges confronting the continent, I felt a clear call from God to establish an organization that would inspire, empower and equip a new cadre of leaders in Africa. Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability & Professionalism (LEAP) is committed to inculcating effective leadership attributes and principles in to the mind-set of every African. At LEAP, we describe a leader as an individual who has a vision and galvanizes others to join him/ her to achieve that vision, which is focused on achieving positive change in society. The truth is that if more Africans chose to act like true leaders, the poverty, health and other challenges that we face would be addressed.
Our activities are hinged on the belief that if we can change the way our people think, then we can shape the way they act and live. From its inception, through the support of a dynamic board and dedicated team, LEAP launched innovative programs that were practical and relevant for the Nigerian context. More specifically, the organization provides leadership and life skills, ethics and management training programs for the youth, social entrepreneurs, business owners and the public sector. It also provides one-on-one coaching services, conducts leadership research and organizes the Annual Nigerian Youth Leadership Awards. In addition, LEAP has championed the Nigeria 2025 Scenario project, in collaboration with the African Leadership Institute, and serves as the Nigerian partners for YALI West Africa. The organization has also published a number of pioneering books including: Defying the Odds: Case Studies of Nigerian Companies that have Survived Generations, and Get on Board: A Practical Guide to Building a Board of Directors in Nigeria. In 2008, it launched Rage for Change: A practical guide for young Nigerians who want to make a difference, and Building a Culture of Ethics in 2009. To date, LEAP has launched its programs in nine Nigerian cities, including Abuja, Awka, Benin, Enugu, Kano, Ibadan, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Onitsha. In addition, it has provided short courses for entrepreneurs and youth in Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. Through these programs, LEAP has supported over 3,000 participants through its core programs, and over 30,000 through its participation in leadership and management training workshops across Africa. These participants have in turn instituted over 350 change projects within their companies and communities to impact the lives of others. In 2008, we introduced our curriculum to the public education system in three Nigerian States, by training teachers to deliver leadership, ethics and civics training to their students, and then providing them with funds to commence change projects in their communities. Our hope is that this curriculum will be adopted across the nation. Our vision is two-fold: 1) that by 2025, the alumni of LEAP’s Youth Leadership Program will be recognized as dynamic, principled and public and non-profit sectors, spearheading Africa’s ascent in to the international arena; and 2) by 2052, 60% of businesses established by the alumni of LEAP Africa’s Business Leadership Program would be thriving in the second or third generation. LEAP’s journey and success to date is definitely because of its partnerships. We have been blessed by an exceptional and devoted Board of Directors, close advocates and mentors, and excellent, committed funders including the Ford Foundation, Nokia, the International Youth Foundation, the UK Global Opportunities Fund and others. Please visit www. leapafrica.org for additional information about LEAP Africa.
Through my work with LEAP, I have become even more convinced that the solution to Africa’s problems lies in our hands. The sooner we recognize that we have everything that it takes to transform our own lives, and that we all have a sphere of influence and can lead positive change in our communities, the closer we will be to the true concept of leadership.
Most Fulfilling Achievements
My most fulfilling achievement to date is my two beautiful children. They are truly God’s greatest gift to me. Being a mother of two terrific children trumps every other experience that I have had in life. It is probably the most difficult task that I have ever embarked on, but definitely the most rewarding and fulfilling. Beyond this, I honestly believe that being part of shaping people’s lives and helping them unleash a vision or passion that they never believed they could, gives me the greatest joy. When I read about one of my participants in the press or speak to them on the telephone and hear all about their accomplishments, I feel honoured that God allowed me to play a very small part in igniting their fire.
NIA: Life, Strength and Wealth
I conceived the idea for NIA during the Association for Women’s Right in Development’s (AWID) conference in Mexico in October 2002. Following the viewing of a documentary titled: ‘Wishing for Seven Sons & One Daughter’, and the debate that ensued about the relevance of this documentary in the Nigerian context, I had a sleepless night. I reflected on the situation in South eastern Nigeria in particular – where for many young women, marriage still represents their greatest form of security. This priority quickly shifts, after marriage, to the birth of sons, to secure their stake within the family structure. NIA means purpose in Swahili, but stands for three powerful Igbo words: Ndu–life, Ike– strength, Akunuba–wealth. The organization recognizes that university years are a defining period in the lives of most women. As a result, it is committed to reaching out to these women through open dialogues, career counselling and leadership. It involves training and empowering them to lead full and meaningful lives. Since May 2003, NIA has provided leadership training programs, counselling, mentoring and support programs for young women from four Nigerian universities in South eastern Nigeria. Started with an innovation grant from the Association for Women’s Right in Development(AWID), and supported with funding from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)and the Global Fund for Women, the organization has expanded its service offerings to include a Big Sisters program, focused on young women in secondary schools, a political awareness and participation program and the ‘Say No to Sexual Harassment’ program. NIA is based in Enugu, Nigeria and is run by my mother, Prof. Rina Okonkwo, who is now fondly called “Mama NIA”, by over 300 young women who the organisation has training and mentored. Visit www. nia-nigeria.org for additional information about NIA.
2007, In December I formally stepped down from day-to-day management of LEAP Africa. Today, I simply serve on the organization’s board and as a volunteer. As a proud African woman, who has written and taught countless entrepreneurs about succession planning, I am truly delighted to have formally handed over the leadership of LEAP to two terrific women–Mosun Layode, our Executive Director and Ngozi Obigwe – our Chief Operating Officer. Both of these women have been an important part of LEAP’s history, and I am thrilled that they are leading LEAP into a bright future.
Our work is not done! In fact, we have only scratched the surface of Africa’s leadership challenge. However, I am more convinced today than I was 6 years ago, that in our lifetime, LEAP in partnership with a range of other individuals and organizations will inspire, empower and equip a new generation of principled, disciplined and creative leaders who will transform Nigeria, West Africa and indeed the entire continent. Beyond LEAP, I currently devote the bulk of my time to managing a small consulting firm called AACE, which promotes private sector development in Africa by building successful companies and sustainable communities. It provides strategic advice and implementation support to entrepreneurs, corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations and development agencies. I work across West Africa, and I am currently managing projects in Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal. I continue to juggle these responsibilities with my role as a wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend. In terms of the future–I am simply letting God dream for me. However, He has laid two burdens in my heart: a) the need for a strong and vibrant African private sector with companies that can create jobs, grow our economies and compete globally–and b) the urgent need for a TRUE “African Union”. I hope to contribute towards the emergence of both in my lifetime.
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In 2010, Sahel Capital was selected as a fund manager for Fund for Agricultural Finance in Africa (FAFIN), a $100 funding programme for SMEs. Sahel Capital had been a strategic advisory and consulting firm for clients in Nigeria, Benin Republic, Mali, Senegal, Ghana, and Liberia. It has also provided technical support on the continent for international agencies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID/Africa LEAD, ECOWAS, DFID, Oxfam International, TechnoServe/ Humanity United, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, IFDC, and the Ford Foundation. In 2020, Ms Ndidi Nwuneli founded Nourishing Africa, a hub for Africa’s Agribusiness Entrepreneurs hoping to transform the Agriculture economy in the continent. AACE has since been described by African business experts as a catalyst for the African Agribusiness and food landscape.
Nwuneli continues to soar in her many pursuits. She has received awards, recognitions, and accolades in her work as a passionate non-profit leader, entrepreneur and change agent. In 2002, She was selected as the Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland. She was honoured by the Presidnt of Nigeria as a Member of the Federal Republic, MFR, in 2004. She bagged the Excellence Award from Anambra State in 2011. She was named on the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa in 2011. In 2013, She won the Harvard Business School Nigeria BusinessClub 2013 Leading Social Entrepreneur Award, and was honoured by the Global Fund for Women as well. Nwuneli is a board member of the Rockefeller Foundation, LEAP Africa, AACE Foods, Fairfax Africa, Godrej Group, DSM Sustainability advisory board, Nigerian Breweries and African Philanthropy Forum among others.