by ‘Damilola Oyedele
Ndidi Nwuneli recalls her childhood with joy and deep respect for her family, for she is certain that in those years, the foundation of her life was irrevocably shaped for good. She grew up in Enugu, which she says was a wonderful place because it afforded her close knit family “a sheltered life”.
“I feel blessed because of my upbringing. My parents taught me service. They brought us up with dignity; to know that money is not everything. My father used to say, ‘Don’t count your success by the amount of money you have, but by the number of friends and the depth of friendships you’ve made’.” According to Ndidi,“ I think that having the right values from an early age will determine how far you go in life, and how balanced you are at the end of it.”
Built to Last
Indeed in today’s society, it’s easy to get carried away with false impressions of fame, wealth, beauty and quick success. As such, a great majority succumb to the pressure to project an image which they do not have the finances to sustain. In this respect, Mrs Nwuneli swims against the tide.
“I strive to be authentic because I believe that this is the hallmark of true leadership,” she says with conviction. “I think it’s very important to stay grounded. Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Mr Fola Adeola are phenomenal role models who inspire me in that regard.”
Mrs Nwuneli, who makes time to counsel young people, says, “Every young person has to spend time building their moral compass. What do they stand for? If you scratch the surface beyond the designer clothes or the ‘fame’, when they are by themselves, who are they? What makes them excited? What brings them joy?”
The Winning Recipe
Mrs Nwuneli’s newest business venture is AACE Food Processing & Distribution Ltd., an agribusiness and agro-processing company. The company sources, processes and distributes fruits and vegetables which are grown within West Africa, in order to feed people, improve nutrition levels, help farmers, and ultimately create jobs and wealth. “AACE has a dynamic team in place, along with a very committed Board of Directors which has given invaluable advice and guidance over the past year,” she says.
AACE Foods is also a family business: Mezuo Nwuneli, Ndidi’s husband, who has extensive investment banking and principal investing experience, serves as the Executive Chairman of the company and has worked closely with her to launch AACE Foods. The couple have known each other for 17 years and have been married for 10. Mrs Nwuneli says working with her husband as a business partner is an enjoyable challenge. “Both of us have skills that complement each other and we trust each other so we’re going to make it work,” she says.
“Coupling my passion for agribusiness with my experience in international development and consumer goods, I engaged in significant policy and strategy work over the past three years for ECOWAS, TechnoServe, AGRA and different large agricultural organizations,” she says. With the work came some shocking insights about agricultural issues in our region. “I found that we import 90 per cent of the processed food that we eat; 40-60 per cent of our fruits and vegetables go to waste; and we have some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. One in every five children will die before their fifth birthday because of malnutrition. Thirty-one per cent of children are below the normal birth weight,” she says.
Source of Inspiration
“God just laid on my heart that we had to get involved in the agribusiness industry to address some of these issues,” Mrs Nwuneli says. “AACE Foods is entering the market with spices – we source ginger, red pepper, garlic, black pepper, which we then process and package. We have started testing marketing our products to fast food companies in bulk, as well as to the mass market. You’d be surprised that red pepper and jollof rice spices are imported into Nigeria. Why do we need to import when we can source and produce them here?”
AACE Foods also makes spreads: jams made from pineapple, watermelon, mangos and other tropical fruits; and hot pepper sauces (similar to Tabasco sauce). Over time, the company will begin to produce a range of other spreads and sauces, complementary food for toddlers, and other fruit and vegetable based foods. “We really would like to displace imports and to build viable value chains within our region.
“For years, I’ve taught entrepreneurs how to run and grow their businesses. Now, I’m doing it in the real sector and I’m gaining a new appreciation for the challenges associated with manufacturing and agribusiness. We have been robbed and sued, but we are blessed with terrific partners, and a very committed board.
“We’re excited about the prospects – to grow the company into a regional multinational that will be a truly ‘Proudly Nigerian’ company.”
Leaving her Mark
“Right now, besides AACE, I’m starting two other initiatives and most people say ‘You’re a lunatic! Why are you doing all these things?’” Mrs Nwuneli says. However, she believes there is an urgency to be obedient to God’s call on one’s life.
Mrs Nwuneli is also a writer. Her first book, Working for God in the Marketplace, was a cry from her heart for people to move from words to action-backed faith in the world of work. “Be punctual; take the initiative; have integrity; go above and beyond; let your word be your bond,” she says. “Through your actions, not your words, people will know that you are a true child of God.”
This piece was first published in Élan Magazine (of NEXT Newspapers) on Sunday, 30th January 2011.