Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, is a Nigerian social entrepreneur. She has 19 years of experience in International Development and Business Management working with multinational firms, the public sector, and international organizations. In 2002, she founded LEAP Africa, a non-profit organisation that focuses on encouraging leadership and development initiatives for youth and business owners in Nigeria.
She is currently the co-founder of AACE Food Processing & Distribution Ltd. (AACE Foods), an indigenous agro-processing company in Lagos, Nigeria and one of the directors of Sahel Capital & Advisory Partners, a leading advisory and private equity firm in Nigeria, which focuses on the agribusiness and manufacturing sectors. Nwuneli holds a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Graduate School of Business. She received her undergraduate degree with honors in Multinational and Strategic Management from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Ndidi Okonkwo was born on March 22, 1975 at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Enugu, Nigeria to a Nigerian professor of Pharmacology—Paul Obuekwe Okonkwo and an American professor of History—Rina Okonkwo.
Her father, who is from Awka, Anambra and her mother who is originally from New York, met at Cornell University in 1965. Her parents devoted their careers to teaching and mentoring students and improving the Nigerian Education System. While growing up, Nwuneli was inspired by her parents. In an interview with the National Mirror Nwuneli explains, “I was born the third of five children. My parents exposed my siblings and I to the concept of patriotism and service from very young ages….during the dark years of the late General Sani Abacha years, when many professors fled outside the country, my parents stuck it out, going for many months without salaries. Even with these challenges, holidays in our home were devoted to giving to others; trips to orphanages and other charity organizations formed a critical part of our socialization”.
Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli
She grew up in Enugu, where she attended primary school at University Primary School. She attended secondary school at the Federal Government College Enugu from 1986-1991. From 1991-1992, she completed a bridging program, combining her final year of high school and freshmen year of college at the Clarkson School in Potsdam, New York.
Nwuneli attended The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in 1992, where she concentrated in strategic management and multinational management. She is a recipient of the Albert A. Berg Scholarship and was also selected to become a member of the Friars and the Onyx Senior Societies for her outstanding leadership efforts. In addition to her academic achievements, she was the president of the Penn African Students Association, and a member of several societies including the Penn Gospel Choir and the Black Students Union. She was also an intern at Mitchell & Titus and Arthur Andersen. In May 1995, at 20 years old, Nwuneli graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Economics.
By 1997, she was enrolled at the prestigious Harvard Business School (HBS). While there, she received both the Harvey Fellowship and the National Black MBA Association Graduate Scholarship, both recognizing her academic accomplishments. Her extracurricular activities at Harvard include founding and Co-chairing the Annual African Business Conference; Vice President of Faculty and Student Affairs for the Africa Business Club; International Liaison for the African American Student Union; and Publicity Chair for the Christian Association. She graduated with her MBA at 24 in 1999.
Nwuneli’s career began in the summer of her junior year at The University of Pennsylvania when she held a Summer Business Analyst position with McKinsey & Company in New York. In 1995, she was offered a full-time position at McKinsey as a Business Analyst working out of Chicago, Illinois. She also worked for McKinsey in their office in Johannesburg, South Africa. Recently liberated from apartheid, South Africa was faced with the task of rebuilding its law enforcement agencies, positioning them to take on the challenges of a new diverse government. Notably, her work with McKinsey in 1997 led to the management and training of police officers across 25 South African Police Service Stations, as well as an increase in criminal convictions and a reduction in crime rates.
In the summer of 1998, she accepted a position as the Lead Consultant with a non-profit founded by Professor Michael Porter called The Center for Middle East Competitive Strategy. She consulted with Palestinian and Israeli businesses and made recommendations for decreasing transaction costs and increasing trade trade across the region.
In the summer of 1999, Nwuneli worked as the Lead Consultant for The Ford Foundation on a project focusing on Nigeria’s largest microcredit institutions, COWAN and FADU. In that same year, she rejoined McKinsey and served on a few client service teams, consulting for consumer goods companies and large American retailers. In 2000, less than a year after graduating from HBS, she resigned from her position at McKinsey and returned to Nigeria to serve as the pioneer Executive Director for the FATE Foundation (founded by Nigerian Businessman, Fola Adeola), which is a nonprofit organization that strives to promote wealth creation and encourage entrepreneurship in Nigeria. With a specific enthusiasm for engaging female entrepreneurs, she explains to the HBS African America Alumni Association in an interview: “Nigeria has some of the most entrepreneurial people in the world but access to financing, networks, and growth remain a challenge. I believe empowering women to start and grow their businesses is critical to Nigeria’s development, but educating women is the real silver bullet.”
In 2002, Nwuneli founded two nonprofits, LEAP (Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability, Professionalism) Africa and Ndu Ike Akunuba (NIA), Igbo words which translate in English to Life, Strength, and Wealth. NIA’s focus is on female empowerment—inspiring university students in Southeastern Nigeria to live full and meaningful lives. The purpose of LEAP is to inspire, empower and equip business owners, youth, teachers and social entrepreneurs with the skills and tools for personal and organizational transformation. LEAP provides training on leadership, ethics and civics. In discussing LEAP’s impact on her community to Good News Nigeria, Nwuneli explains, “The most fulfilling part of my work is seeing changes take place in the attitudes, character, behaviour and actions of our participants. Sometimes this transformation is quick, but more often it is slow, but enduring”. As a representative of the organization, she has been invited to speak at the UN Commission for Social Development, the World Economic Forum and the Clinton Global Initiative.
LEAP has worked in partnership with the Ford Foundation, Citi Foundation, World Bank, United States Government, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, ALI (Aspen Institute’s Africa Leadership Initiative), Nokia, and the International Youth Foundation. Nwuneli served as LEAP Africa’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer from 2002-2007 and is still an active Board Member in the organization.
Between 2009 and 2010, Nwuneli and her husband Mezuo Nwuneli Co-Founded Sahel Capital and AACE Foods. Sahel Capital is a consulting and advisory firm specializing in the agriculture and manufacturing industries. Sahel was selected as the fund manager for Fund for Agricultural Finance in Nigeria (FAFIN), a $100m Fund focused on SME’s.The firm completed its first close of $33 million in 2014. Sahel has also provided advisory and consulting services to clients in Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Liberia. It has also supported international agencies such as 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. AACE Foods’ is focused on processing spices, complementary food and spreads sourced from smallholder farmers across Nigeria. AACE’s pioneering efforts in promoting nutrition, supporting smallholder farmers and displacing imports have been recognized by the Africa Diaspora Marketplace, IAP and AECF. Both firms have served as catalysts in the Nigerian and West African agribusiness landscape.
Currently, Nwuneli is on the Board of LEAP Africa, AACE Foods, Sahel Capital, Nestle Nigeria Plc, Cornerstone Nigeria Plc, and Nigerian Breweries Plc. She is also on the USAID Advisory Committee on Voluntary Aid (ACVFA). Previously, she was on the World Economic Forum as a committee member on the Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership from 2011-2014.