Today, on Twitter, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations posted a photo with a quote: “Rural people produce 3/4 of the world's food yet these same people constitute 80% of the global poor - We need to support our food producers. They are our #ZeroHunger heroes!

I retweeted this quote because it resonated with me and reminded me about why I became a social entrepreneur in the food and agriculture landscape in the first place. I was propelled by anger about the rising levels of malnutrition among under-five children in Nigeria and high rates of post-harvest losses, and together with my co-founder, decided to establish AACE Food Processing & Distribution Ltd. in 2009.

From our inception, the AACE Foods team made a deliberate effort to weave inclusion into our business model because we were committed to “doing well and doing good.” Instead of importing raw materials like many other consumer goods companies who argue that smallholder farmers in Nigeria cannot meet their quality and consistency requirements, we decided to invest in building a local supply chain. We partnered with a range of nonprofit organizations such as IFDC, Technoserve and LAPO to identify the smallholder farmer groups, create clusters, and provide training.

Over time, we have been able to build a robust supply chain with over 10,000 smallholder, rural farmers who produce the herbs, vegetables, and cereals that we utilize. By providing them with training on good agronomic practices and post-harvest handling and access to financing and technology, we have not only ensured consistent, high quality supply of our raw materials, but also improved the livelihoods of our farmers, their families, and their communities. Indeed, our deliberate efforts to build an inclusive business cost us some financial and human resources in the short-term, but over time, this has proven to be a wise investment and has given us a competitive advantage in our industry.

Beyond AACE Foods, I have actively engaged in promoting inclusive businesses across West Africa through my role as the managing partner of Sahel Consulting. More specifically, by enhancing the productivity of nomadic dairy farmers and linking them to formal markets through the Nigerian Dairy Development Programme, supporting the strengthening of the yam and cassava value chains, or ensuring that female farmers and youth are engaged in these sectors, I have gained insights into the power of inclusive businesses.

My experiences in fostering inclusion and promoting inclusive businesses through AACE and Sahel Consulting have also underscored four key insights:

First, there is a real sense of urgency to ensure inclusion for youth and women, specifically given the demographic and climatic shifts occurring globally, and widening poverty gaps. For example, the potential of Africa’s agriculture sector cannot be unlocked without deliberate efforts to empower the rural poor, as well as women and youth who constitute 50-70% of the workforce.

Second, there is an urgent need for investment in data-driven research, to convince key stakeholders about the scale of exclusion, measure results and demonstrate the impact of inclusion.

Third, inclusion does not just happen, it occurs through deliberate strategic interventions by key stakeholders in all sectors and requires political will at the highest levels of any organization.

Fourth, there are emerging models and lessons learned from failures and successes which can be shared widely and leveraged to make a case for inclusion and foster broad-based engagement.

My experiences and the many that you will read in this publication demonstrate the power and promise of inclusive businesses. Ultimately, our collective political will and strategic efforts to create more inclusive business models will ensure more sustainable and profitable businesses, and a peaceful and safer world, for us all.

Ndidi O. Nwuneli
Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is a serial social entrepreneur based in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the Co-founder of AACE Foods, Co-Founder & Managing Partner of Sahel Consulting, Chair of NourishingAfrica.com and Founder of LEAP Africa.