African entrepreneurship is driving creativity and innovation, in and out of the kitchen.
The story of Africa—as told to the rest of the world—is changing. For centuries, the story of this beautiful, vibrant, and diverse continent has been very limited. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may have said it best when she called out the narratives about Africa in her TED Talk as being “a single story.” This story has been misleading for those who do not know the continent and harmful to Africa and its people. For many Africans, their stories of Mother Africa are plenty and diverse. They are not removed from hardships, challenges, and tragedies—but unlike the single story of Africa, their existence is not defined by these characteristics.
The Global Food and Drink Initiative, which I established in Oakland, California, is working to tell a new story by amplifying voices of food entrepreneurs, such as Ndidi Nwuneli, and others in Africa and throughout the African diaspora. Nwuneli is a Nigerian entrepreneur and expert in African agriculture. She is among many on the continent who are telling authentic stories that defy century-old perceptions.
Native to West Africa, fonio is sometimes called the “new quinoa” and is thought to be the oldest African grain. More importantly, fonio is a drought-resistant crop that can be grown throughout the year in any climate, which is important while navigating climate change.
“When I think about the continent, it blows my mind because not only are we contributors to culture, fashion, food, and music, but also to human existence—and the labor force of the future is on the African continent,”Nwuneli said.
Moving Forward and Creating Their Own Stories
Born to an American mother and Nigerian father who met while attending Cornell University in New York, Nwuneli vividly remembers coming to the US to finish high school at 16 years-old.
“The face of Africa I met in America was the face of a hungry child. I was told by my friends at dinner parties, at dinner, at school cafeterias, ‘Oh, my mom used to say finish your dinner, there are hungry children in Africa.’”
After high school, Nwuneli earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania and attended Harvard Business School for an advanced degree. She returned to Nigeria and focused on empowering the next generation of African leaders, launching the leadership skills organization Leap Africa—an organization she is still involved with more than 20 years later.
“We have the youngest population in the world: Over 70% of our population is under 35. They have energy, they are creative, they have skills, and they have a lot to contribute,” Nwuneli said.
Nwuneli is also the co-founder of AACE Foods, which makes products using natural West African ingredients, and African Food Changemakers, another dynamic organization leading food entrepreneurs who are embracing their creativity and telling their own stories through African products.
Coffee, one of the most consumed—and profitable—commodities in the world, dates back to the year 850 and the African country of Abyssinia, known today as Ethiopia.
“The whole premise of African Food Changemakers is to go with others. We built this community of like-minded social entrepreneurs and for-profit food entrepreneurs who are committed to ensuring that Africa nourishes itself—and feeds the world,” Nwuneli said.
Together with her team, African Food Changemakers is offering thousands of entrepreneurs across 37 countries skills, funding, community, and other support. Success stories include Adanne Uche, who started Ady’s Food Mart in 2016 to help Nigerian families make healthier food choices. The community of entrepreneurs within African Food Changemakers allowed Uche an opportunity for collaboration and a chance to give back through mentoring. Other entrepreneurs credit African Food Changemakers with providing the necessary information and resources to enter the international marketplace and implement environmentally friendly production practices.
Reclaiming Culture, Heritage Foods, and the Land
In Kenya, Wambui Mbichi, an advocate for sustainable food systems, and founder and host of Farm to Table Podcast KE, is tapping into the energy on the continent—an energy that she says is reclaiming culture, heritage foods, and the land.
“Currently, what we are witnessing is a lot of people reimagining agriculture because of the crisis of climate change and global warming,” Mbichi said.
Mbichi believes that Indigenous farming practices that have fed communities and countries for generations should be part of the equation when considering solutions. These practices may not be scientifically documented, Mbichi told me, but they work. This knowledge was passed down to her parents, who are farmers, then down to her and others who are part of a younger generation looking to contribute to the African continent in a way that leads to positive change.
“We need to be more proactive members in our life,” Mbichi declared. She holds bachelor and masters degrees in agriculture, and her work centers around research aimed at finding and sharing sustainable solutions within farming communities—including those that are based on changing climate needs.
Nigerian cook, artist, and writer Tunde Wey also uses food as a means of creating change—but with a very different focus. Arriving in Detroit, Michigan at age 16, it didn’t take him long to see the race and wealth gaps between his native continent and that of the West. His work now addresses racial and wealth inequalities, using food to connect people with these conversations. His latest project challenges global economic systems through a revolutionary spirit he named Since the Time of John the Baptist. Celebrating West African drinking traditions, Wey’s goal is to invite consumers to examine the exorbitant cost of their privilege and the corresponding responsibility to create a more equitable global economic landscape.
“People perceive Africa as poor, as indistinguishable. This is like a historical trend in literature, in trade, and it’s been this way for a couple of centuries. That perception is tied to the fact that the continent has been extracted. There have been a lot of material extractions from the continent in terms of people, in terms of resources, in terms of ideas. So many things have been taken from the continent that have impoverished the continent,” Wey said.
The Motherland of Ingredients Continue to Nourish the World
Without a doubt, the unauthorized story of Africa has omitted some of the most important and impressive facts and contributions from the continent. Is chocolate your guilty pleasure? Emerging Black-owned brands on the continent and in the US are producing premium bean-to-bar products and educating consumers about the industry’s history—and that 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are sourced from Africa.
Africa’s single story is now being replaced by a great collective of individual stories by entrepreneurs creating paths for discovery and connection through their products.
Coffee, one of the most consumed—and profitable—commodities in the world, dates back to the year 850 and the African country of Abyssinia, known today as Ethiopia. History has it that a goat herder discovered the berries and took them back to a monastery, and after an unintentional incident with fire, coffee was born.
“Africa is an unearthed diamond because I don’t think Africa has had the opportunities to tell its own stories yet,” said Mphumeleli Ndlangisa, a South African investment banker-turned-winemaker. “There is so much depth of knowledge of how we do things in such a traditional way, passed down from centuries to centuries, without using technology.”
Ndlangisa established Magna Carta Wines in 2013, now part of South Africa’s growing wine industry, which has seen an increase in Black producers in the past decade. Focused on the land and how it naturally gives back to those who take care of it, Ndlangisa’s portfolio boasts natural wines made with grapes grown and processed in the purest form possible, from root to vine.
While African soil has produced grapes dating back centuries, it also nurtures some of the most powerful indigenous crops on the continent. Producers and organizations like African Food Changemakers are working to educate the world about these crops.
Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, co-founder of Yolélé Foods, is a champion of the grain fonio. His brand specializes in African superfoods and he has successfully introduced the nutrient-rich ancient grain to global palates. Native to West Africa, fonio is sometimes called the “new quinoa” and is thought to be the oldest African grain. More importantly, fonio is a drought-resistant crop that can be grown throughout the year in any climate, which is important while navigating climate change.
Joining fonio is millet (a cereal grain), teff (another ancient cereal grain native to Ethiopia and Eritrea), and sorghum (another cereal grain) with large production in Sudan, the north African country that also produces 44% of sesame seeds exported globally. Additionally, Africa’s cassava crops account for more than 60% of the root vegetable global production; other top crops include maize, sugarcane, and yams.
“Africa matters because of our food—because of our food culture, food history, and current contributions to the global food ecosystem,” Nwuneli said.
Keeping African Food Traditions Alive Away from Home
More than 6,000 miles away from Ghana is food scientist Abena Foli, who co-founded POKS Spices in Texas after missing the flavors of West African dishes she enjoyed growing up. Her line of spices is a direct interpretation of how simple ingredients like garlic, chilies, and ginger—ingredients very common in Ghanaian kitchen—are used to create delicious meals. Like Thiam and others using food to change and expand narratives about Africa, Foli uses POKS Spices to introduce quick and savory recipe ideas not limited to West African cuisine, showcasing their versatility to a broader consumer audience. Foli developed a passion for telling authentic stories about West Africa and the continent after moving to the US for college.
“Western media has done a great disservice to the continent,” Foli said.
For Foli, POKS Spices goes beyond simply helping someone make tasty food and says it’s about changing the perception and starting a new dialogue. A new conversation gives Africans an opportunity to take the lead in seeing the necessary shift. Foli affirms this: “We are the ones that are going to be able to do that.”
Africa’s single story is now being replaced by a great collective of individual stories by entrepreneurs creating paths for discovery and connection through their products. Africa’s contributions to the world are undeniably significant and my work, and the work of others, will continue to shine a light on the continent and its promising future.
V. Sheree Williams is the founder of The Global Food and Drink Initiative, a nonprofit that uses the power of storytelling to preserve food and drink history and culture of the African diaspora. She leads a global team to publish the country’s first Black culinary publication Cuisine Noir and produces the podcast Diaspora Food Stories.
Cover photo: Some of the organic chilis used for Black Mamba Chili, a member of African Food Changemakers. Photo by Joseph Roques, used with permission.