Ndidi Nwuneli on pushing for a more local approach and ownership of philanthropy

From agriculture to nutrition, youth development to social innovation, Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli’s breadth of expertise and experience escapes easy categorisation. As a result her list of achievements and accolades is equally long and disparate, having been named one of “20 Youngest Power Women in Africa” by Forbes, authored several instructive books on food entrepreneurship and scaling impact, and co-founded many start-ups along the way, including one that challenges long-held narratives of African people, innovation, and products. A passionate advocate for African-led and -born initiatives, Ndidi spoke to the Luc Hoffmann Institute about why philanthropic resources in Africa need to start empowering local models and partners and ultimately generate its own capital.

What changes do you see in global philanthropy trends that will support net positive outcomes for nature and people?

Well, the first thing is that I’ve seen philanthropy shift from being the purview of old white men and more traditional funder-grantee relationships to being more accessible, especially to those who are more forward thinking or more exposed. It’s more activist philanthropy and that’s exciting. So you look at the MacKenzie Scott model, where the funds given to organisations are not restrictive, and can be used for more catalytic interventions, which give room for risk taking and learning. That’s what you really need for nature-positive solutions. If you’re looking for proven models to support, then with climate change we’re still navigating, learning, growing, experimenting. And that’s why you need catalytic unrestricted funding. That’s the shift that I see that’s exciting.

The other thing that I am excited about is the more active collaboration between different stakeholders. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with the IKEA Foundation and Bezos to launch the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP). Each contributing $500 million to seed this important work, knowing that no one group, one philanthropist, one foundation can address this problem, and that we need large amounts of money at scale. These types of collaborations are welcome developments in our landscape and are critical to getting us to the point where we can collectively address some of the challenges in our ecosystem. I always talk about leaving our egos and logos at the door, and collaborating to solve critical challenges of our time.

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli

The third is one I’ve been pushing – the critical need to focus on local actors as the implementers. One of the challenges we have faced historically is that implementers come from outside communities, they have the trust of the large funders, they come in, they parachute in ideas. These are short-lived, unsustainable, expensive interventions. So we’ve been pushing for a more local approach to philanthropy, where you partner with local organisations. There’s local ownership; you partner with local philanthropists, and you deliver sustainable solutions at scale. The African Philanthropy Forum has recently created a portal called StartPoint Africa which helps philanthropists find local organisations because what we always hear from philanthropists, especially in the Global North, is that they can’t find trusted organisations in Africa to work with and so they don’t work with them. So we’re trying to bridge the information asymmetry gap and connect philanthropists to credible and dynamic local organisations that they can support.

If you’ve been in the room with some of the representatives of those old hegemonic groups, do you think they are aware of this intentional shift? From being kind of the hero in the journey to more of a community-led or more equity-based model of philanthropic practice?

Well, I haven’t spoken to them directly about their views, but I think most people recognize there is a shift and that equity is critical. From where I’m sitting I think it’s a gradual shift but it’s a shift nonetheless. When I am in more traditional rooms, I often raise my voice and challenge the status quo. We don’t want tokenism anymore, we want shared ownership of the problem and shared ownership of the solutions.

Why have I written a book on social innovation and scaling in Africa, a book on food entrepreneurs and agri businesses? Because oftentimes I go to forums and people who spend two weeks in my country are experts on the country and define the future. And because they have philanthropic capital, they dictate what happens with the money. I strongly believe that it is important for us to tell positive and practical stories from the local levels and actively enable scaling of home-grown initiatives. So it’s important to me that we start generating our own capital, investing in local interventions and local ownership so that we can actively drive change on the ground and shape our own future.

You’re sitting on so many different boards, and are also a serial entrepreneur yourself. Are you seeing any alternative to traditional philanthropic models emerging today?

Yes, so I think what we’re starting to see – and it’s not new – is patient, catalytic, impact-driven, and collaborative investing. I actually say that anybody who invests in agriculture and food in Africa is a philanthropist in some way because you’re not going to make your returns back in seven to nine years if you’re really focused on nutritious food and nature-based solutions that impact people. So it’s really, really important that we recognise that impact investors are in some way also philanthropists, in the sense that they are using a business lens to make dramatic changes in society. I know that’s not new but oftentimes we don’t recognize these pools of capital that come in from that perspective.

I wrote a book called Social Innovation in Africa: A Practical Guide for Scaling Impact. And I recognize that there are innovators in governments, there are innovators in non-profits and there are innovators in the private sector who are solving social problems at scale and oftentimes when they are working in those spaces, we don’t recognize them as social change agents and the capital that they utilise, especially in government.

Imagine yourself in a perfect world 10 years from now. What does philanthropy look like?

So philanthropy 10 years from now would really be driven by local funders and I’m specifically talking about Africa. Local funders rooted in local issues, where there’s almost a democratisation of needs and the flow of resources to those who need it most, where solutions at scale are led by local organisations, funded by local philanthropists and there’s been a total realignment of the flows of wealth and flows of philanthropic funding.

So a situation where more professionals and emerging high networth individuals have structured their giving to address root causes of problems. And where international philanthropists realise they cannot enter countries without partnering with local philanthropists and pooling resources together to impact change, and where they share values and share ownership of these problems at local levels and global levels. I just joined the board of the Bridgespan Group. They did a really pioneering project in partnership with the African Philanthropy Forum on giving in Africa.

It has lots of great insights. One of the things we surfaced was that, of maybe $9 billion given over a span of five years in Africa, only 6% went to local organisations. And of the $1 billion for malaria research only 1% went to local research institutions. I would like to see a complete reversal of those flows where 90% of the funding is going to local organisations in partnership with local philanthropists, where the beneficiaries and the actors on the ground are as respected as international NGOs and international beneficiaries of donor funding. What else would I like to see? Just efficiency, effectiveness, humility, and collaboration in the sector.

Based on that future vision, does philanthropy need to change and, if so, why and how?

We are already thinking about this and have articulated views about what needs to change. A big part of it is obviously connecting with the right partners on the ground, supporting capacity building of local organisations. Actually holding funders accountable. I would push for quotas around what percentage local organisations should have versus international organisations, representation on boards and senior management of organisations that you fund.

How do you then see everybody playing a role in shifting wealth to better address the climate and biodiversity crisis?

​​There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go with others” but I have tweaked it a little to say, “If you want to go fast and far, which is what we need to do to address the climate crisis and the food security crisis, we need to work with integrity, excellence, and humility and leave our egos and logos at the door”. So I say that, because attribution is such an interesting thing and so many foundations want to say I did it. You can’t do that in the climate fight.

Everybody has a role to play. Individuals, families, communities, companies, everybody has a role to play, so that’s why leaving our egos and logos at the door is critical. Humility is critical, because we don’t know everything. Every day we’re learning and unlearning, experimenting and adopting new innovations. We’re finding out we don’t really know everything. And so that humility to say what I don’t know, what I know, etc, is so important. And then we need excellence and integrity. I say integrity especially because I see a lot of large corporations nutrition washing and greenwashing.

That’s when integrity comes in. We really have to put our money where our mouth is, we need to change behaviour from within. Corporations have a critical role to play, so do governments but for me it’s the values that underpin that shift that will enable and catalyse the action we need.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, the The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity initiative, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.

Learn more about this initiative: The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity

Further reading:

To create systems change, philanthropy first needs to change itself
Sufina Ahmad MBE, Director at the John Ellerman Foundation, asks the hard questions funders will need to answer in order to effect systems change for people and planet.

“Philanthropy needs to become more humble”
A thought piece by Kathy Reich, director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation, on the mindset shift that gets us there.