Understanding the UNIQUENESS of the continent of Africa has allowed Michelle Adelman to create a number of innovative food companies—Infinite Foods and Crossover Quality Meats—and work with dozens of African entrepreneurs.
Why did you leave the comforts of corporate America, as a managing director at Accenture, to become an entrepreneur in Africa?
After being on vacation in southern Africa, I became captivated with the challenges facing vulnerable children in the region—especially on the back of the HIV/AIDs crisis that left more than 10% of the children in Botswana orphaned. Across the southern African region, we have youth unemployment rate of forty percent (youth are considered anyone less than 30 years old). Exacerbating the problem: youth are having the children (50% of pregnancies are young women less than 18 years old).
So, I started volunteering and working on programs oriented towards getting children into early childhood education programs and creating safe after-school locations, like Bana Ba Letsatsi (www.banabaletsatsi.org). The challenge with these programs was that if the parent or caregiver was unemployed, you might be able to support the child during the day—but if the child was going back to an environment of hunger, poverty, and sometimes abuse, you had to ask yourself if you were really making a difference at all? What was needed were fewer charity programs and more jobs. Hence, I created Accite to try to incubate new businesses using technology as a catalyst to develop new industries and employ youth and women.
With more than a billion people living in 54 countries, why did you move to Botswana?
My ambition was to incubate new businesses that could be scaled across southern Africa— you have to start somewhere! Botswana, being small, is an excellent incubator to get things done and has the advantage of free currency movement and a reputation for being less corrupt. Botswana has poor infrastructure, is very hot/dry climate, but it is considered a “middle-income” country because of its diamond wealth and is therefore largely ignored by large development organizations. Hence, I saw an opportunity to start new businesses in Botswana, prove them successful and then expand into the surrounding region.
What could American entrepreneurs learn from African entrepreneurs and innovators?
We have a saying here that is “make a plan.” Being an entrepreneur in Africa means having extra patience, extra resilience, extra problem-solving resolve, fewer resources (e.g., financial and human expertise), and poorer infrastructure (e.g., Internet, electricity, municipal services, and transportation). When we have found ways to face and address problems, we have “made a plan.” On the other hand, America has an abundance of resources: Human, financial, technological. I think African entrepreneurs are scrappier, and we do more with less, meaning we try to spend our resources on things that impact the bottom line first. People can live quite simply and still be happy.
Successful African entrepreneurs also learn how to be deeply local. While the US has 50 (most homogeneous) states, sub-Saharan Africa has 54 countries, each with distinct borders, culture, social norms, language, laws, government, economy, and currency! Imagine if every time you crossed the border from New York to New Jersey or California to Nevada, you had to cross-border post? One of the biggest mistakes I see American companies make when they come to Africa is they try to jam the American technology/product and the American business model into Africa without taking the time to understand the local environment and adapt to suit. For example, when we started Go Fresh! we knew inherently that the greenhouse/hydroponic technology would work—most of our challenges revolved around local issues of supply chain cartels, customer behavior, and economic realities/buying behaviors of a mass-market population living on $3/day. It was by having the willingness to understand and solve these challenges we were able to build a successful business and a first-rate brand. By being local, African entrepreneurs are able to innovate new products and services that can command superior market share.
You are deeply involved in agriculture innovation, why is this important to Africa and the rest of the world?
There are two reasons for me. First, while being a farmer is pretty much a thing of the past in the US (only 2% of the population are farmers), in Africa, at least 60% of people are farmers—mostly subsistence farmers where their only income or nutrition comes from the food that they grow. Further, forty-seven percent of the African population is malnourished. That’s just a math equation that doesn’t work. Africa has an agricultural system that is broken: Sixty percent of the people are farmers, but forty-seven percent of the people are hungry. You can’t have peace, stability, and economic development when people are hungry.
One of the interesting projects we are working on is a collaboration with the California, plant-based protein company JUST (formerly Hampton Creek). JUST has piloted a project in Liberia to fortify staple carbohydrate-based foods (in this case cassava porridge) with vitamins and plant-protein for just a couple of cents more per serving and has packaged the product as an aspirational brand available in the local markets. The product is grown by small-holder farmers on a contract basis (out-growers) and made in a local factory that has created 100 jobs for women. We see the opportunity to expand this product line and roll it out across Africa to help address malnutrition and create local employment by improving the nutrition of everyday meals without having to change people’s eating or cooking habits.
Second, if you look at the population growth projections to 2050 (most of which is coming from Africa and Asia) and the rapid growth of the middle-class, this results in disproportionately high protein food requirements. If you take the fact that we already use the majority of the world’s water in agriculture, while the livestock industry emits more CO2 gas than all the cars, trucks, buses, and airplanes combined….” Houston, we have a problem.” Innovations like plant-based protein, technology-enabled agriculture, and new supply-chain systems are needed if we are going to have enough food to feed the planet (and still have a world to live on). Our new companies Infinite Foods and Crossover Quality Meats are positioned to provide environmentally sensible and affordable protein to Africa and emerging markets.
What innovations and/or ideas are flowing from Africa to the US?
I talked about being “deeply local.” There are a lot of lessons learned from the micro-, mobile-, and distributed- solutions businesses being built.
What is the entrepreneurial landscape like for women in Africa?
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t just say “Hard”! Africa can be very patriarchal, and there are structural challenges to women being entrepreneurs beyond social norms (e.g., access to finance without your husband’s signing off, the legality of owning land in some countries, etc.). I hope that women like me can be an inspiration to the young women out there.
Favorite natural feature in Africa?
The night sky. There’s nothing better than being in the bush and seeing the full splendor of the Southern Cross constellation without any ambient light for miles and miles.