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11.08.2022 Featured Funded by MasterCard, USADF, Dismantled By Staff Greed. The Collapse of Ndidi Nwuneli’s Nourishing Africa Programme

Published 11th Aug, 2022

By Tola Owoyele

In November 2020, Nourishing Africa, a platform that assists agri-food entrepreneurs in accelerating their projects, came up with a Mastercard Foundation and the United States African Development Foundation (USADF)-sponsored initiative aimed at supporting agricultural businesses in Nigeria because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The programme was called the Nourishing Africa Entrepreneur Support programme (ESP).

Ndidi Nwuneli, Nourishing Africa Founder

In January 2021, the platform announced that it had selected 2,000 out of the 30,000 applicants who applied for the grant to attend a special training via Zoom. As the training was going on, the platform would give tests and assignments to the applicants to further assess their eligibility.

RIGOROUS SELECTION PROCESS

Ndidi Nwuneli, founder, Nourishing Africa
Ndidi Nwuneli, founder, Nourishing Africa

At the end of the exercise, which spanned about two months, the platform announced the selection of 200 successful applicants to move on to the next stage of the selection process.

During the final phase of the selection process in May 2021, the 200 applicants did a video and power-point presentation about their businesses. After the presentation, the platform’s selection panel reviewed the applicants’ entries and documents. In the end, 150 applicants were announced as the tentative winners of the grant.

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In October of the same year, the platform further announced that its experts would be visiting the business premises of all the 150 tentative winners for additional assessment and evaluation.

At the end of the assessment, the tentative winners were further cut to 125. The platform also announced that the final amount that would be disbursed to each successful applicant would solely depend on the report from its assessment team.

In November, a mail was sent to all the successful applicants that a contract document revealing the amount for each would be sent to them later. This was the beginning of the war between the platform and the applicants.

EYEBROWS RAISED OVER APPROVED FUNDS

In the same month, Ify Umana and Rahmat Eyinfunjowo, the co-CEOs of the platform, convened a Zoom meeting during which Umana told the successful applicants that funds were supposed to be disbursed in the first or second week of December.

“She further said, however, that due to the coming December festivities, the disbursement would be delayed till the first or second week in January 2022,” said Theophilus Adeleke, one of the successful applicants.

“Nourishing Africa is just a facilitator. Mastercard and the USADF are the funders of the programme. We started seeing foul play from the emails sent to all applicants revealing the amount each would get.

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“At the beginning, it was stated that each applicant could get up to N3.5 million, but when the grants were approved, some of the applicants were awarded N1.25 million.

“However, the platform still expected a successful applicant to get an operations van from the N1.25 million and accomplish other things as part of its milestone assessment. Whereas, the amount may not even be enough to get the van alone.”

The applicant told FIJ that there was a clear disparity between what the applicants were made to understand they could get and what the platform eventually offered to disburse.

THE EMAILS TO MASTERCARD AND USADF

During Nourishing Africa’s teams’ visits to the applicants’ business premises, a few of the candidates were already feeling disgruntled by the actions and demands of the officers assigned to them. One of those disgruntled applicants would send anonymous emails to Mastercard and USADF, the sponsors.

“It was stated in the mail that during their visitation, a Nourishing Africa official requested for a percentage of the disbursement amount approved so he would make sure they were a part of the successful grantees,” another applicant, who asked not to be named, told FIJ.

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“The visiting official even told some applicants that he could help them increase the amount they would eventually get if they agreed to give them a percentage of the fund.

“To someone who had been told he or she would receive N1.25 million, the officer could say he would assist in raising the approved fund to N3.2 million if they agreed to part with N500,000 out of the disbursement.

“Now, it wasn’t as if money had exchanged hands yet, but some of the applicants, who are in the category of those that did not merit the grant, indeed had an agreement in principle to pay the official once they got what they wanted.

“That was how all parties involved got to know that the entire programme was fraudulent.”

After receiving the anonymous mail, the funders said they would hand over the complaint to their risks department to carry out an independent audit of the entire programme.

Nourishing Africa also e-mailed the grantees, explaining that Sunday Nnana, the Director of the ESP, had been arrested and that he had confessed to asking for kickbacks from the applicants.

A LONG SILENCE FROM NOURISHING AFRICA

After the December drama involving the grantees, the facilitators and the funders, a long silence followed.

Eventually, in February, the grantees elected to break the ice by appointing five representatives who would continue to liaise with Nourishing Africa on their behalf in order to know the way forward.

The representatives were Theophilus Adeleke, Kayode Stephen, Temiloluwa Ipinmoroti, Akinfesola Tolulope and Adeola Samuel.

“When we sent a mail to Nourishing Africa, they told us they couldn’t talk to us. They then referred us to their lawyers,” Adeleke said.

“When we eventually reached out to their lawyers, they confirmed to us that part of the audit that had been conducted revealed that not all the 125 selected grantees merited the grant.

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“They also said some of the grantees were fraudulently added by Nourishing Africa’s monitoring team. The worst part was that, before the audit, some people who had already received a mail that they would get the grant were later sent another mail that they were no longer eligible.

“This means they were replaced by those that did not merit the grant but were willing to dance to Nnana’s tune. The lawyers also said they did not know the final decision of the funders yet.”

CHAT-ONLY ZOOM MEETING WITH NDIDI NWUNELI

Mail informing grantees of cancellation
Mail informing grantees of cancellation

On March 31, Ndidi Nwuneli, the founder and board chairman of Nourishing Africa, held a meeting with the 125 expectant grantees.

One of the grantees told FIJ that the chairman locked the audio access of all the applicants and told them they could only interact with her through chat.

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“What she said was that she was cancelling the already scheduled disbursement because it had been compromised,” Adeleke said.

“However, it was also confirmed that majority of the 125 grantees were indeed deserving of the funds. She claimed the funds would be returned to the funders.”

Grantees' request
Grantees’ request

According to Adeleke, the grantees’ request for a copy of the programme’s audit report was also turned down by Nourishing Africa.

“Why would you cancel an entire programme which selection process took more than 18 months to carry out. She also later issued a press statement that did not even capture the events that happened,” he said.

VAGUE PRESS STATEMENT, FALSE NEWSPAPER REPORT

Mail stating process is under review
Mail stating process is under review

Surprisingly, while the project had not even taken off, an article stating that over 1,000 small-scale businesses had benefitted from the programme was published on BusinessDay on April 7.

“The beneficiaries, who are Nigerian agri-food entrepreneurs between the ages of 20 and 40 (57 percent of whom are women), were given a helping hand to help them improve their business operations with encouragement to make their business resilient and adaptive,” the article reads in part.

“The programme provided knowledge and support to these businesses to help them pivot and recover from the effects of COVID-19 on their businesses, keeping employees engaged and assisting them to emerge from this crisis even stronger.

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“Currently, Nourishing Africa supports over 4,000 agri-food SMEs across 37 African countries, providing knowledge, data, funding, advertising opportunities, access to new markets, and a community of like-minded agripreneurs to partner for long-term success and impact.”

However, the organisaton’s decision to cancel the disbursement of funds to the 125 grantees and the reasons were not mentioned in the statement.

‘BUT DOCUMENTS WERE SIGNED… THAT’S A CONTRACT

A signed grant award letter that ideally meant Nourishing Africa had a contract to honour with the grantees
A signed grant award letter that ideally meant Nourishing Africa had a contract to honour with the grantees
A signed grant award letter that ideally meant Noruishing Africa had a contract to honour with the grantees

One applicant who asked not to be named told FIJ it would have been understandable if signatures had not been appended to documents.

“I personally would have let go of this matter long ago if we never got to the stage where a grant letter was sent and both parties signed,” she said.

“Technically, Nourishing Africa had a contract to honour with grantees. You sent us a letter, we appended our signatures. That’s legally binding; it’s like getting a job offer, all signed by the parties, and the employer wakes up to say ‘we’re cancelling’. Just like that! Who does that? What Ndidi Nwuneli should have done is weed out the corrupt staff and applicants, and go ahead with the project. I never offered to bribe anyone; imagine not getting the grant because of other people’s actions.”

NWUNELI’S TWEET AND THE LIBEL SUIT THAT FOLLOWED

Letter from Nwuneli's lawyers
Letter from Nwuneli’s lawyers

On May 1, Nwuneli made a post on her official Twitter handle that read:

“Every business school in the world should consider making the 6-part documentary on the Elizabeth Holmes story, “The Dropout,” mandatory for its students! Powerful lessons in entrepreneurship, greed, hype vs real impact, the dangers of the complicit board, VC/PE investors & media.”

https://twitter.com/ndidiNwuneli/status/1520590495285620737?t=QS6XDuPjzodS_Rt8LiwN2Q&s=03
Nwuneli’s Tweet

The post sparked mixed reactions in its comment section with a few aggrieved grantees asking the founder to tell the world what happened to the ESP programme.

“As an aftermath of the tweet and the reactions it got, the founder surprisingly contacted her lawyer to sue me and four other grantees’ representatives for libel,” Adeleke said.

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“We, in turn, consulted our lawyer and during consultations, we were advised to request for the programme’s audit report under the Freedom of Information Act.

Grantee's FOI request
Grantee’s FOI request

“We are equalling filing a suit very soon, to have the court adjudicate on why the audit report has not been released to us yet.”

NOURISHING AFRICA REFERS FIJ TO LAWYERS

When FIJ contacted Ify Umunna, the co-CEO of Nourishing Africa, for comments on the development, she said:

“We’ve actually given an explanation to all the participants. We have issued a statement on this as well. We have told them to direct all questions and enquiries to our lawyers also. I would have to refer you to our lawyers as well for all your questions.”

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FIJ also contacted Hamilton and Associates, Nourishing Africa’s legal representatives. They said the following:

“The Covid-19 Entrepreneur Support Program was created to provide
knowledge and support for Nigerian grassroots SMEs to help them pivot and recover from the effects of Covid-19 on their businesses. Nourishing Africa has provided them with this opportunity through the diagnostic tool, training, and support through the Nourishing Africa platform.

“This process has not lasted up to 18 months contrary to your letter. In any case, the grant stage was to have been next, but unfortunately, that had to be terminated.

“The termination of the programme was precipitated by allegations sent to the funders (Mastercard Foundation and USADF) by a certain Dolapo Ajakaye of Creed Media. In the numerous messages to the funders who then notified Nourishing Africa, this individual alleged that contracts were provided to participants with ‘irregular yardstick,
huge discrepancies, bias and with zero sincerity and lack of purpose’.

“The board and management of Nourishing Africa discussed the issue with the funders, and conducted an investigation into the allegation and an audit of the granting process.

“The investigation and audit revealed that a staff member of Nourishing Africa (whose engagement with the organisation has since been terminated) had requested from and/or been offered inducements by participants for inclusion as successful grantees. This singular act tainted the granting process. At this point, the board and management of Nourishing Africa, in consultations with the funders, made a decision to terminate the programme and return all grant funds disbursed to Nourishing Africa to the funders. These were communicated to the participants.

“In the interim, certain participants have chosen to harass the
management of Nourishing Africa and the funders themselves through phone calls and social media posts citing their entitlement to the returned funds. This is an unfortunate development which the organisation would not indulge. Suffice to say that numerous participants who benefited from the same training and support went on to obtain funding from other funding sources.”

‘OFFICIALLY CLOSED’ — THE REACTION MASTERCARD, USADF

When FIJ further requested for a proof that the organisation had indeed returned the funds to the sponsors as claimed, the legal representatives gave no response.

When FIJ sent emails to Mastercard and USADF for comments, the latter responded by saying:

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“The Covid-19 Entrepreneur Support Program was created to provide knowledge and support to Nigerian grassroots SMEs to help them pivot and recover from the effects of Covid-19 on their businesses. We believe that this program has provided you with this opportunity through the Diagnostic Tool, training, and ongoing support through the Nourishing Africa platform.

“Kindly note that the Entrepreneur Support Program has officially closed, and, unfortunately, grants will not be provided to any participant of this program.

“USADF has no further comment beyond that already provided.”

NDIDI NWUNELI DEFENDS HERSELF

Nwuneli
Nwuneli

When FIJ contacted Ndidi Nwuneli, the founder of Nourishing Africa, for comments on the matter, she said the ESP was cancelled because of the fraudulent activities that were discovered during the programme.

“I started this non-profit as a means of improving the lives of people. Along the way, we had some fraudulent activities that involved some of the participants and a staff. I fired the staff, cancelled the programme and returned the funds meant for the programme to the funders,” Nwuneli said.

“We continue to get attacked by these people, who are so unethical. If they are really entrepreneurs they would continue running their businesses. They have gotten free training through the programme.

“Also, through the platform, many of the entrepreneurs have even received funding from other sources…”

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Nwuneli said Nourishing Africa decided to return the money to the sponsors because of what was discovered as a high level of fraud, even among the participants.

“We are not funding because we have returned the funds and we have told the funders that it is better not to give anybody than to give people who are fraudulent,” she said.

“If they were really entrepreneurs, you would know that Nigeria right now needs food [sic]. Anybody in the food ecosystem should be busy selling their food.”

‘THESE PARTICIPANTS HAVE BROUGHT US TO TEARS’

On the level of attack she has suffered from the participants”, she said: “Do you know that these people have attacked me personally? They have also attacked my staff and brought us to tears. For what?” she said.

“All they did was to fill out an application, we went to check out their sites and then we cancelled the programme. They did not pay us anything; if they paid somebody something, it is not us.

“Every day, we apply for grants, we get to the third round, fourth round, and they cancel it. Some organisations would even tell us outright that we won’t be getting the grant.

“We don’t, because of that, sue anybody; we don’t blacklist anybody, we don’t go to the social media to say bad things about people; we just don’t — because we are busy doing our work. “If these people were really entrepreneurs, would they be hounding us for a whole year?”

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Nwuneli said the funders of the programme were completely comfortable with the process because funds were never paid out to anybody. She also said a press release and report were issued on the matter by the organisation.

“One of our CEOs is leaving this month because she kept on crying. They have continued to attack her emails and personal phones on a daily basis. For what? Over a N3 million grant?” she said.

THE ANTI-DEFAMATION SUIT AND THE DEMAND FOR AUDIT REPORT

Nwuneli also said she had to get Nourishing Africa’s lawyers to file an anti-defamation lawsuit against the participants after they went to court over the matter.

“The staffer that we had to fire changed the scores of over 100 participants so they can be in a position get money. Those are the people who must have agreed to pay him. So, how can you turn around and give those kind of people money? said the founder.

When FIJ asked Nwuneli about the audit report the participants demanded for, she said Nourishing Africa is a private company.

“They are not allowed to demand anything. It is a private company and the people who gave us the money are satisfied with the audit report. UNDP, Access Bank and even the Tony Elumelu Foundation do not tell people why they don’t get money,” she said.

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“Have you ever taken on the Tony Elumelu Foundation on why some people get money and why some did not? Do you understand that this is unacceptable? The fact that your foundation is even taking up this case, for me….[sic]…You can write whatever you want to write.

“For us, our conscience is clear. Fraud was detected and the programme was cancelled. We have closed out the programme and nobody got any money.”

NWUNELI: ‘OUR OWN MENTAL HEALTH HAS BEEN AFFECTED’

Nwuneli also said the participants were constantly carried along on the development, and that the eventual decision to cancel the programme was not an easy one.

“The programme was not cancelled abruptly. From November 2021 until March, we were doing investigations, calling people and visiting them. We told them what was happening from the beginning. It was not an easy decision to cancel.

“It has affected our organisation, it has affected our own mental health but what hurts me deeply is that some Nigerian youths have become almost..[sic]…I don’t even know what to call them.

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“They don’t run businesses anymore. They use blackmail to threaten people to get money. If you run a business right now, when there is a food crisis… all these entrepreneurs are supposed to be food entrepreneurs… are you chasing the N3 million that you think you should have gotten as a brand? Or are you trying to build and grow your business, with the training and support you got for free?

“Who is entitled to a grant? Who deserves a grant? Who says it is my birth right? Unless they paid this guy (The Nourish Africa staffer who was sacked) money, we don’t even know [sic]. We don’t even have any evidence that anybody was paid money.

“But I am telling you for free, that there is no court you would go to in the world, where a person would be demanding a forensic audit that has names of other people other than theirs on it [sic]. They can’t. It is a private company. There is no freedom of information act that would allow you to review and publicly publish, because it bears the details of more than 300 people.

“Do you know how many people applied for this programme? Over 7,000 applied, 3,000 were trained and 1,000 got certificates. The amount of efforts that went into this should be celebrated, not punished.

“For me, they are the fraudulent ones. We have sued them because this defamation has to stop. You are claiming people have stolen money, but who has stolen money? Nobody.

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“The money has been returned to the funders. They even reached out to the funders themselves and they were told the programme has been closed. So, what is the issue now? Where is the money the participants are asking for going to come from?

“If I were you, I would advise them to focus on their businesses, if they are real entrepreneurs, because this is the time Nigeria needs them the most, more than ever before.

“We haven’t stolen any money. And now, because of this, we have said we are no longer doing any grant programme. Any funder who comes to us, we say ‘no’. Honestly, we are not ready for the amount of fraud in our system, and the amount of fraudulent entrepreneurs in our system. It is just better to give trainings, let people go and find money elsewhere.”

Published 11th Aug, 2022

By Tola Owoyele

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