The Future of Food: How Michelle Adelman is Reimagining the Food System in Africa
After acquiring decades of experience as a high-flying business strategist in New York, Michelle Adelman had a change of heart: “I just woke up one day and decided it was time to give back.” Her passion for tackling large, complex problems led her to channel her efforts into solving one of the wickedest problems of all: food insecurity in Africa.
Michelle left her cushy job as a Global Managing Director at Accenture and packed her bags for Botswana, where she soon founded Accite Holdings, an investment firm focusing on technology-led, sustainable food projects that create employment opportunities for youth and women. Over the past nine years, Accite has developed award-winning food and agricultural businesses in Botswana, South Africa, Mauritius, and Kenya, including Go Fresh! and Infinite Foods.
Named by Forbes Africa as a Top 20 “New Wealth Creator” and CEO Magazine as Africa’s “Most Influential Woman in Business & Professional Services”, Michelle chatted with us about her vision for transforming Africa’s food system, her belief in a plant-based diet and the secret to her success in achieving hard things.
What sparked your interest in the food industry?
I actually have an Agricultural & Environmental Engineering degree from Cornell University, but I did very little in food and agriculture in my early career. When I moved to Botswana, I had an investment thesis focused on building new companies that create economic growth using technology and new business models that catalyse environmental sustainability and jobs for youth and women. I worked through a number of projects including food, agriculture, recycling and solar energy, and ended up launching my first food business, Go Fresh!, using climate-controlled greenhouses and hydroponic technology to grow local produce in Botswana. After I built my first farm and saw the impact we could make, I was hooked. I’ve been focusing on food and agritech ever since.
You’re from the US but you’ve been living in Botswana and South Africa for quite some time now. What brought you to the continent in the first place?
I spent the first 25 years of my career as a Global Managing Director at Accenture, where I had an amazing career working around the world with great people and leading corporate clients. The entrepreneurial bug really bit when I was recruited to lead the launch of a new healthcare startup, taking a company from concept to launch in 18 months. Having worked in the nonprofit sector in Africa for a number of years, I knew the problems that existed, but I also recognised the role that technology could play in fixing them. In my nonprofit work with women and vulnerable children, I saw firsthand how the lack of economic diversification and high youth unemployment was creating a continuous cycle of poverty. I finally decided to put my money where my mouth was and take the leap in setting up my own firm to incubate and build businesses.
There is nothing more important than tackling food insecurity in Africa; it is the central catalyst for so many things.
You’re revolutionising food and the way it’s produced on a continent facing severe food insecurity. What motivated you to take on this challenge?
One of the things I learned from my corporate experience at Accenture was that my superpower is tackling large, complex problems, breaking them down into key concepts and initiatives that people can rally behind, and creating tangible milestones to deliver against. The bigger the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), the happier I am. In my mind, there is nothing more important than tackling food insecurity in Africa, as it is the central catalyst for so many things; from nutrition and health to education (kids can hardly study on an empty stomach), from the livelihoods of women to climate change.
Just last year, the levels of food insecurity in Africa increased by more than 60%. This was partially due to Covid-19, but also caused by climate events that destroyed harvests and crops. How can a plant-based diet help to decrease those numbers?
It’s fairly simple. Our current food production system globally and in Africa is hugely inefficient, especially to the extent that it is focused on producing animal-based products such as meat and milk. According to the World Resource Institute, ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) use two-thirds of the global agricultural land and contribute roughly half of agriculture’s production-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). To put that into perspective, it takes at least 8kgs of plants for a cow to ‘manufacture’ 1kg of meat or dairy, so if a cow were a manufacturing plant for protein, it would just be a very bad factory. What if we used all that land for grazing and growing animal feed to produce food directly from plants? Not only would we have much healthier food to feed people, but we would also cut down on GHG to stem climate change and de-risk future crop losses.
How do you see Infinite Foods playing a role in making healthy food more accessible and affordable in the countries within which you operate?
We have a multi-pronged approach to making plant-based food more acceptable and accessible:
- First, we are bringing the top-quality international brands with the most buzz and great tasting products to Africa. Burgers from Beyond Meat, milk from Oatly, butter from Miyokos and eggs from JUST are paving the way for people to think differently about needing to have an animal-based product because they taste so great.
- Second, we are incubating local brands to create more variety and localised flavours of plant-based food, while fueling entrepreneurism and job growth.
- Third, we are driving toward local manufacturing of both international and local brands to make products more affordable and to tap into the local ingredient supply chain, thus enabling farmers.
- And lastly, we are launching a hospitality vertical with foodservice formats — from fine dining to ‘spaza shops’ — to create accessibility in all parts of the market.
It’s only been three years since you established Infinite Foods and already you have products in over 1000 retail and food service outlets — not to mention being named the Best Plant-Based Food Business in the world. What is the secret to your success?
It has to be our people. We have an amazing team of sales people on the ground in all of our locations. They work at the frontline spreading the word to retailers and restaurants about our products and getting us into 1000 outlets and counting. In fact, I’d much rather hire a sales person than rent an office or drive a fancy car!
We also believe we have the best plant-based food products on the planet in our portfolio. Our products taste better than any other plant-based products on the market, and a lot of retailers and restaurants are excited to carry them because they know their customers will want them.
Lastly, we run a very entrepreneurial operation with a blend of the best local and foreign talent. We focus our resources on market growth and penetration and keep our selling, general and administrative expenses low.
Why is reimagining the food system in Africa and beyond such a vital mission?
When you think about the projected population growth of Sub-Saharan Africa, we are expected to hit 2.2 billion people by 2050. If that population has a demand for animal-based products, our planet will no longer be able to support our population. By creating a new food system in Africa, the continent will not only be able to support this growing population, but it will be healthier and more vibrant.
Infinite Foods’ mission is to help Africa leap-frog to a healthier and more sustainable food system through plant-based foods. This means creating an ecosystem; from working with local farmers to grow protein input sources like mung beans, cashews and peas to opening up manufacturing opportunities, supply chain logistics and more. We currently produce enough food to feed the 10 billion impending population; however, we need to redeploy the corn and grain fields feeding livestock and start growing plants to feed ourselves, and I think Africa has the opportunity to lead the way on this.
In promoting a plant-based diet, do you see a future where everyone goes vegan?
While that would be an amazing future, I don’t foresee everyone eliminating animal products from their diet completely. The goal is to give consumers the option to reduce their meat and dairy intake by giving them delicious plant-based alternatives. I like to think that every day, we have three votes for the planet by what we put on our plates. Consumers tend to vote with their taste buds, so the more we can make it easier for each meal to become more sustainable and healthier, the more we win in my book.
What would your advice be for those who are thinking about changing their diet, but aren’t sure where to start?
Diving head-first into a wholefood or plant-based diet can be a bit daunting if you are used to eating meat, dairy and eggs every day or having animal protein centre of the plate at dinner. So start slow and do your research. I would suggest choosing a few days a week to commit to a plant-based diet as well as trying to eliminate animal products from your daily breakfast or lunch. A lot of our products are meant to be perfect substitutes for animal-based counterparts, so start with your favourite meals and identify which products are animal-based, and then do some research as to what the best plant-based alternatives would be. We have a quickstart guide on our website that could be helpful. I’d also recommend reading or listening to the audiobook of The Greenprint by Marco Borges. It’s full of inspirational stories and great tips for moving to a plant-based diet.
Finally, in your opinion, what difference does individual wellness make to the collective wellness of our communities and our planet?
Individual wellness is incredibly impactful to the collective wellness of our communities because we all act as models for our family, friends and neighbours. When someone is eating healthily, that will translate into their mood, their physique, their energy, their skin… everything. People around them will begin to not just notice the change but hear about it. When we understand the power plants have as medicine in our lives, we become teachers and preachers of our newfound vitality.
The other thing we can’t discount is the long-term impact of health on our education system. We know that educating our youth is the most important thing we can do for the long-term prosperity of our continent. If our kids can go to school healthy, alert and ready to learn, we will reap the benefits in the generations to come.