Business

Michelle Adelman: From high-flying New York executive to growing food (and entrepreneurs) in southern Africa

2019-11-22 00:42

In her passion to provide food for Africa as well as create new young entrepreneurs, former high-flying New York City Accenture executive Michelle Adelman is growing food in desert-like conditions in southern Africa, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Michelle Adelman, CEO of Accite Holdings, an impact investment company, describes herself as a “problem-solving junkie”.

It’s why she’s growing food for humans and fodder for animals in southern Africa, using hydroponic farming in arid conditions.

She’s also promoting plant-based protein alternatives for meat, milk and eggs.

She’s tossed the executive suits, high heels and briefcase lifestyle, from which for more than two decades she jetted out of New York across the globe, for a farmer’s hat, jeans and dust-covered hands.

Her Damascene moment came seven years ago when, having successfully launched a new healthcare business for a New York equity company, she decided to reward herself with a swish new sports car.

But right there on the salesroom floor, on the verge of paying for it, she had a flashback to the list of startup business ideas she had visualised for struggling Batswana she had met while holidaying in various safari camps.

They had asked for her help to implement them.

“I didn’t buy the car. Instead I sold my New York Park Avenue apartment and two weeks later I bought a house in Gaborone,” says Adelman.

Later on she bought another one in Maun and an apartment in Johannesburg.

Today she owns farms in Maun and Gaborone.

Her vision is to provide food security and improve health in sub-Saharan Africa as well as help create employment for youth and women in the Southern African Development Community.

With the latter top of mind, Adelman invested her life’s savings in building companies “from scratch. I wanted to use technology as a disrupter”.

Food and agriculture intrigued her so she formed Go Fresh! – then a Botswana-based, hydroponic, greenhouse operation that grows 12 different kinds of culinary herbs as well as tomatoes and leafy greens.

Adelman now has two large greenhouses and four farms, two on the outskirts of Gaborone and two in Maun, the latter being the gateway to the world-famous Okavango Delta.

“They are so close to our consumers that the food is picked in the morning and delivered that afternoon. Consequently there is almost no carbon footprint, no nutrient loss and we employ people in communities and on city outskirts,” she says.

Another of her businesses, Fodder Green, grows barley and legume sprouts “in only six days from seed to feed”.

“They’re high in protein and minerals and are fed to chickens, pigs, cattle and even wild animals on the day they are picked.”

The result is lower feed cost and healthier animals.

“But we need to make it a more distributable fodder. We’d like to transform the livestock farming system in Africa,” adds Adelman.

She points out that the continent has 1 billion consumers, “a market growing at a rate two and a half times the rest of the world”.

Another of her businesses, Infinite Foods, concentrates on selling plant-based, protein-rich products that provide alternatives to meat, eggs, milk and cheese.

“Within a year of launching Infinite Foods we were in more than 600 sales points across South Africa, Mauritius and Botswana.

“In future we’ll grow our crops and manufacture our products in South Africa because the infrastructure is more sophisticated here,” she says.

Little black book
Business tip: Let your passion define your work ethos.

Favourite book:

 Place of Reeds, by Caitlin Davies, a true story of her life in Botswana.

Inspiration:

 Problems – when I see one I have to help fix it.

Wow! moment:

 Seeing her Go Fresh! youth led leadership team winning Botswana’s 2017 National Horticulture Grand Champions.

Life lesson:

 Understand rules so you know how to break them.

Adelman also has a food technology company, Crossover Meat.

“We’re working with a Stanford University professor who has developed a blend of chicken and beef that tastes like beef. In most markets it is 20% less expensive and has a 50% less environmental impact.”

Adelman has made it her business cornerstone to employ graduates straight out of university “so we can immediately infuse them with new ways of doing things”.

Her South African core leadership team is diverse.

“We work virtually – why waste money on expensive office space. My COO is based in Joburg, our CFO is in Harare and the chief of staff manager in Cape Town.”

She also has a Gaborone office.

Adelman obtained her BSc degree from New York’s Ivy League Cornell University which is noted for its agricultural college.

She was an MD at Accenture for 22 years, running strategic business development for a $1 billion health and products strategic business development.

It was then she decided on her dramatic business change.

Last year Adelman was recognised on the Forbes Woman Africa Top 20 Wealth Creators list.

In 2017 CEO Global named her Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Business and Professional Services.

She sits on various foundation boards and her passions include transforming African businesses as well as engaging in environmentally sustainable horticulture.

She relaxes at Bikram hot yoga and says “home is where I am sitting at any given time”.

She shares it with her life partner, who also lives in southern Africa.

There’s no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from, and about, Michelle Adelman in years to come.


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December 8 2019