Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   Nigeria

Michael Sunbola

Lagos Food Bank Initiative
Michael is reducing food waste while helping millions of Nigerians to access food and better nutrition.
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This description of Michael Sunbola's work was prepared when Michael Sunbola was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


Michael is reducing food waste while helping millions of Nigerians to access food and better nutrition.

The New Idea

Michael has built a collaborative infrastructure with the capacity to significantly reduce food waste and hunger for millions of Nigerians while at the same time mobilizing local communities to improve food security and self-reliance.

Michael has also created an innovative tracking system that monitors supplies from the point of origin to the destination, enabling new and scalable means to reduce food waste proving that there is a better way when all actors in the system are collectively mobilized. He is establishing collaborative partnerships with food-producing companies, manufacturers, large-scale farmers, restaurants, food vendors, and distributors to create a network of organizations committed to food donation. He is also galvanizing and collaborating with over 150 nonprofits to replicate this model across other identified areas of need and establish comprehensive channels for food distribution.

Through his non-profit, Lagos Food Bank Initiative, Michael is pioneering a new approach to food donation in Nigeria. This approach is coordinated and systemic, utilizing innovative strategies and collaborative efforts to combat food insecurity and alleviate hunger. It is the first time such an approach has been taken in Nigeria, and it has the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of millions of people.

Furthermore, Michael has created an enabling infrastructure for companies to be able to donate massive amounts of food in a way that is transparent and accountable while harnessing the power of tens of thousands of young volunteers who are helping local communities and the most vulnerable families to address their need for food in a way that is empowering. By so doing, he is addressing the pressing need for food in local communities, low-cost schools, and vulnerable families, and removing the liability burden on food production companies because their products are guaranteed to reach those that need them without re-entering the market to be sold.

The Problem

Highlights of the 2022 Multidimensional Poverty Index survey reveal that 63% of persons living in Nigeria (133 million people) are multidimensional poor and this takes into account various deprivations related to education, health, and living standards. The Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) conducted in 2018 revealed that 37% of children under the age of 5 in Nigeria were stunted, indicating chronic malnutrition making Nigeria, the second highest burden of stunted children in the world. Furthermore, according to the Global Hunger Index, as of 2022, Nigeria ranked 103 out of 121 countries, indicating a serious level of hunger and food insecurity.

Poverty and food insecurity are major drivers of malnutrition, as it limits people's ability to afford nutritious food and access education. Sadly, due to the multidimensional nature of the problem, many organizations have attempted to proffer some solution at the material level, neglecting the pillars that hold up the problem – poverty, inequality, and low livelihoods. What all these show is that hunger and malnutrition are serious problems in underserved communities in Nigeria with women and children being the most affected by these problems, as they are more likely to be food insecure and suffer from the consequences of malnutrition. Women in these communities often bear the responsibility of providing for their families, despite limited resources. They may not have enough money to buy food, or they may not have access to healthy food options. This can lead to malnutrition, which can have grave consequences for women's health and well-being. Children are also at elevated risk of malnutrition in these communities. Insufficient intake of essential nutrients during critical growth stages can result in stunted physical and cognitive development, compromised immune systems, and increased susceptibility to diseases. Malnourished children often struggle academically, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and hindering their prospects. Surprisingly, there is more than enough food in Nigeria to go round if the right infrastructure is put in place.

Due to the pervasive nature of the problem, government (national and states), private organizations, and civil society organizations have at one point or the other rolled out interventions to address the problem of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in Nigeria with little progress due to the symptomatic approach taken. The Nigerian government has implemented several social intervention programs, such as the National Social Investment Program (NSIP), Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT), and the National Home-Grown School Feeding Program (NHGSFP). These programs aim to provide direct cash transfers to poor households and nutritious meals to school children.

Private sector players like food and beverage manufacturers have also made attempts to intervene at different levels with donations of tons of food from their excess inventory, particularly inventory with 3 – 6 months of shelf life, but a key disincentive for them has been that fraudulent elements find a way to re-introduce the products into the market to be sold without getting them to targeted underserved families and communities. Moreover, most food banks lack the adequate capacity to guarantee that these massive tons of food from these well-meaning food manufacturers will get to those that need them.

Civil society organizations and NGOs on the other hand have played and continue to play a crucial role in addressing poverty and malnutrition. Their efforts have brought temporary relief to vulnerable populations and raised awareness about the issue. However, the scale of impact has been limited by resource constraints and the need for broader systemic change.

The Strategy

Through his highly effective approach, Michael, and his team at Lagos Food Bank Initiative (LFBI) deploy a four-pronged strategy:

1. Food distribution and tracking
2. Reducing food waste through partnerships with corporations
3. Improving nutrition at low-cost schools
4. Creating self-reliance pathways

Michael and his team at Lagos Food Bank Initiative utilize their vast network of 150 non-profits (called The Food Bank Network) and 24,000 volunteers to identify households in underserved communities that can benefit from the massive food distribution. The network of non-profits is particularly crucial to the work as they provide more spread and reach to places that Michael’s team can’t physically get to. Households that are women-led are given priority in Michael’s work. After the identification of beneficiaries, Michael deploys a massive logistics and distribution system to get the food boxes across to the Food bank Network non-profits in the locality using the volunteers as last-mile delivery supervisors. In addition to volunteering to monitor the last-mile delivery of the massive amount of food to the partner nonprofits, these volunteers also track the distribution to the families and communities and upload their records in real time to the LFBI portal.

In the area of reducing food waste, Michael is engaging over 500 companies through his Temporary Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) incentivizing them and forming alliances that establish a food donation culture in their staff. His incentive-based approach encourages these corporations to participate in food donation programs while highlighting the positive social and environmental impact of their contributions, emphasizing the alignment with the SDGs, and the potential of their partnership for meaningful change in local communities. As a result, over 500 corporations have signed a partnership with Michael’s organization and trust his platform as they regularly sign up their staff to volunteer as food distribution and tracking officers during their food drives. Michael's incentives to these corporations are rewarding the total hours volunteered by their staff with certificates that they can use for various personal development needs. Following years of numerous iterations, Michael is currently working with Harvard Law School, to develop supportive policies and regulatory frameworks for Nigeria to facilitate food donation practices and encourage corporate involvement through incentivization.

In terms of his strategy to improve nutrition for low-cost schools, Michael is working with stakeholders across the local government areas and deploying thousands of volunteers to implement the “EDUFOOD School Feeding Program” targeted at enhancing the learning outcomes of low-cost private schools in Southwest Nigeria starting with Lagos by addressing the critical issue of childhood hunger and malnutrition and ensuring that students have access to healthy meals during school hours hence allowing them to concentrate better, improve their academic performance, and unlock their full potential. Through this program, Michael provides balanced and wholesome meals that are carefully curated by his nutrition experts three times per week, to meet the dietary needs of growing children. These meals incorporate local ingredients, considering cultural preferences and dietary requirements. They collaborate with parents and teachers to create a sense of shared ownership to drive the program.

In addition to the school feeding program, Michael has also partnered with Community Health Workers to co-create the NumePlan Program targeted at providing nutritious food and supplements for 3 – 12 months to extremely malnourished infants and newborns in underserved communities. Leveraging the knowledge and network of the community health workers has been a major ingredient for the success of the NumePlan program as he works with them to provide a constant supply of nutritional baby meals to the mothers of the infants and newborns. The community health workers follow up with the respective mothers and report back to Michael and his team on the progress of the infants.

As a follow-on strategy to TEFAP, Michael is collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the Australian Aid, to implement a sustainable agricultural program for vulnerable people in underserved communities called “The Backyard Farming Program.” Using this strategy, Michael and the partners have rolled out a comprehensive 2 to 4 weeks immersive innovative agriculture training to beneficiaries, particularly women-led families on growing food crops and raising livestock to generate income and support themselves using available “backyard spaces” in their homes. In addition to the training, the beneficiaries get seedlings and livestock depending on their capacity to set up their respective farms. Once their farms start yielding, they transition away from the food assistance program.

So far, Michael and his core team of 36 staff, 24,000 volunteers and 150 non-profits in the Food Bank Network have reached over 2.4 million Nigerians through leveraging the partnership of over 500 corporate organizations, and 50 multinational food processing companies and foreign missions in Nigeria, as well as government at all levels.

The Person

Michael grew up in a blended family of seven where both parents did not have a steady income to support the family. He regularly went to school hungry because there was no food at home. At age six, he started fending for himself carrying planks of wood at a local sawmill and foraging fruits that had fallen from trees to feed.

During his undergraduate studies, he took to entrepreneurship, selling all kinds of merchandise to his fellow students which helped him put himself through school. Upon graduation, he secured a well-paying job as a lawyer, but what never left him was his experience with food insecurity, deprivation as a child and the nagging feeling that someone somewhere was going through what he went through. He eventually quit his job and set aside his private legal practice to create a transparent and trusted system where nutritious food is secured from major players in the food value chain and redistributed to underserved families, schools and people who really need them.

Today, Michael is an Obama Leader, a seasoned food system activist, a Community Mobilizer, SDGs Advocate, and Legal Practitioner. He is committed to work that focuses on nutrition, family farming, education, and community mobilization as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. He has collaborated with local and international NGOs, multilateral institutions and civil society organizations such as Global Citizens, Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and more.