Aduna, Africa and Recovery from Burnout with Andrew Hunt
Andrew Hunt, co-founder and managing director of Aduna, shares how he went from breakdown in the UK to creative and personal breakthrough in The Gambia to create a life with meaning and business with impact.
A lack of purpose and alignment between the work you’re doing and what your inner self is wanting can lead to anxiety, existential crisis, or even a full-on nervous breakdown. Andrew Hunt was promoting products that he didn’t care about or, in some cases, actively disagreed with. At the age of 24, he was clinically depressed, until he volunteered his marketing skills to projects in The Gambia in West Africa. He is now the co-founder and managing director of Aduna, an African inspired health food brand and social business which creates demand for underutilised natural products from small-scale producers in Africa. Andrew believes passionately in the power of business to deliver sustainable development in rural Africa.
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Our guest is Andrew Hunt, Cofounder and Managing Director of Aduna, an African-inspired health food brand and social business, which creates demand for underutilised natural products from small-scale producers in Africa. Andrew believes passionately in the power of business to deliver sustainable development in rural Africa. Andrew, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, Clare. Thank you for having me.
I would love to hear a little bit about your story and how the place that you live in now influences the work that you do in the world.
The place that I live in now is Chalk Farm in London, which is where I grew up. I suppose the influence for my work comes from the three and a half years that I spent living in The Gambia in West Africa. My work and my purpose now are linking small producers in that part of the world with consumers over here in the open capitals of the developed world.
You’re a fellow Londoner and this is a city that I’ve personally had a love-hate relationship with in my adult years. It’s been thrilling and inspiring and the pace has been super exciting. At other times in my life, it’s also been completely overwhelming. The bright lights of the city utterly dazzled me and I’ve found myself in complete burnout. I wonder, is that something that you’ve ever experienced in your London life?
Yes, for sure. I grew up in Primrose Hill in north-west London. I spent much of my younger adult life in this part of the world. After I left university, I went into the advertising industry. Getting into these types of industries, it’s very competitive, it’s very tough. Once you’re in there, it’s even more competitive and tougher. You can very easily get the sense that you’re on this ladder. You’re not quite sure if the ladder is going in a direction that you want to go. Suddenly, I have that experience.
How did it manifest for you? Did you suffer from insomnia or were you feeling stressed and tired all the time?
I spent three and a half years working for a big London ad agency and was investing all my energy and creativity helping to create and launch brands for big multinational companies, genuinely promoting products that I didn’t care about or in some cases, actively disagreed with like frozen ready meals for clients. I didn’t appreciate it. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. I started questioning, “Why am I doing this? Is this what the purpose of my life is?” It got to the stage where on Sunday evenings I start to feel anxiety about going to work the next day, physical anxiety. My questioning turned into an existential crisis. The existential crisis turned into a full-on meltdown, like a nervous breakdown. I quit my job and at the age of 24, I found myself clinically depressed, in fact, suicidal. Looking back on it, due to the feeling of a lack of purpose and a lack of alignment between the work that I was doing and what my inner self was wanting.
What does purpose mean to you now?
I was in that condition for six months. I tried everything from antidepressant, psychotherapy, acupuncture and yoga. In my desperation, I went to a faith healer in Brighton and nothing made a blind bit of difference. I felt like my life was over and it’s ridiculous looking back on it. All I could see was darkness, until one afternoon I was sitting at home in my basement flat with the same intrusive thoughts that I had been suffering from for the previous six months. I got this random phone call from a family friend, a guy called Angus Davidson, who’s a farmer and a very inspiring social entrepreneur. He offered me the opportunity to volunteer my marketing skills to a project that he had setup out in The Gambia in West Africa.
When he asked me, I wasn’t interested because when you’re in that state of mind, you’re not interested in anything, not even the things that you usually love the most, least of all going into some godforsaken outpost in Africa. I’d never been to sub-Saharan Africa and I had all this negative stuff in my head from being a passive consumer of the media right over here, like poverty and disease and corruption and child soldiers. I thought, “If I’m going to be suicidal, I’d like to be suicidal from the comfort of my own home.” Thankfully for me, my friends and family put me on the airplane. A couple of weeks later, I rocked up in The Gambia, which is also known as the smiling coast of Africa, clinically depressed.
It’s something of a miracle in my personal life that after six months of complete darkness and thinking that this was the end and things will never be the same and my life is over, it took three weeks of arriving in The Gambia to come back to life. The time that I spent there got me really inspired because I was working in a business where in fact the big multinational businesses that had been my clients in the past, I didn’t care about their businesses and it made no difference to me, whether they succeeded or failed. In some cases, I would have been probably happier if they had failed.
I ended up running a very small business. It was completely different because we were working with small-scale producers of fruits and vegetables. The work was helping to connect them to the local market generated by the tourism industry, the hotels and restaurants, which were previously importing the lion’s share of what they needed. I would be working with individual farmers. I would say to a farmer, “If you grow this whole field of tomatoes at this time with this seed, I guarantee that I will buy it from you at X price.” Then that farmer could trust me and I come back three months later or four months later and we have a big harvest. I’d give a huge wedge of cash to that farmer, which looks like £1 million pounds, but it’s £100. Then I’d go back to that same household in that same community two weeks later and the kids that weren’t in school were now in school. It’s an instant impact. The families are building an extra room on the house so that they don’t all have to sleep in the same bed anymore. That felt good. That was the genesis of the work that I’m doing and I started to think about how we could scale that up.
Coming back to your question about purpose, in the first nine months that I was living in The Gambia, I was living in this very basic dwelling at the back of this guy’s compound. It didn’t have any running water or electricity. It was very basic and I had probably the best nine months of my life. I got really clear that it [purpose] wasn’t about making money because I’d been in a high-flying job. I was the youngest account director in the history. I was dealing with CEOs of big companies when I was at the age of 23, 24, you know, a good salary and I was miserable. Then by contrast, during these nine months in the Gambia, I was paid close to nothing. My dwelling was basic and I had the most inspiring, brilliant time. I realised that what’s most important to me is literally waking up in the morning and wanting to get out of bed because I have a sense of purpose. I’ve since realised that in my darkest moments during the clinical depression, the thought that was most painful was that I was worthless and that I have no purpose and that life was completely empty and meaningless.
Then I clarified now, and that’s something that I didn’t realise then that life is empty and meaningless, but the flip side of empty and meaningless is an infinite possibility, which means that you can create any purpose for yourself that you want. The purpose that I’ve created for myself and for my business as well is around the African baobab fruit, which has the potential to be worth $1 billion to small producers in some of the poorest parts of rural Africa. Our purpose is to make that possibility into reality. We find that it inspires me and it inspires the whole team that we work with and all of our partners and colleagues. Possibility is infinite and purpose can be created almost instantly.
That’s super important to remind ourselves of that. Your story resonates with me, although I was a lot older before I had my crisis, not quite such a deep and serious one as yours, but certainly at times in my early 30s, I felt trapped by my big fat London mortgage. I felt trapped in the career that I’d chosen. It felt that I didn’t have choices. Meanwhile, I was super disconnected from my body and unable to walk or sit or stand for very long. I was in agony with my back problem that had developed. It’s hard in those dark bleak moments not to feel that there are no choices and resisting the urge to see that things could be different, things can be different. I’m so pleased that your friends and family persuaded you to take that flight down to The Gambia.
The two best things that ever happened in my life came packaged as disasters and that was the first. I consider myself lucky that it happened and it happened when it happened. I was lucky that I went to a complete low as well because that there are so many people suffering from mild depression and it’s in their jobs and in their London lives and not just London, but the urban capitals in the developed world. Because it’s mild, it’s this nagging feeling, which is similar to how it was for me for a while. It’s a nagging feeling that you suppress and ignore and it’s not serious enough to spur you into real dramatic action. I reached the point where I’d let go of everything. I’m not creating the space in which I could create myself anew and to create the possibility that inspires me and live into that possibility.
Making space and clawing back time from our hectic schedules to listen to these whispers of discontent. Maybe you’ve got the lovely salary that you aspire to, you’ve got the material trappings of whatever your dreams were as a younger person. There can be this sense of almost in gratitude that you’ve got what you thought you wanted, but you’re still sitting here thinking, “Is this as good as it gets because it doesn’t feel so great after all? Am I an ungrateful individual or am I right to want more?” It’s to realise that as we get older, what we want can change. That’s okay. We’re allowed to change our minds. In creating this space, I love that you have been able to identify that what you were doing in the day-to-day had gradually become less meaningful and that you wanted to live and work in a different way. I’m interested in the Aduna company. It would be great to hear what the company’s doing. Also how do you personally maintain that link back with your African collaborators?
To build on what you’re saying, it comes to this Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It goes from at the bottom-end of the spectrum from survival in a day-to-day basis, which is very much a reality in some of the communities where we work in northern Ghana – subsistence level communities. To the other end of the spectrum, self-actualisation, which is what people in the urban capitals are seeking through their work because survival is no longer an issue. Additionally, what I found was I was very fortunate that I landed in this position where the position was about helping other people. It wasn’t something that I had chosen for myself. I had never done anything to anyone else my entire life before I did that, of course for my family and close friends, but I’d never done anything for a stranger.
I was suddenly in this position where if I did a good job then it was improving people’s lives and that felt so good. I feel like this is one of the main things that is unexpressed in us in our urban lives because we’re in these positions where we’re doing well and we’re making money. Whatever industry you may be in, whether it’s banking or some role transferred from one place to another or a client has a successful campaign or whatever it is. You don’t feel like you’re making a contribution to others. That was the main aspect of what brought me out of the depression. I’m an optimist about humanity, so I believe that’s our natural state of being, is helping others. When we’re not doing that, we’re doing the opposite we’re impeding our own selves and we’ll create our own unhappiness.
About the brand, the other thing that I got inspired about when I was living in The Gambia was Africa itself. I’ve already talked about the preconceptions and the negative clichés about Africa. What I’ve found when I was the was there was the absolute opposite. It was this extraordinary vibrancy and vitality and positivity of the people and the environment, with that strong sun shining and everywhere music playing and drums beating and everyone is so positive. Because I come from this advertising and marketing background, I felt like the continent is being so misrepresented. This experience that I was having and if you speak to anyone who’s travelled to Africa, they’ll tell you exactly what I’ve said, that’s the experience and this experience needs to be shared.
Aduna is a one-off word. It’s a local language of The Gambia in Senegal, which I speak. It means life or world, but it’s more than that. Everyone you ask in the Gambia will give you a slightly different answer, but it’s a West African version of karma, which means that if you do good things, then good things will happen. It’s the connectivity of all living things. I sound like a bit of a hippie, but it’s a beautiful philosophy. What we wanted to do with the brand is to express rather than having this negative, clichéd, fair trade story of, “Let’s help the poor little Africans,” which already perpetuates that existing power structure. It was to have a brand that expressed the positivity and the vitality and the vibrancy of Africa, knowing from my own experience as a Londoner that we need that over here. It was something that healed me.
I know that there are so many people here suffering from similar conditions. The idea was to create a brand that would connect these small producers in Africa with consumers over here through African super foods, which are giving health as well like baobab, moringa and cacao. In a brand, which would make people feel happier because even if you look at the packaging, people like to put it on the kitchen cabinet on the counter because it bursts with positive energy and vibrancy. That’s the philosophy of it. The difference between us as a business is that we have our own proprietary ethical supply chain. We work directly with about twenty communities in northern Ghana in one of the driest remote test and poorest regions of West Africa where we have subsistence level communities. That means they don’t have any formal income whatsoever. They grow what they need to survive during the rainy season and then during the seven-month dry season, they can’t grow anything.
There’s no form of income and that’s fortunately when the baobab fruits are ripe to harvest. We work with those communities. They harvest, collect and then process the baobab Fruit. We work with them and with the local community organisation to do all of that then bring it over here and then we would package it and we sell it in places like Holland & Barrett and Whole Foods. Not all of our consumers know about all of that, but they do appreciate it because it helped you feel as though by buying something that you may want anyway, that you’re making a positive contribution. That’s Aduna, the philosophy of the name. It’s a virtuous circle between those communities in rural Ghana and the consumers over here.
The branding is so vibrant and fun and playful. For me, one of my favourite things is the fact that your products allow me to make healthy Nutella, a dairy-free, refined sugar-free, delicious version of Nutella. What’s not to like?
There are plenty of healthy indulgences that can be had with our ingredients.
Do you get back to Africa often?
The vision is about the social impact, but it’s also entrepreneurship. It is always a bit of a break for the border on the part of the founders. It’s wanting to live a life of freedom and self-expression. Part of that for me would definitely mean spending significant time in Africa because that’s where the inspiration and the products come from. What I’ve found over the last few years is that the business has been so intensive. The real business is here, in the marketing and the distribution, sales and operations and all of that. I didn’t even have the chance to visit a supply chain for two years.
I was suffering from that because coming back to your theme, in London, you can feel a bit alienated from your work. In my case, it started to feel again a little bit like I was doing a job. Even though it’s a job that I’m passionate about, it started to feel like a job. I started to feel disconnected from the impact. I’m very glad that I got to go out in April this year. We went on a trip to audit the social impact and we visited six communities. It had been two years since I visited and since then we’ve scaled up the number of communities and the volume of baobab that we’d been collecting. I got to hear the consistency of the stories from the most fantastic generous people you could possibly meet in your life.
Subsistence level living is defined by the UN as extreme poverty. If you enter their community, they will not let you leave without offering you food. This year, we had one community that as we were leaving produced two live chickens that were tied up, insisting to give them to us. The chicken is a real asset. That’s the nice thing. The generosity is extraordinary and we had to negotiate to not take them because it was going to offend them. To be able to make a contribution to these people and to hear the positive impact that was having consistently for them and their families were so powerful. I feel the analogy is that in between trips to Africa I feel like an iPhone on low battery. When I go there, it’s like plugging myself into the charger. I come back recharged, re-enrolled, re-inspired and ready to take on all the challenges that we have to face.
What do you do in the day-to-day when you’re back in London and you’re trying to cling to those lovely juicy, charged up vibes that you’ve returned with? What are the daily things that you choose to do, and not do, that help you sustain the work that you’re doing and sustain your well-being?
The challenge is when you start as a startup entrepreneur, you’re doing a bit of everything and you’re active out there on the frontline. As you grow, you become a manager, a CEO. So much of my work is behind the laptop and it’s financing, HR and all the stuff that nobody else wants to do. That’s how it starts a little bit to sometimes feel like a job. One of the challenges that we would so love to be able for all of our team at Aduna to be able to come out to Ghana and witness for themselves because they’re all motivated by that, but you can’t afford to do that as a small business. For them as well, it’s how do we access that?
For me personally, I stay very engaged with the Africa scene here in London because that’s what connects me back to Africa. I go to a lot of Africa-related events, whether they be business conferences or the musicians that come from West Africa – they always go to the Barbican or the Southbank Centre. I go to most of them. The music is a way of transporting myself because it’s so conjures the landscape and the people and the atmosphere. I listen to a lot of music from West Africa. I’ve got a lot of friends as well from that part of the world. Those are the things that I do to stay connected to Africa. There are other things I try and do to keep myself in good shape as well.
Tell us about those things.
I definitely can’t claim to have mastered this because I had a look at your other podcasts, and I’m definitely going to tune in to a few of them myself because I’ve been trying to address this area. The one thing that I have managed to improve this year that’s made a big difference is exercise. I’m doing a Barry’s Bootcamp, as a very typical Londoner, three or four times a week. It’s my first ever time to do a fitness class. I had to give up football because I broke my ankle and that was a real release – sport was a real release because you need that physical activity and it makes you very present. You’re not thinking or worrying about something that’s happened in the past or something that might happen in the future, you were just being physical. I managed to make time for that. That’s been really helpful in making me feel physically fit and then that has a knock-on feeling mentally fit.
The other thing is my son who has just turned two. I said that the two best things that happened in my life came packaged as disasters, he was one of them. I’m so grateful for him because before he came along, I was spending not just working in the weeks and the evenings, but on a Saturday and Sunday, I would do at least four hours’ work on each. I could feel myself feeling like I could get back into that burnout mode. It was something I was worried about coming back from The Gambia because I was concerned that what if my renewed well-being is linked to this place? And if I come back to London, what if that triggers me to go back into that state that I was in, which I never want to go back to again? It didn’t because it’s the sense of purpose, it’s the most important thing for me.
I started to feel the burnout could be around the corner. Since my son was born, that’s not an option. I don’t work on the weekends anymore. In fact, just earlier this week I had a bad work call that left me shell-shocked and flabbergasted and I was in this state of anxiety and shock. The doorbell rang and it was my mum dropping my son off, he burst in with this incredible positive energy. I snapped out of it immediately and realised, “This isn’t the end of the world.”Family and having a son have been such a great thing for me because my life has diversified. It’s not just about my business. In fact, he comes straight in as number my one priority. That helps.
I’m still looking for more. I’ve had a few suggestions. One of my closest friends gave me this book, you probably heard about this doing your podcast called The Miracle Morning. The idea of it is that you can make time for yourself early in the morning. It was very difficult to make time for yourself any other time of day, but you can make time for yourself in the morning to do the things that you don’t make time for yourself like reading, doing exercise and they talk about visualisations and affirmations. I started to get into it and it slipped. It’s something that I want to pursue more.
I’m a big believer in experimenting and exploring. It’s useful to ask other people what they choose to do and deliberately choose not to do. Reading books and listening to podcasts are great ways to find different things that you might want to experiment with and see what works for you. I’m also a big fan of being kind to yourself and understanding, recognising what season of your life you’re in. You’re talking about your little boy and I love that he was able to put you back into the present after that pretty shocking work-related call.
As an auntie, my brother has got four kids, I’m also thinking, “Two-year-old, he’s a little human alarm clock.” I know for some people the idea of trying to make some meaningful morning routine for spiritual reflection or for meditation, however it helps you, might not be that feasible for someone who’s got young children. If they’re up in the crack of dawn, it’s about saying, “Maybe it works for you, but it doesn’t work for me with where I’m at in this season of my life.” I’m going to negotiate with my partner or with a friend to have five minutes later on in the day, whatever it may be. I suppose it’s understanding that some things are temporary. What you can’t do now you might be able to do more of in the future, but if you’ve experimented a little bit now then absolutely, “This thing definitely worked for me, that thing not so much, I’m going to let that slide.” That’s what I find useful personally.
My guru is my sister because she spent a lot of time living in Bali. It’s the capital of yoga and mindfulness. She’s invited me to sound healing and things like that, which was amazing. She had given me a fantastic book called, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. It’s a great book. It feels like everything that’s being said in the book I already knew and already felt it myself, particularly as a Londoner, a London experience. That London experience, that urban experience is something that I’ve been preoccupied by for quite a long time. Some of my favourite films all came out at the end of the last millennium, which includes The Matrix and Fight Club, which were questioning this urban existence and pinpointing this malaise. There is this sense that there’s something not quite right, but we can’t quite put our finger on it. We’re going through the motions. The fact that those films came out – and the Truman Show is another one – they all had such a huge reception, shows the absolute volume of people who empathise with that feeling. Hence why we have the massive growth of the health and wellness industry and the mindfulness movement. Those two things are in balance with each other.
More and more people are realising that they are living in an urban area, life is fast, we are all hyper-connected and it doesn’t always feel good all of the time. We can thrive in our cities. We can choose a slower pace but first, we need to get clear about how we want to spend our time, energy and attention. I love that you said at the beginning of the interview about possibility. You wouldn’t have had that realisation without this very serious episode in your life forcing you to make space for these, I don’t want to say epiphanies or ideas, I suppose these whispers from the universe to reach your ears and listen and hear them. Maybe they had been there for a long time before then. In the dizziness and the doing and the striving, there wasn’t space for it. I’m also a big believer in alignment. What does alignment look like to you today and what does it mean? Explain what you understand it to be for our listeners.
It has expanded for me because there’s my personal alignment, which means my inner values need to be aligned with whatever I’m doing on a daily basis. If what I’m doing on a daily basis is in any way against or in conflict with what I care about most or what I stand for, then my day-to-day existence is not going to be a very pleasant one. That’s the starting point. Then it’s expanding out in terms of my business as well because we describe ourselves as a social business. We describe ourselves that way because at the heart of our business is our social mission. Alignment is the most important thing. Everyone who works for the business has to be aligned with that. Anyone who invests in the business has to be aligned to that, the members of our board are aligned.
It creates a certain harmony that you were around people because this is also my personal mission. That means that I’m spending my days in the company of people who are also aligned. If you break that by having either people or investors or whatever it may be that are not aligned, then that’s going to create a conflict as well with this harmony. The first most important thing is understanding what your own values are, and then trying to ensure that what you do on a daily basis is aligned with those values. Ideally, you know that you’re spending as much time as possible with people who are also aligned because then you’ll be able to express yourself as fully as possible.
I know that when you’re in The Gambia, you won a UN World Business and Development Award for your work with these small-scale producers. Subsequently since you cofounded Aduna, the company has won lots of different awards for sustainable business and Storyteller Awards and all sorts. I’m excited to see what happens for the company in the future and the impact that you’re going to continue to have. Right now, I’m interested in what you’re curious about today.
What I’m curious about is this book that my sister’s given me. I’m reading it and understanding how it has a concept that called interbeing. The concepts of interbeing are our own being, our self is not the whole, not even our own home. We have this interbeing with all other living things, which means that if I do something good to somebody else, I’m doing something good to myself. If I do something bad to somebody else or something else, like the environment or any other human being, I’m doing something bad to myself. This is what I’m exploring through the book. It seems to resonate with everything that I’m doing with my business.
I’m looking forward to seeing how that influences the work that you do from here on out. It’s been so great to have you on the show. Where can people find out more about Aduna?
Our website is Aduna.com also our feel-good tribe social media platforms: @AdunaWorld on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Our monthly newsletter called Aduna Feel Good Tribe promotes other feel-good brands or projects. Also there are other initiatives that are promoting Africa in a positive light.
Thanks so much, Andrew.
You’re very welcome. Thank you.