President Barack Obama’s efforts to increase the number of people with access to power through his Power Africa initiative, has kept the Chairman of Heirs Holds, Tony Elumelu on the move, criss-crossing Africa and America.
Adeola Akinremi, in New York, writes on the recent second US-Africa Business Forum, Elumelu’s role in the forum and Obama’s promise
The 59th Street was packed with crawling crowd. Vehicular traffic gave little space to pedestrians. JW Marriot Essex House, an upscale hotel in Central Park South, somewhere in the middle of Manhattan, New York City, had its doors opened permanently.
Most of the people in the crawling traffic were heading to Essex House. It was not for leisure. It was for business, but in a convivial atmosphere.
In the crowd on the street, business executives and political leaders, mostly from the United States and Africa dared the New York City traffic to respond to an invitation by Mr. Tony Elumelu, the stylish and philanthropic entrepreneur who has his hands in everything from banking business, hospitality, healthcare, agriculture, oil and gas, power etc.
After an exhaustive talk at the second U.S.- Africa Business Forum, a day that focused on increased trade and investment between the U.S. and African nations, Elumelu did not want participants to go home without the ritual of reception—a networking opportunity.
In the evening of Wednesday, September 23, Elumelu’s bank, the United Bank for Africa— reputed to be Nigeria’s tier one bank with operations in 19 African countries and the only African bank operating in the United States—teamed up with Business Council for International Understanding (BCIU) to pool the leaders together for wine and cheese.
To be sure, notable names in politics and business were in the room. For instance, former Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Honourable Penny Pritzker, Executive Director, Nigeria Export Promotion Council, Mr. Segun Awolowo, UBA’s Group Managing Director, Kennedy Uzoka, Chief Executive Officer, Oando Plc, Adewale Tinubu, CEO of Mainone, Ms Funke Okpeke, Tonye Cole of Sahara Group, Boubacar Wargo, Nigerien Investment Minister, Chairman of the U.S. Exim Bank, Fred Hochberg; President of the overseas private investment corporation, Elizabeth Littlefield; Harvard Business school teacher, Professor David Gergen; former CNN news anchor, Zain Verjee; Ambassador Dimitrius Marantis; the U.S. Executive Director of the World Bank, Mathew Mcguire and Deputy U.S. trade Representative for Africa, Florizelle Liser, were some of the over 200 notable leaders from government, private and non-profit sectors in attendance.
And with the glasses of wine in their hands, serious business and development talks were going on in the brightly-lit room from one end to the other.
The reception started with an introduction. The President of Business Council for International Understanding (BCIU), Peter Tickansy said, the reception was an opportunity to meet and greet, build strong relationships and help businesses grow.
With that ice breaker, hundreds of business and political leaders in the room began to exchange pleasantries alongside business cards.
Soon, Elumelu mounted the podium to say a few words before inviting the United States Secretary of Commerce, Honourable Penny Pritzker to join him. “Africa loves America and we know that America loves Africa too,” he said, “The Power Africa initiative of President Barack Obama is a tremendous opportunity for our continent and for the nation of America. Some things don’t need to change. What they need is to be expanded and scaled up. In other words, we need more U.S. engagement in Africa through mutually beneficial trade and investment.”
For Pritzker, Elumelu is one leader driving change throughout Africa. “Tony is an extraordinary partner. His kind of leadership is indispensable for our partnership,” she said to a large audience with special interest in Africa.
In the morning, when the business forum, which was also attended by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, was in full swing, President Barack Obama said trade and not aid has been the message from Africans.
He said: “And wherever I’ve gone, from Senegal to South Africa, Africans insist they do not just want aid, they want trade. They want partners, not patrons. They want to do business and grow businesses, and create value and companies that will last and that will help to build a great future for the continent. And the United States is determined to be that partner — for the long term — to accelerate the next era of African growth for all Africans.”
In a speech laced with hope for Africa and warning for its leaders, Obama asked for more support for a continent he characterised as “essential” to progress.
“I’m here because, as the world gathers in New York City, we’re reminded that on so many key challenges that we face — our security, our prosperity, climate change, the struggle for human rights and human dignity, the reduction of conflict — Africa is essential to our progress. Africa’s rise is not just important to Africa, it’s important to the entire world.
“Yes, too many people across the continent still face conflict and hunger and disease. And, yes, recent years have brought some stiff economic headwinds. And we have to be relentless in our efforts to end conflicts, and improve security and promote justice. At the same time, the broader trajectory of Africa is unmistakable. Thanks to many of you, Africa is on the move — home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world and a middle class projected to grow to more than a billion customers. An Africa of telecom companies and clean-tech startups and Silicon savannahs, all powered by the youngest population anywhere on the planet,” he said.
With praise for those who have been the drivers of change on the continent, he didn’t spare strong words for political leaders on the continent. “The broader trajectory of Africa is unmistaken. Thanks to many of you, Africa is on the move… The truth is, is that those governments that are above-board and transparent, people want to do business there. People don’t want to do business in places where the rules are constantly changing depending on who’s up, who’s down, whose cousin is who. It creates the kinds of risks that scare investors away,” he told a gathering that included Heads of States from Africa.
And in emphasising what Elumelu continues to pursue as Africapitalism, Obama challenged Africa’s entrepreneurs to “do well and also do good.”
Obama recognised Africa as home of the youngest population in the world and urged the continent’s industrious youth to “develop the motive to help society.”
“All of you should want to make money and be profitable in order to satisfy your investors,” he explained, “but the good news is that in Africa, if you are doing well, you can also be doing a lot of good in your communities to move your societies and countries forward. We want an Africa that is booming, thriving and growing.”
President Obama’s comments mirror the Africapitalism ideology espoused by Elumelu, who’s running a large charity to incubate young entrepreneurs across Africa.
In recent years, The Tony Elumelu Foundation, through its flagship entrepreneurship programme has committed $100m to empower African budding entrepreneurs – a group Elumelu describes as “the life blood of Africa’s rise.”
Elumelu’s economic philosophy of Africapitalism calls on Africa’s private sector (including its entrepreneurs) to invest long-term in strategic sectors to achieve both economic profits for shareholders and social prosperity for all stakeholders including local communities. The outcome of such deliberate investment decisions is the creation of wealth for business and for society at large. As many African countries experience contractions and low growth, Africapitalism calls for critical investments in non-extractive sectors capable of transforming the continent in a sustainable fashion.
The U.S.-Africa Business Forum, which held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session had some $9 billion in trade and investment deals and partnerships announced, but Obama said that was just scratching the surface.
And going where his heart belongs, he hit the button on Power Africa with a line everyone can relate to.
“…As I indicated earlier, we’re especially focused on increasing access to electricity for the two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans who lack it. Three years after launching Power Africa, we’re seeing real progress — solar power and natural gas in Nigeria; off-grid energy in Tanzania; people in rural Rwanda gaining electricity. This means that students can study at night and businesses can stay open. And we are not going to let up. Partners like the World Bank and the African Development Bank are mobilising billions.”
That for Elumelu is a top priority. In Africa, darkness must give way to light. He continues to speak about it everywhere he goes. In Delaware, United States, Elumelu, who is also co-chair of the African Energy Leaders Group (AELG), a community of African energy leaders including presidents and business leaders, spoke to an audience populated by businessmen and politicians in the United States. His message was clear enough: shared purpose.
He called on the next U.S. President to work in shared purpose with Africans on implementing innovative solutions to the complex, but surmountable challenges in Africa.
“I am an unashamed optimist and I believe that working together, in Shared Purpose, which is what Africapitalism is about, we can help usher in economic transformation that will ensure Africa is a critical player in the 21st Century global economy. If we give our people the economic tools to thrive, living standards increase, the political challenges that Africa faces can be tackled and fundamental positive change can be assured,” he enthused.
For the American voters, he said: “So when you meet, write, call and email your political candidates and representatives and the elected President in November, tell them that when it comes to Africa, you want more. And by more, I mean more engagement, more positively impactful policies and more development and commercial investment in Africa.”
And during an award presented to him as the Person of the Year for his efforts in driving change in Africa at the Africa Investor (AI) Investment Summit held alongside the 71st UN General Assembly in New York, Elumelu revealed that Transcorp Power, one of many businesses where he has interest, has supported U.S. President Obama’s Power Africa initiative with a $2.5 billion commitment.
He thanked the broader coalition of investors in the African power sector, as he urged other institutional investors to consider long-term opportunities on the continent.
“Africa has been faced with this same challenge, in my view, for far too long. I choose to look at the recent episodes of economic contraction across the continent as opportunities to diversify our economies and invest in building critical infrastructure, especially in power, to reduce our susceptibility to commodity shocks and break out of the perpetual boom-bust cycles.
“We must power Africa’s next phase of development, by targeting and prioritising growth of our manufacturing, industries and services. And power is the fulcrum that will make this happen,” he said.
Whilst receiving the award, Elumelu equally extolled the staff and management of TranscorpPower, the biggest producer of thermal energy in Nigeria and other stakeholders in the public and private sectors, committed to improving access to electricity in Africa.
And as the economies of Africa struggle due to excessive exposure to commodities’ prices caused by limited diversification, Elumelu opined that now is the time to diversify the various economies and invest in building critical infrastructure, especially in power, to reduce susceptibility to commodity shocks and break out of the perpetual boom-bust cycles.
According to him, though there is abundance of private capital available to be deployed to develop to Africa, governments must play its part in attracting these investments.
“As we know, global private capital goes to where it is most welcome. Therefore, the challenge before African governments should be how to ensure they create the environment that will attract and retain these investments in our continent,” he said.
According to reports, President Obama’s Power Africa and Trade Africa initiatives have greatly improved U.S. investment in Africa and reinforcing positive trends.
The Power Africa initiative alone, the U.S. government’s initial $7bn commitment has leveraged nearly $43bn in commitments from over 120 public and private sector partners, and the initiative is on track to add 30000 MW to Africa’s power supply by 2030.
The U.S. interest in Africa has been encouraged by the growing democratic institutions and the increasing business breakthroughs all over the continent. In recent weeks, the growing population of those using Facebook attracted its co-founder and chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, to Nigeria and Kenya. The revenue potential in Africa has also been something of interest to businessmen from the West in addition to solutions that businesses bring.
All in all, the move by Obama and the response from Elumelu and others alike will change the narrative for Africa. It will change from a continent in darkness to one in light; from poverty to prosperity; and from import driven to export driven. That is already happening.