In recent times, Tony Elumelu has become the face of developmental entrepreneurship in Africa. Solomon Elusoji revisits his message at the Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit in Washington DC
This month, Tony Elumelu delivered the keynote speech at the Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit in Washington, DC, the U.S. capital. The Summit marked the end of the academic component for 1,000 young Africans who were selected for the Mandela Fellowship in 2017 and featured networking and panel discussions with U.S. leaders from the public, private and non-profit sectors.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship was started in 2014 as the flagship programme of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a signature effort of the Barack Obama administration to invest in the next generation of African leaders. The Fellowship aims to empower young people through academic coursework, leadership training and networking. The Fellows, who are between the ages of 25 and 35, are selected based on their records of accomplishment in promoting innovation and positive impact in their organisations, institutions, communities and countries.
So, having Tony Elumelu address the 2017 Fellows was not a coincidence. Elumelu, recognised by Forbes in 2012 as one of Africa’s 20 Most Powerful People, garnered his wealth via a long, successful career in banking and investment. But his banking success did not get him before the Mandela Fellows; something else did.
In 2010, Elumelu founded the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), focusing on direct interventions like scholarships and fellowships to support future leaders.
But, on Monday, December 1, 2014, TEF announced a $100 million entrepreneurship fund under the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP), with a commitment to giving start-ups and entrepreneurs with a dream the funds, mentorship and network to become the next generation of global business titans from Africa.
The programme, which is already running its third course, is designed to identify and help grown an initial 10,000 start-ups and young businesses from across Africa within 10 years, targeting the creation of one million new jobs and $10 billion in annual revenues.
“Whether you’re in Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg, Nairobi or Dakar, Africa is buzzing with entrepreneurs who need a platform that enables them to take their business or idea to the next level,” the then Director of Entrepreneurship at the TEF, Parminder Vir OBE, said. She was appointed CEO Tony Elumelu Foundation in June 2015.
“When I retired as CEO of UBA and asked myself if I can institutionalise luck because we are all a product of many factors, the kind of place you worked, the kind of leaders you have, your upbringing,” Elumelu told the Mandela Fellows. “So I just felt that it would be nice to give support to young Africans who have ideas and not capital.”
The TEEP is guided by three principles: the inclusive economic philosophy of Elumelu’s Africapitalism, which suggests that a vibrant African-led private sector is the key to unlocking Africa’s economic and social potential; the commitment to drive African economic growth through the empowering of African entrepreneurship; and a mission to ‘institutionalise luck’ by creating an environment where African entrepreneurs can get critical elements of support in the early stages of their business life.
Elumelu’s unwavering confidence that Africa can and will thrive can be traced to his own journey, which was largely shaped on the continent. Unlike most of Africa’s success stories, he wasn’t raised in the white man’s land nor did he acquire his first degree from a posh university in the United States. He was born in Jos and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from Ambrose Ali University and a Master of Science degree, also in Economics, from the University of Lagos, before moving into the local banking sector, where he rose through the ranks to become one of the most financial savvy professionals in the world. So, he has first-hand knowledge of the challenges, the opportunities inherent in the African economic system and believes that with a virile support system, Africa can rise.
At the Mandela Washington Summit, Elumelu underlined the importance of good leadership, which he believes, like the immortal Chinua Achebe did, is the main problem stopping the transformation of the continent.
“For a continent that is hugely endowed with so much, we should actually be a land of plenty but unfortunately, we have not been able to get it right and the only reason it is this way is the dearth of good leadership across both the private and public sectors,” he said. “Africa is colonised by hunger and poverty and so if you are called Mandela Fellows, you should go back with an agenda that leadership occurs at every level and that whilst apartheid is gone, there are other forms of oppression, injustice and hardship and the greatest of it all is poverty, manifesting itself in so many other ways.”
This golden virtue of leadership, the kind Mandela displayed, is what Elumelu has committed the rest of his life and fortune to achieving, using the TEEP as a medium. One of the five core criteria through which applicants are accepted into the programme is their leadership potential, their ability to be able to attract people, customers and resources to achieve a goal.
Beyond the economics, Elumelu also urged the Mandela Fellows to stop being passive about the governance of their communities, since politics tends to define the quality of any society.
“When we were growing up, we used to think that politics was for second class people but we have long realised the stupidity in that kind of thought, the basics supports the super structure because if you have a weak foundation the structure will not last,” he said.
“We remain a continent whose destiny is shaped by people who we think or call second class citizens
“And I say to people, when you go to a country (and I know for a fact a country), where a mad man directs the flow of traffic. It tells you that something is fundamentally wrong with that society, it tells you that everyone is beneath the IQ of that mad man or the mad man will shape everyone to operate in that fashion and that is what this generation should be intolerant of otherwise you will not be paying a good reward to the name you are carrying or to the U.S. Government that has thought it wise, really wise because I am one of those people who have said the age we live in is not one of handouts, teach people how to become self-reliant and fishermen.”
When this reporter asked several public policy analysts and economists on the question of whether Elumelu’s approach to solving Africa’s problems – the idea that Africans, through entrepreneurship, have what it takes to spur the continent’s economic growth – has merit, they were unanimous in their response: yes. The reason is not far-fetched.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of young Africans attempt to emigrate to Europe and America, in search of a better life. The challenges in their home countries are economic, the challenge of unemployment and underemployment, the absence of basic amenities like electricity, water and basic healthcare, the absence of a social safety net. But entrepreneurship offers creative ways through which these problems can be solved, while triggering economic growth and development. Elumelu’s TEEP is designed to do just that.
So what Elumelu really wants – which is to inspire a new generation of African leaders through the provision of entrepreneurship opportunities – is what will define his legacy.
He told the Mandela Fellows that he and his family had that – legacy – in mind when he launched TEEP. “We didn’t do it because we were the richest or because we have so much, we struggled to make it happen,” he said. “But it was all about defining, understanding and reconciling ourselves to how we want to be remembered long after we are gone because what does it profit anyone to keep all your resources in the bank accounts, you don’t even know how your kids are going to spend the money. If you do not share part of it to bring economic prosperity to everyone realising that poverty anywhere is a threat to mankind everywhere.”