How to Transform a Continent

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One of Africa’s largest philanthropies is laying a solid foundation for the continent’s future by empowering young people, writes Solomon Elusoji

Ibilola Bamgbelu studied Computer Science at Covenant University, but she was not exactly geek material. In 2013, after about three years of writing computer code and running them at several companies, she moved to Italy, to attend the Florence Design Academy and acquire a Master’s Degree in Interior Design, a field she described as her “passion”. “I am passionate about the environment and how it influences people,” she said. “But I have chosen to focus on interiors, where people spend 90 per cent of their time.”

In 2014, Bamgbelu started her own interior design and furnishing company, Spazio Ideale. However, the remarkable turning point for her young company came in early 2016 when she was selected as one of 1,000 entrepreneurs to qualify for the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme, the flagship venture of the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF). With a 100 million dollars commitment, TEF is committed to empowering up to 10,000 entrepreneurs across Africa over the next 10 years (starting 2015), offering funding and mentoring to drive economic and social development on the continent.

“We had a rigorous training which made me understand the way to position my company,” Bamgbelu told THISDAY, speaking on the impact the programme has had on her business. “The business plan we did helped in having a complete understanding of how the business should be run and it’s that model we’ve been following ever since. The grant money also helped to establish our furniture factory, which boosted the amount of services we could offer to our clients. Then the alumni network gives you access to a large pool of businesses and people. For example, the accounting firm we’ve been using was also part of the programme. And even in the course of our project, we’ve had to work with other TEEP entrepreneurs.”

Bamgbelu’s business has continued to grow, with revenues steadily rising. But she is not the only entrepreneur whose business has been positively affected by the TEF programme. Ajoke Akinola, a serial entrepreneur, also launched an interior and exterior design company in 2015, Decor by Rachel, the same year she was accepted into the programme, and she said it was the perfect platform to realise her ambitions.

“I applied because I believed it would enhance the business’ growth and give it a chance to get funding and kick-start our success. And it did. It helped me to get the business registered and gave it the visibility it needed, though we are still working on more brand awareness. It also stretched us, to realise that we had the ability to do more,” she said.

Lekan Akinseye started a clothing company, HFC Clothing, in the United States in 2013 and was accepted into the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme in 2016. He, too, acknowledged that the programme had improved the growth of his business. “It has helped with contacts and connections. We’ve been meeting different people, thanks to TEF. Also, we’ve been interviewed on the radio and other platforms, which have helped us promote the business. And that’s all thanks to the foundation.”

Smoothie Express, an online business that delivers richly blended fruit smoothies to customers wherever they are, is another success story of the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme. In less than a month, the company will open its first physical store, where people can get their smoothie. “It has been an amazing experience,” co-founder, Omowunmu Akande told THISDAY. “We got into the programme just after we started operations and the resources and mentorship we had access to were incredible. Even years after getting into the programme, we have been getting so much support from them. This programme has helped us translate our dreams to reality.”

When billionaire banker and investor, Tony Elumelu, launched the entrepreneurship programme in 2015, his goal was to ‘democratise luck’ for every African entrepreneur. Elumelu believes he was lucky to have become the director of a major Nigerian bank while in his 30s, and he wanted to open the doors of opportunity for more deserving risk takers. But, more importantly, Elumelu subscribes to the Africapitalism philosophy – this is the belief that Africa’s private sector can and must play a leading role in the continent’s development.

According to Elumelu, who thought up the concept, Africapitalism is a call-to-action for businesses to make decisions that will increase economic and social wealth, and promote development in the communities and nations in which they operate. Such a decision will ultimately help businesses become more profitable as the communities they serve become well-off consumers, healthy and better educated employees, and even entrepreneurs who go on to become suppliers and service providers. “Africapitalism means we cannot leave the business of development up to our governments, donor countries and philanthropic organisations alone,” he says. “The private sector must be involved in the business of development.”

Interestingly, the growth of the entrepreneurship programme has been sensational. In 2015, the Foundation received 20,000 applications from residents of all the 53 African countries. In 2016, the number more than doubled to 45,000 and in 2017 it grew exponentially to 93,246.

“Since launching the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme – and committing $100 million to empowering 10,000 African entrepreneurs in a decade – we have unleashed our continent’s most potent development force – its entrepreneurs,” Elumelu said recently. “In just three years, our 3,000 entrepreneurs have created tens of thousands of jobs and generated considerable wealth.”

“We have been so successful, and our biggest challenge is managing our success,” TEF’s Chief Executive Officer, Parminder Vir, told THISDAY. “We’ve also understood that you cannot stand still when it comes to innovating and improving the programme. We have to continue to be one step ahead.”

Vir, who stated this in company of the COO Tony Elumelu Foundation, Owen Omogiafo, the Company Secretary, Heirs Holding Group, Obong Idiong and Programme Manager, Tony Elumelu Foundation, Onajite Emerhor Ogwo while addressing journalists on preparations for the 2017 TEF Entrepreneurship Programme, assured that all necessary arrangements have been put in place to ensure another successful hosting of entrepreneurs from African continent and beyond.

The entrepreneurship programme is based on seven pillars: a 12-week Startup Enterprise Toolkit Training Programme, online mentoring, digital resource library, meet-ups, the Elumelu Entrepreneurship Forum, seed capital funding and the Tony Elumelu Alumni Network. However, the Elumelu Entrepreneurship Forum is probably the highlight of programme, as it brings together all the selected entrepreneurs from the 53 African countries in one location.

This year, to widen the impact of the Forum, TEF has decided to open the Forum to non-TEF entrepreneurs, a move which will allow SMEs from across Africa to attend and form networks, share knowledge, connect with investors, link with corporate supply chains and influence policymakers and business leaders in attendance.

“This is the first year we have opened the Forum up to include not just the 1,000 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs from the 2017 cycle of our programme, but the full pan-African entrepreneurship ecosystem,” Vir said. “In doing so, we are allowing disparate SME communities to come together and expand the possibilities for intra-African partnerships. I urge policymakers and investors to join us at the Forum as we empower the next generation of African business titans.”

The Forum, which promises to be the largest gathering of African entrepreneurs in the world, will hold on October 13 and 14 in Lagos and will feature plenary panels, masterclasses, and sector specific networking opportunities as well as policy-led talks focused on improving the enabling environment for African businesses.

Speakers expected to grace the forum include: Wale Ayeni of the International Finance Corporation; Stephen Tio Kauma of Afrexim Bank; Andre Hue of the African Development Bank; Stephen M. Haykin of USAID Nigeria; Heikke Reugger of the European Investment Bank; Abdoulaye Mar Dieye of the United Nations Development Programme.

This sort of entrepreneurial approach taken by TEF is regarded, by experts, as the best way to transform Africa from a conglomeration of third world economies to highly developed states. For one, entrepreneurs create jobs and unemployment is one of the big monsters assaulting the continent. A 2013 study by Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based think tank, found that African youths constitute about 37 per cent of the working age population. The same age group, however, accounts for about 60 per cent of jobless people on the continent.

“It’s becoming ever clearer that entrepreneurship is the answer to the vexing economic questions facing Africa today: job creation, capital formation, skills acquisition, taxation-based self-sufficiency, quality of governance-demand, and of course social inclusion,” the guy who invented the SMS shortcode system for authenticating pharmaceuticals, Bright Simons, wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2012.

Africa also appears to have turned the corner from an aid dependent continent to one which attracts investment capital. Vir, TEF’s CEO, said organisations like the World Bank have approached the foundation to partner on helping more entrepreneurs succeed. “We have the perfect model for training and funding entrepreneurs and countries and organisations are willing to adopt it,” she said.

In the end, Vir is optimistic that TEF entrepreneurs will take over the continent and create the wealth and opportunities that ultimately transform Africa. Three years into the 10-year plan, that glorious ambition looks very much inevitable.