Spreading Empowerment All Over Africa

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Tony Elumelu’s legacy of inspiring the next generation of African entrepreneurs continues to grow from strength to strength with the conclusion of the fifth edition of the TEF Forum, writes Charles Ajunwa 

When  Tony Elumelu stepped into the hall, at exactly 5:15p.m., the audience burst into rapturous applause; chants of “Tony! Tony! Tony!” reverberated.

“May we please be seated,” Elumelu said. The electricity is “exciting and energetic too. As I’ve often said, the future of Africa is indeed in your hands. The journey has indeed begun. You are more educated, you are more exposed, you are more socially connected. That is why today is a rare moment and opportunity; we are privileged to be among first ladies. Tomorrow we are going to have five presidents. Let our presidents who are here know what you need as African entrepreneurs to survive. I believe that if our leaders understand the rationale for you to succeed, they will do everything within their power.”

Elumelu was speaking on the first day of the recently concluded fifth edition of the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) Forum, which hosted five African Presidents and Vice President and thousands of young African entrepreneurs. He was addressing thousands of young entrepreneurs who are building the African businesses of tomorrow.

The TEF Forum, initialised by the Elumelu family in 2015, has been described as the most influential gathering of the African entrepreneurship ecosystem in the world. The forum is organised by the Tony Elumelu Foundation, which has been at the forefront of advocating for entrepreneurship as the catalyst for the economic transformation of Africa.

This year’s forum was held at the Transcorp Hilton Abuja and convened over 5,000 participants from 54 African countries, including representatives of the 7,522 beneficiaries of the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme. More than 60 global speakers from the public and private sectors across three continents participated in interactive masterclasses, plenary sessions and debates geared towards generating ideas and defining concrete steps Africa must take to empower its youths and accelerate the continent’s development.

Guests interacted directly with young budding entrepreneurs from across the 20 African UBA-present countries who exhibited their innovative products and solutions at the UBA Marketplace, powered by one of Africa’s most global banks, United Bank for Africa (UBA).

There was also a tour of the UBA Marketplace, where entrepreneurs across the continent exhibited their products, as a pitching competition saw the winner walk away with a $5,000 grant from the bank.

Moderated by American journalist and host of CNN’s show, Fareed Zakaria GPS, the Presidential Debates, which formed the highlight of the two-day event, focused on charting the way forward towards the eradication of poverty in Africa through job creation.  The public sector leaders on the panel included President, Republic of Rwanda, H.E. Paul Kagame; President, Republic of Senegal, H.E. Macky Sall; President, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), H.E. Félix Tshisekedi; Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, H.E. (Prof.) Yemi Osinbajo (SAN); and Prime Minister, Republic of Uganda, Hon (Dr.) Ruhakana Rugunda, representing the President of Uganda, H.E. Yoweri Museveni.

Focus on Youths 
Giving the keynote speech, Osinbajo who commented on the impact of the TEF said “by birthing this particular intervention, Tony Elumelu has compelled us to focus on what really matters, our youth and their dreams. The message to Africa’s emerging business giants is a clear one: How and what can you contribute, like Tony Elumelu, to empower the next generation, helping them to realise their own dreams?”

Role of Healthcare 

Healthcare played a dominant role in the conversations as healthcare leaders in the public and private sectors tackled this theme on the plenary session ‘The Role of Healthcare in Economic Transformation’. Speakers on this panel include Trustee, Tony Elumelu Foundation and Founder/CEO, Avon Medical Practice, Dr. Awele Elumelu; First Lady, Federal Republic of Nigeria, H.E (Mrs.) Aisha Buhari; First Lady of Guinea, H.E (Mme.) Djena Kaba Condé; First Lady, Mali, H.E. (Mme.) Keïta Aminata Maiga; Vice President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Gilles Carbonnier; Regional Director, UN Women Central and West Africa, Oulimata Sarr, and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organisation (WHO).

In her opening remarks, Dr. Awele Elumelu noted that it’s not always easy to be an entrepreneur since one needs to raise capital, build a competent team and solve obstacles on the go. Thus she noted that empowering African youths must be prioritised if the continent must move forward.

“When young men and women start (to thrive), they lift their families out of poverty. With the right push,  resources, (African) entrepreneurs will compete on the world stage. Young Africans, there is excellence you. The world awaits you.”

Catalysing Africa’s Development 
At the forum, Elumelu reiterated the urgency in creating jobs on the continent to catalyse Africa’s development.
He said: “Extremism is a product of poverty and joblessness. Poverty anywhere is a threat to everyone everywhere. If our leaders understand the reason and rationale for our youths to succeed, they will do everything they can to support them.”

Elumelu also reiterated the role of technology as a key enabler in accelerating development, citing TEFConnect, the digital networking platform for African entrepreneurs launched by the Tony Elumelu Foundation in 2018. With over 500,000 registered users, the hub provides a platform for entrepreneurs to network and forge business partnerships regardless of their location.

TEF originally set out to support 1,000 entrepreneurs every year for 10 years. But development partners across the world have seen the need to partner with the Foundation, leveraging on its structure and systems to empower more African entrepreneurs. Now, more than 3,000 entrepreneurs are being empowered every year.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for example, has scaled up their support from 40 to 750 and now 100,000 entrepreneurs. The Africa, Pacific and Caribbean, on the other hand have also promised to support 2,000 entrepreneurs. And the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) has committed to support 3,000.

“We said in 10 years we are targeting 10,000 entrepreneurs and in five years, we have already done more than 7,500. And that excludes the 2,000 and 3,000 mentioned today and the 100,000 UNDP partnership.”

Elumelu further believes entrepreneurship will create more jobs, which will then reduce violent extremism, a result of poverty and joblessness.

He also observed that complaining about problems cannot bring forth solutions or relief. “Let us not be a complaining generation,” he said.” There will always be difficulties. What makes the difference is resilience”.

Advice to Entrepreneurs 

Advising the cohort of entrepreneurs at the 2019 TEF Forum, Elumelu noted that while it is good to have early successes, eventual winners must be ready to overcome lots of temporary failure.

“As you commence your entrepreneurship journey, tell yourself that success comprises a lot of things, including short term failures,” he said.

Elumelu, who said he likes to read autobiographies to learn about people who had tried and failed, shared four success tips needed by entrepreneurs:  hard work, thinking long-term, resilience, and discipline.

He talked about the beginning of his career, when he rented his first apartment in Surulere and had no furniture in his living room, just a mattress lying on the bedroom floor. But today he is one of Africa’s richest men. “That can be your story,” he said.

During a question and answer session, Elumelu said experience is not everything. He noted that he “can never hire someone because of 10 years experience. If my boss wanted 10 years experience, I’ll never have become a branch manager at 26”.

Elumelu also reiterated why he started TEF, which is to lay down a legacy of helping to transform the African economy.

A French-speaking participant struggled to speak in English but eventually succumbed to his regular tongue to thank Elumelu for his kindness.

In the end, Elumelu concluded with succinct advise. He said: “My philosophy is you don’t know it all. Two heads are better than one.”