Elumelu: I Was Not a Billionaire’s Son, I Created Wealth Out of Entrepreneurship

Tony Elumelu, founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF). Chairman of UBA, Africa’s Global Bank, and Chairman of Heirs Holdings.

Tony Elumelu, founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF). Chairman of UBA, Africa’s Global Bank, and Chairman of Heirs Holdings.

The Founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) and Chairman of United Bank for Africa Plc, Mr. Tony Elumelu during a discussion at The United States Institute of Peace and The Heritage Foundation in the United States of America recently, spoke about his humble beginnings. He also stressed that extreme poverty and hopelessness are threat to peace and stability in Africa. Dike Onwuamaeze who monitored the event brings the excerpts of the questions and answers session with Elumelu:

Why is the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) focusing so much young entrepreneurs? 

Africa is a continent of entrepreneurs and I encourage it. My own story validates that. Today’s Tony Elumelu started from nowhere. And I just will imagine if 100,000 or a million across Africa will have this kind of opportunity in 10 years’ time it will be a different continent. That is why the TEF is key. Today, I am lucky to be the chairman of the UBA Group that operates in 20 African countries, in Paris, London and is the only African bank in United States of America and all over America that has a deposit taking license. I did not start like that. I was not a billionaire’s son. We created this out of sheer entrepreneurism. Today we have a part of our group that is into power generation because access to electricity is important. When President Barrack Obama launched the Power Africa Initiative, I committed $2 billion to improve access to electricity in the continent. 

Today we have a generating capacity of 2,000 megawatts of electricity in addition to supplying Republic of Benin power. I did not start like that, but it was just sheer entrepreneurism and determination to succeed. I see in Africa today more people more determined than I was in their age. The difference between those guys and Tony Elumelu of today is access to opportunities. And that is what I want to create. That is what I am mobilising others in the private sector in particular to do. Let’s team up and do something that will be impactful. Let’s think legacy and less about what we will have in our bank accounts. But as we do, so we need our government to also prioritise the kind of policy that will make this to succeed. And also the friends of Africa like the United States of America, all of us will poll resources to see how we can create more Tony Elumelus across the continent.

They are ready and the reason they go into extremism today is because they do not see hope. So, we need to show examples so that they will also get encouraged to know that there could be a better future for them. Yes, I believe strongly that entrepreneurship is one of the ways we can develop Africa in a manner that will be really sustainable. Talking about aid, we get a lot of support into Africa, and that is the truth. But my own take is that we should re-imagine how we give that support because we need to give from the point of view of creating self-reliance, self-independence and making people less dependent on donor aid.

If we give and forever people cannot implement their budgets without aid and people cannot do things without aid then we should question that mechanism, that approach because it seems that something is not working because it should be a brief intervention for a period. But in a situation where it becomes perpetual it calls for a rethink. And I believe that entrepreneurship does not lead to that. Entrepreneurship and laziness do not go together. Entrepreneurship and that level of dependence do not go together. You can’t keep giving support to someone all the time. You provide assistance and he starts running. And then, you should also be able to also expand and replicate that so that collectively we will all work in a manner to improve the society.

How will the private sector engage the governments on issue of good governance that is important in creating enabling environment that brings in Foreign Direct Investment to build the social wealth you have talked about? 

We need to understand, and more so our government needs to understand, the role of the private sector in economic development. Often times I see disconnect. At times, and I speak not just about one country but about most of the governments across Africa, you see the government erroneously viewing the private sector as competitor. No! We should see the private sector and public sector as development partners with all hands working together to advance humanity, all hands working together to advance economic prosperity, economic growth, social wealth and social justice in the system. For the private sector to do this the enabling environment must be first of all be established and once it is established the private sector should take advantage of the opportunity that has been created and play its own role. I see the private sector helping to catalyse economic growth like creating jobs. Governments do not have the capacity to create the jobs that we need as a continent.

The rate at which we are growing and the demography of Africa and the rate people are entering the job markets in Africa is far, far, more than we can even imagine. So, we need a collaborative approach in making this happen. I want to see a private sector that is strong on the continent because their being strong and succeeding will help to drive economic growth. I will want us prioritise the big and small enterprises in the continent so that when we talk about the private sector it is not just about the big corporations. We need to cut across all layers and make sure that every segment is included. I believe in inclusivity in government. We need to make sure that we carry everyone along. There should be gender or youth inclusivity and of all facets of the society. The lack of this is part the reasons we are having problems.

Peace in the world, and Africa in particular, cannot be addressed if we do not address youth engagement. Private sector does have a role to play and so does our governments in creating the enabling environment. And more so the private sector must engage with the governments to let them know the truth about what I felt was happening. This is not a criticism per say. It is actually what I have seen and believed that we need to address it so that we can attract more investments into the continent. Because need massive investments to help create jobs. And when we do not have some of these investments coming in because of these issues it further takes us back away from achieving our objectives of creating development, prosperity, and youth engagement in the continent. So, yes, we need a more active private sector.

What are the things will the United States of America and other development partners be doing to help African people and government improve their governance to see higher returns?

 I think for the USA government; they need to see how the USA is perceived across the continent. The USA is respected, it is admired and it is loved across the continent. If anything people are beginning to wonder if the USA is still, there for Africa because of the fray into Africa by other world powers. We will like to see USA government engagement first reimagine to what the 21st century Africa needs. Aid is good, but we need to measure it to the last mile. We need to make sure that we prioritise those who should get it. A situation where you have billions of dollars coming into Africa and yet we still have the level of youth’s unemployment should tell us that something is not right. The healthcare system is fragile. I will like to see, one, a change in policy that help to prioritise the ultimate recipients of whatever come into the continent.

Two, I will like to help to develop infrastructures that help to drive sustainability.  In summary, I will like to see the United States’ government helping us to engage in a manner that will enable policy makers to see the linkage between the private sector and the public sector’s goal for the people. I believe some of the approaches will help to get there. But in summary, I will like to see a rethink of how to engage with Africa, especially when it comes to aid. I like to see how it gets to people who really need it. We need to strengthen our infrastructures and institutions because there are a number of institutions that are weak to enable them to engender good governance.

After training 16,000 young entrepreneurs, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future for African youths? 

I am extremely optimistic about the future. When I travel through Africa I see a lot of excitement and I also see first-hand the people that we have supported that are succeeding. The difference is tangible in terms of the changes they are bringing to their businesses and communities. I know for a fact that if we can prioritise them further and give them the support they need to do more. We have over 600 million people in the continent that are under the age of 30 and we are talking of 16,000 beneficiaries of the foundation. It is like less than a drop of water in the ocean. For us to make the kind of impact that will increase our optimism and about the future of the continent we need to massively scale up things.

And again that is the message I bring to the table: Let us pool resources together to deal with it realising that if there is poverty in Nigeria and Africa it will affect everyone everywhere. There are young Africans who want to get to Europe, even by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a very, very hard condition. And they do not care. In fact they will tell you we will rather die trying to get there than stay here. So, we need to work together to see how to make this change occur. Yes, I am optimistic. The people we have supported are making progress but we need a Marshal Plan. We need something much bigger than this 16,000 story to make a different. We should be talking of millions on yearly basis across the continent.

Who are those to make this happen? The African private sectors that are succeeding, the global development institutions and the friends of Africa across the world and those who realise and see the linkage that what happens in any part of the world affects people everywhere. So, I see a future but that future should be driven by fundamentals and for me the key fundamental there is prioritising the younger people and entrepreneurship. Though entrepreneurship is not the only way, but it is still the core for us because we have tested it and have seen in our own life stories where we were before and where we are today, it is all because of entrepreneurship and success we achieved.

This is why we created the Tony Elumelu Foundation to help democraticise luck and create access to economic opportunities for others because that is the difference why I am not on the street today. We want to make sure that we take more people out of the streets through this kind of initiative. And the good thing is that they are intelligent. Seeing some of the young companies coming out of Africa being valued publicly and people investing in them tell what the future can be if we give more support to this people. And there are millions of them in the continent of Africa.

There have been six coup d’état in Africa since 2021, so how do you see this from a business perspective?

What Africa needs is prosperity. That will bring peace and reduce conflicts. Lack of economic opportunities, hope, poverty, joblessness, and gender inequality are issues that create political instability. We cannot have political stability if we do not address these fundamentals. So, it is a problem and we hope and pray that it stops there with the countries that have experienced it. And I hope that it becomes a wakeup call to others to sit up and prioritise these young ones and address these social issues and the economic problems so that prosperity, at least a drastic reduction of poverty, will help to reduce instability. I preach always that poverty anywhere is a threat to all of everywhere. We can’t have stability if people are hungry.  We cannot have stability if people are starving. We cannot have stability if there is no economic hope. People can endure and say okay the way things are going in three or five-year time things will be okay. But where there is hopelessness, anarchy reigns. That is what we are seeing. So the solutions are good governance, prioritisation of our young people in particular and engaging with the private sector to increase their ability to create jobs on the continent so that we can engage these people. We will also make sure that we run an inclusive society that brings everyone to the table. That is the solution.

How do you perceive the private sector’s role in conflict resolution and peace negotiation?

The private sector is not trained to be involved in conflict negotiation. However, we can play a role to prevent it. For me, rather than dealing with consequences, how about making sure that it does not happen in the first instance? And the private sector can play a role there. Again, we have issues on the African continent. Imagines what will happen in 10 years’ time giving the rate of our population and its demography. It is going to be worse. So we need to do something urgently. We cannot be creating a future of unequal opportunity and thinking of stability. No! It cannot happen. So, for me the private sector has a role to play. And that is at the Centre of Africapitalism, which emphasises the leadership role of private sector in the 21st century Africa in catalysing economic growth, opportunities and development. But for that to happen, we need our government to create the enabling environment. I look forward to the oncoming dialogue with African leaders.

I pray and hope that it is a true dialogue that brings the private sector and African leaders together and one that people should not come and make written speeches. Let us have conversations like this so that we can engage and dialogue and let leaders know what the private sector needs to do well and let them understand that the success of the private sector helps them to fulfill their manifestos so that they will work in harmony within what is generally acceptable so that we can operate an inclusive government. Private sector will play a role in helping to avert conflicts rather than being involved in its resolution. But if come to the point where there is conflict, the private sector may be involved in discussing the terms of resolutions on the table. And I am sure that what the private sector will be saying is let us be creating jobs, improve access to electricity. Let us deal with internet connectivity and bandwidth issue. Let make sure that we run an inclusive government. Let make sure that the society is inclusive and the women have a place at the table, young ones have a seat at the table and that everyone is involved irrespective of religion.

Do you consider dearth of infrastructure a hindrance to flow of investment into Africa from America?

In my remarks earlier, I said that it is time we reimagine the relationship between the USA and the 21 century Africa, which should not be Africa of dependency but Africa of dignity and self-reliance. And for me the way to get there is entrepreneurship. Let’s prioritise the young ones and support them. Because so much billions of dollars have come into Africa in the form aid yet the continent still remains perpetually dependent. If you do something over a period of time and it is not giving the desired impact and result you have to reassess it. So it is time to reimagine how that engagement could have been.  We have been doing things for so long maybe it is time to have a new deal. We need to fix infrastructure that is such a problem in the continent as I have talked about access to electricity and internet connectivity so that entrepreneurship and even the private sector can do some things. There are so much that can happen in the continent. However, we cannot give up.

If we weight for 100 per cent access to electricity before we begin the journey it will be too late. So let us begin to do something because the entrepreneurs you support today can go into solar project. Let’s continue with the little, little, things while we wait for the big thing to happen. I said a few minutes ago that we need a Marshal Plan for Africa to lift Africa sustainably out of poverty. Yes a lot will be done in the area of infrastructure to enable entrepreneurs to do well. That is why I say to my private sector friends that we can say all these things but on our own let’s try to make a difference. So, let us not give up. I am optimistic. In my own time if I had been hindered or defined or characterised by my background, maybe I won’t be where I am today. So, let us keep encouraging people while playing our own role in making sure that all is not word of mouth but by doing something that can bring about the change that we needed.

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