Chairman, Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), Mr. Tony Elumelu, obviously typifies a guiding light for millions of African youths, who are seeking hope in the world’s poorest continent. For the purpose of making an enduring impact, he established a $100 million endowment fund in 2010 to empower at least 1,000 annually across 54 countries in Africa. As Africa’s leading investor, Elumelu equally chairs the Boards of Heirs Holdings Plc, Transcorp Plc and United Bank for Africa Plc, among others. Burdened with the task of supporting more young entrepreneurs on the continent, he was on a mission to the United States penultimate week, engaging policy makers and senior government functionaries and canvassing the need for the world’s most powerful country to invest in young Africans rather than doling out aids to African governments. In this interview with the Director, African Programme, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mvemba Dizolele, Elumelu explained his mission to the US and justified the campaign for the world to invest in young Africans as a cost-effective strategy to curb extremism, poverty and unemployment in the 21st century. Gboyega Akinsanmi brings details from Elumelu’s conversation at the CSIS.
What brought them to Washington?
For the first time after COVID-19, I am in the US to interface with our business associates and see how the United Bank for Africa, the only African bank that operates in the US, is doing. I am also here to see how we can engage in conversation with the US Government, the administration of President Joe Biden, development partners and donor agencies here. This is consistent with my mission to help expand what we are doing with the TEF in Africa, which focuses on empowering young African men and women.
Today, the TEF has empowered over 16,000 young entrepreneurs, giving them non-refundable grants of $5,000 each to help them grow their own businesses; become entrepreneurs; address poverty and help propel the world to be a safer place and indeed a more peaceful world. We strongly believe poverty and economic hardship anywhere is a threat to all of us everywhere. I am here to tell the current administration that there are more ways of looking for peace in the 21st century across the globe. The TEF offers a new way.
How has the experience of engaging youths been as an entrepreneur?
We started the foundation in 2010. My aim was to help democratise luck; create economic opportunities and give young Africans access to create prosperity. I have seen across the continent that we have energetic young ones, brilliant people who are audacious and who are willing to succeed. But they lack the economic support to get there. So, in 2010, my family founded the TEF and endowed it with $100 million. The purpose is to help identify and support 10,000 young Africans within the period of 10 years and with the hope that collectively, all of us will work together, prosper together and create opportunities for everyone.
Since we started this journey, my experience is that indeed the future of Africa belongs to these young ones. They have what it takes to succeed. If we all prioritise them, we will go far together as a continent. I have seen in some jurisdictions that our young ones lack the necessary government support. When I say government support, it is not necessarily financial support, but also the enabling environment that will make them succeed. I have equally seen that the world is beginning to listen and understand that there are better ways of engagement in the 21st century, better ways of helping to prioritise the young people and better ways of helping to create humanitarian impact.
So, we have seen agencies and development organisations in the past that would not support the young entrepreneurs the way they are supporting them now. Today, the TEF is in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and European Union (EU). This is one of the reasons I am here to tell the US that ‘where are you? Stand to be counted. The world is moving.’ In 2021, the EU supported the young Africans through the TEF with $25 million. However, it specified that it should go to female applicants only. Where is America in all of these? First, my experience is that young Africans can indeed make a difference and contribute to the development of their continent. Second, there are stumbling blocks affecting young Africans from achieving success. Obviously, they need the governments to help remove those challenges on their way. Third, we have seen that some global development institutions are now beginning to prioritise and embrace this initiative as the sustainable path to economic development and progress that is sustainable. Lastly, we have seen that the US and its agencies can do more in Africa when it comes to prioritising entrepreneurship and when it comes to supporting entrepreneurs,
How do you select these youths? How do you understand across cultures, regions and gender of course?
I see myself as an African born in Nigeria. As a people, I believe, we should be thinking of collective prosperity. Also, we should remember that poverty anywhere on the continent is a threat to all of us. We have seen how extremism is running across boundaries and countries. So, to me, we cannot isolate prosperity or confine it to one area. It should be across the continent. I thought I should give to others across Africa to experience the luck I experienced while growing up. This is why we put together the TEF to support young entrepreneurs.
In selecting these young Africans, we advertise. We also create awareness. We equally encourage these young Africans to apply. It is sector-agnostic, open to men and women across 54 countries in Africa. When they have applied, we work with consulting firms. We work with Accenture. We work with Deloitte. They help go through the screening process and then report to the Board of the TEF. We set the criteria. As I said, it is sector-agnostic. Based on our criteria, the firms look for ideas that are scalable, ideas that can be implemented, ideas that can help create jobs in Africa and ideas that can succeed because we want to see success. Once they identify all of these, they make decisions based on the criteria. Again, this is one of the reasons I am in the US. When we started, about 25,000 Africans applied. We selected 1,000 from the applicants. Success rate was high. In 2021, we received almost 400,000 applications across all African countries. We, as a foundation, have a commitment to support 1,000 yearly. I told my team that about 400,000 applied for our programme and we could only take 1,000. With this difference, I told them, we are not giving hope. But we are discouraging people. Hence, I reached out through the TEF to other like-minded institutions that we had a situation here. In the 21st century, we believe, we need private sector involvement. We need entrepreneurship. Our young ones are interested. But we do not have the resources to meet their demands. So, what do we do? We reached out to like-minded institutions. For instance, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) supported 1,000. As I said, the EU committed $25 million to support about 3,000 of them. Also, the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) supported about 1,000. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) came in with a major positive development. With this initiative, they said, we can also avert a crisis by investing in the people more than helping to manage the effects of the crisis. Then, the UNDP came big time and supported thousands. At the end of my visit to the US, I hope, policy makers, administration executive officials and those who run development agencies should begin to think of how they too can play a role in supporting young African entrepreneurs. The TEF is a medium. We train over 1,000 entrepreneurs every year because we have a digital platform we use to train as many as possible. We have what we call TF Connect, a digital platform that helps to bring the entrepreneur together. These are what we are doing. We can select as many as 100,000 if we have resources and give them $5,000 each. But the training we do is on our own. This is our experience. This is how we go about selecting people. And that is my expected outcome from this trip.
You talked about the enabling environment. You talked about lack. Lack comes with a lot of hard work for most of us. So, in Africa, the enabling environment is very tough due to lack of infrastructure. Kids may not have access to schooling. Even when they have access to schooling, it may not be the best education. Kids may not have access to reading. In Africa, also, governments are not committed to you. In Nigeria, we have seen not-too-young-to-run. We have seen youths mobilising across the continent. You have mentioned other partners that you have. But home is home everywhere the world over. How do you engage with all of these issues?
I am the chief proponent of philosophy we call Africapitalism because we realise the private sector has key roles to play in developing Africa. But we equally need governments to play some roles. Collectively, private and public sectors can work in sync for the common goods of our people. We know we need to engage governments for them to realise what young men and women expect of them. We are doing that. At some point, the TEF partnered with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and African Governance Initiative to help support governments in building capacities for prioritising private sector development in their countries. In countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and a few others, we work together. We are supporting the government in Nigeria to build capacities for private sector development. Personally, what we do at the TEF to provide resources to young Africans is more importantly advocacy. That is the reason I am here. That is the reason I am having this conversation. We need to move the narrative. We need to push and let governments in Africa know. I will tell you one story. In 2019, I was invited to give a talk in a country to a platform of tax practitioners and tax policy advisers. I tweeted on my Twitter Handle to young entrepreneurs and asked them: “I am going to deliver this lecture in this particular country. What do you want me to tell the forum? What do you want to be engaging in? What do you want me to talk about?” They all came together with different issues they are facing. Some say it is difficult doing business. Others say it is multiple taxation. Many identify acute infrastructure deficit and a lot more. I collated all of them and their contributions formed the basis of my presentation. I told the gathering what our young entrepreneurs are saying. To my amazement, whether by coincidence, a law was enacted in this particular country shortly after my presentation to address taxation issues that our young entrepreneurs complained about. For the first time, there was a direct response, positive one indeed. It got me thinking: is it that governments do not know what should be done? Is it that they do not feel the pulse of the people? Whatever it is, I have come to see that advocacy is important. In direct response to the question you asked, I engage the government in my country, Nigeria. I engage the governments across Africa. I go to African countries and I present the beneficiaries of the TEF Awards to their presidents. I tell their presidents that we have done our part as a foundation by giving the beneficiaries non-refundable $5,000 each. I tell them that we have done our part by appointing mentors to help them. Also, we train them for 12 weeks because we realise it is not about capital. Capital must also meet with the minds that are prepared and trained so that they will know how to engage the capital. More importantly, however, they also need enabling environments because the businesses of most entrepreneurs in Africa do not succeed, not because they are not good, but because the operating environments are stifling and difficult. So, these are things we do and will continue to do. To me, we want to engage more people across the world to help our leaders move along the right path. It is not even about infrastructure alone. Policy inconsistency is a huge challenge. The failure of our government to put the right policy in place and provide security, among others, constitutes huge challenges that undermine entrepreneurship, most importantly, investments in Africa. If we do not fix all these things, we will not go far. So, to us, they are very important for Africa to record sustainable development
Here, we work on the space of civic and political engagement. But civic and political engagement cannot really happen when people are hungry or pupils are not in schools. From what you said so far, I suspect, public-private partnership is key to your engagement. How is that working in other sectors that are adjacent to your activities across the continent?
As I said earlier, I am a philanthropist. But I am an investor. We invest in different sectors. In the financial sector, I am the Chairman, United Bank for Africa Plc. The bank today operates in 20 African countries. It is the only African bank that operates in the US as a deposit-taking bank. We are in New York. We operate in London as a full-fledged bank. In Paris, we have a representative office. We just recently received a licence to operate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). So, we know what is good for business. We know what the private sector should do. We also know what governments must do. Collectively, we can create prosperity. Also, I am the Chairman of Transnational Corporation of Nigeria (Transcorp). It is the biggest power-generating company in Nigeria. It sells power to the Republic of Benin as we speak. It has hotels in the country. We have significant investment in the wider energy sector, where we produce oil, more importantly, gas to generate power. We want to make sure we have control of gas because in Africa. As you know, access to electricity is poor on the continent. It is deficient. We need a lot more in this area. Wearing this cap, I know what is good for business. I know businesses, to a large extent, need a strong enabling environment, which governments should ordinarily provide. For that partnership between public and private sectors to hold, each part must go to the table with the full realisation and understanding of what is required of it. The private sector should help the government to create jobs; generate revenues; develop efficient value chains and devise so many things. But the public sector must create the right enabling environment. Such an environment entails security, policy consistency and education, among others. These are things that are critical. Private sector is ready to help improve access to electricity. But what about those laws? Stifling laws? I think the future of Africa is an efficient public sector and a robust private sector, working together and we will make a difference. What we do at the TEF is because we do not see a lot of people succeed in business. We need to see a lot of people succeed in business in Africa. Collectively, it is in our self-interest to make sure that there is prosperity.
What do you expect from American policy makers in their engagement with Africa on some issues you just laid out? Is there an issue with natives? Is America not getting it? How are they not getting it? How do we build that bridge?
This was the question former US President Barack Obama asked in July 2013 when he first visited Africa as the president. He had a short interaction with 12 of us in Tanzania. He unfolded Power Africa Initiative and Trade and Investments. He said he came to Africa to preach trade and investment. At that meeting, I said, Mr. President, what we need in Africa that will make your gospel of trade and investment work is a vibrant private sector supported by an enabling public environment. It would be nice if you could use your good office to convene a meeting of African presidents and leading private sector actors. Let us be in the same room to have conversation and dialogue on what we should do to make trade and investment work. We do not have vibrant intra-African trade. Intra-African trade is less than 12 per cent. There is a reason for low intra-African trade. Investment in Africa is poor in spite of huge returns on investments. I invest in many countries inside and outside Africa. There is nowhere else I get the kind of returns as what I get in Africa. The return is very high. But people do not know. What people know is the bad thing about Africa. So, how do we unlock that? How do we make capital come to Africa? Those were the conversations we had with President Obama. He listened to us then. He also promised to set up meetings with African presidents. I think he set up two or three of such meetings before he left office in 2017. We had conversations. So, what do I want from the policy makers and government leaders here? I like us to continue to engage African presidents. Let them understand what is good. Let the American President continue to share experiences on how things work with African leaders. At times, people perish due to ignorance. Also, from formulating policies to granting authorisation, let policy makers and lawmakers be mindful of the fact that there is a continent of Africa that will not need the kind of assistance that the world gave to Africa before. We need people to invest in young Africans. The last mile, the young Africans must feel it, not just to pay consultants full spending and a fraction of that on those who need it. But they need to identify how. That is where institutions like the TEF readily come in. We have been tested with a lot of things. We have made a difference with our own resources and resources with which we are entrusted to manage. For me, what is important is to prioritise young Africans. In Africa, unemployment is a major issue for us. Today, the people feel the impact of unemployment in Africa outside the continent. We have extremism all over being exported. We have people trying to cross the Mediterranean. They do not care if they die in the process because they want to go to other parts of the world where they think life is better. So, how about helping them? The world must realise it is economically cheaper to make our younger ones find their countries better through this kind of entrepreneurship support, giving them hope through apprenticeship and different initiatives. The key is not just investment. But we need to invest more in people. I am encouraging our governments in Africa to use our scarce resources on things that are important and help the young ones to succeed.
From where you stand as an investor, as a philanthropist and as a person who cares about the continent and its future, where is the gap between the perception we have about Africa and the reality? If you hold the magic wand, what will you want others to know or what will you do?
As I told you before, the glasses are full. As an investor, I invest in other parts of the world. There is nowhere else that I get the kind of returns on investment as what I get in Africa. But the characterisation and narrative are totally different. What you hear about Africa is poverty. Of course, there is poverty. But that is not the only thing about Africa. Also, there is the scourge of war, disease, unemployment and so on. When COVID-19 started, some said people would die on the streets of Africa. Did people die on the streets of Africa in spite of the pandemic? Did we really feel it that much on the continent? So, there is a whole lot. There is a wide gap between reality and perception on the continent. Also, people sit here and other parts of the world think we have approved $5 billion for Africa by way of foreign aid. Does it help in a manner that is sustainable? No, it does not help. That is what we preach that we should give from the point of view of helping to eradicate dependency syndrome. We should give with the heart to make people perpetually self-reliant and independent. We should help people stand on their own; look after themselves; their families and restore their dignity. There is a whole lot of paradigm that we need to shift. That is why I like what you are doing here by talking about the gap between the perception and reality in Africa. Obviously, th perception and reality are totally different. Africa is full of resources. All we need to do is to see how we can harness those resources for positive use for the majority of our people and not just for the few. That is why I keep saying that the future of Africa lies in the hands of our young ones. If we economically empower our young ones or if we train and expose them, then they will help those aspirations of our continents. Also, they will help develop those resources we have everywhere – arable land, vibrant youth population and a lot more. But the world does not see that. What they see is negative outcomes. We need to begin to change this perception. And the journey to change it starts from identifying these young ones, what they need, what are their aspirations and how we can support them. We need to totally change the way we give to Africa. Truly, development agencies and partners have tried. My position is that they have channelled aids through the wrong way. We need to channel aids in a manner that gets to the right person and creates the desired impact. We need to change the way we measure what we give to the world not by the size of what we give, but by the impact it creates. That is what creates the kind of progress, prosperity and peace that we all want in the world.