Olusegun Adeniyi pays tribute to Tony Elumelu, economist, banker, and founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation  

It is remarkable that the United Bank of Nigeria (UBA) Chairman, Mr. Tony Elumelu who clocks 60 today started his career “as a salesman, a copier salesman to be specific,” by his own admission. But there were never any doubts about his drive and tenacity for success, right from the moment he completed his mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) primary assignment at the Union Bank in 1985. And today, Elumelu can look back with satisfaction not only for what he has achieved but also for the lives he has impacted along the way.  

 A graduate of Economics from Bendel State University (now Ambrose Alli University) who also obtained a masters in the same discipline from the University of Lagos, it was no surprise that Elumelu chose banking as a career. From being an employee of the Allstates Trust Bank, he led a group of investors to take over a near-comatose Crystal Bank which he rechristened Standard Trust Bank (STB). How he turned the fortunes of that bank around is one of the remarkable stories of the reform of the banking sector in Nigeria at the end of the last century. But that was just the beginning. With less than a decade at its helm, STB became so profitable that in 2005 Elumelu would go on to lead one of the largest mergers in the Nigerian business landscape at the time with the acquisition of the UBA.  

As Group Managing Director of UBA, Elumelu had a vision not only to make the bank truly African beyond its name but also to take it into the global market. That goal eventually resulted in the establishment of subsidiaries of the bank in several countries within the continent as well as in Western countries like France, United States, United Kingdom, etc. He also took the bank to the Middle East with a branch in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Meanwhile, in between stints as GMD of the bank (a position from which he had to retire based on the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) guidelines at the time) and eventual return later as chairman, Elumelu devoted considerable time and energy to social entrepreneurship.  

In 2010, Elumelu founded Heirs Holdings, as a family-owned investment holding company. Same year, he also established the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TET), with a commitment to the promotion of entrepreneurship across the continent. It was intentional. Many scholars have argued that for Africa to develop, there must be a conscious re-orientation of priorities that would engender the promotion of rapid socio-economic development through entrepreneurship. Not only has Elumelu bought into that proposition, but he also believes that charity must begin at home.  

Having consistently harped on the need for job creation, poverty reduction and economic development in Nigeria, it was easy to repurpose TEF as the engine for actualising those dreams first on the national plane and on the continental front. The whole idea is built around the fact that we have a fertile environment for entrepreneurship across many countries in Africa with particular emphasis on Nigeria. “We need jobs to be created in Nigeria to take our young ones off the street, to reduce insecurity and promote national development and cohesion,” said Elumelu at the recent conclusion of the TEF entrepreneurship forum.  

The strategic imperative of TEF is anchored on the fact that the private sector, and most importantly entrepreneurs, remain the catalyst for the social and economic development of the continent. And time has proved Elumelu right on that. With an initial commitment of $100 million to empower 10,000 entrepreneurs across 54 African countries over a 10-year period, no fewer than 7,531 have already benefitted from the scheme with interesting stories to tell. The creation of young African entrepreneurs, Elumelu believes, will ginger hope, and help to drastically reduce the economic underpinnings of Africa’s current migration crisis.  

Sustainability of ideas is a problem on the continent, but Elumelu has remained steadfast with his vision. Statistical figures from the TEF reveal that on average, revenue generated by their entrepreneurs increased by 189% post-graduation while the number of additional jobs created by beneficiaries increased by 197%. Some 25 percent have acquired additional investors in their businesses since receiving seed capital from TEF. Eighty percent of the funded businesses since 2005 are still afloat. In terms of gender mainstreaming, the programme has empowered 7183 women and 85 percent of these businesses are also women-led. Meanwhile, 15 percent of these entrepreneurs also employ at least 10 staff, and in terms of revenue growth, 13 percent of them generate above $50,000 annually, after the programme.  

By most accounts, TEF is increasingly sharing its unique ability to identify and empower
young entrepreneurs across the continent by collaborating with development partners like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and other global institutions. In the process, Elumelu has also come up with the concept of ‘Africapitalism’, which positions the private sector, and most importantly entrepreneurs, as the catalyst for the social and economic change required to transform the continent.  

From oil and gas sector to the hospitality industry, Elumelu (through his Heirs Holdings) maintains a portfolio of investments across several industries. He also sits on many public and social sector boards, including the World Economic Forum Community of Chairmen and the Global Leadership Council of UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited. In recognition of his work at TEF, Elumelu was in 2020 named in the Time100 Most Influential People in the World and recognised with Belgium’s oldest and highest royal order. In 2022, TIME again recognised Elumelu with its inaugural TIME100 Impact list, honouring him alongside six global leaders who continue to impact generations.  

Modern economies are driven by innovation which derives from forward-thinking individuals, so we need more entrepreneurs like Elumelu to create new sources of wealth, especially in our country. As he therefore joins the Sexagenarian Club today, I wish him happy 60th birthday, long life, and good health.  

Adeniyi is chairman, THISDAY Editorial board.  

Related Articles