Africa and Tony Elumelu’s Concept of Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy and Development


By Jerome-Mario Utomi

When Tony Elumelu, founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), was speaking on the topic Philanthropy and Development; Where are Africa’s Billionaires? at one of the high level seminars at the African Development Bank (AfDB) 2013 annual general meeting held at Marrakech, Morocco, he advised African billionaires to invest in developing Africa through what he tagged Africapitalism.

He said this was the solution to Africa’s development need which should augment external aid, rather than allowing the continent to solely depend on foreign aids for its development needs. His submission generated some form of intra and cross arguments among stakeholders, business analyst and policymakers.

To some, it elicited this jigsaw: if it has been said that government has no business in business, what business does the private sector have in helping government to do its business of providing quality governance vis-à-vis infrastructure and employment to the populace.

To others, it was viewed as a dangerous fiction aimed at hand twisting the high and mighty. For the rest, Tony’s call was but a mere act of playing to the gallery.

However, instead of considering or aligning with these torrents of slanted reactions, the Onitcha-Uku, Aniocha North Local Government Area, Delta state born Tony Elumelu, contrary to expectations, did something theatrical that transformed his declaration in Morocco to action.

In 2015, his foundation established an Entrepreneurship Programme for Africans, an initiative that engineers wealth creation and consolidates economic self-reliance among beneficiaries while lifting African youths; the poor and the deprived out of poverty.

In 2021 alone, the programme, going by reports, admitted approximately 5,000 beneficiaries from across 54 countries of Africa and each got a $5000 seed capital. This is in addition to rigorous business incubation, management and growth training.

This is not the only way Tony Elumelu has turned Africa as a continent to a political geography where our youth can no longer be caught unprepared when it comes to meeting the challenges of their time.

This claim becomes evident when one remembers that organizations such as; United Bank for Africa (UBA), Heirs Holdings amongst other groups where Tony holds vested interest, equally spread their wings across Africa creating tens of thousands of direct employment.

In fact, the global community, especially development organizations/agencies, thinks that the concept of philanthropy has evolved over and what Tony is doing is the best way to solve the youth unemployment problem in Africa. This partly explains the support/endorsement his foundation is receiving from these agencies.

Understandably also, aside from the truth by the global community that the war against unemployment and underdevelopment in Africa must start from within, two particular realities, in my view, stand Tony out as well as work in his favour.

First is his belief that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through the tireless effort and the persistence work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation’. The second is that as a creative leader, he enjoys intrinsic motivation that comes with personal growth, helping other people develops, taking on social causes and making a difference in the world.

With the above highlighted, the question now is: why is this piece fixated with Tony Elumelu’s private efforts at this critical time when Africa is going through the pangs of insecurity? To what extent is the insight provided by Elumelu’s model described above adequate for the socioeconomic rejuvenation of Africa?

This piece will consider these questions by examining some developmental-focused attributes that Tony and his foundation presently signpost and highlights which must not be allowed to go with the political winds. They need to be identified, critically studied in detail and useful lessons drawn by other African billionaires, captains of industries, and public office holders among others.

Most fundamental of all is Tony’s new awareness that Africa needs to do away with short-term thinking. That we should be investing over-time horizons measured in decades, rather than fiscal quarters. We must stop the practice of extracting wealth without reinvesting for growth. We should be strategically building domestic industries and manufacturing to support our national economies, and growing intra-African trade.

Without doubt, he (Elumelu) may not be wrong looking at the current happenings within the continent. It is true that the continent has overtly shown remarkable improvement in culture and civilization.

However, in my view, for the fact that after almost 60 years of independence, African countries continually look up to countries such as China for aid, covertly tells a story of a continent lacking in capacity for taking responsibility for its actions and initiatives for values.

Making it a crisis is the awareness that despite being the second most-populated continent in the world (1.2 billion people), Africa represents only 1.4% of the world manufacturing value added in the first quarter of 2020. This is in addition to the fact that Africa as a continent, only South Africa qualified as a member of BRICS, an acronym coined for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

From the above challenge, flows another reason why Tony Elumelu’s present efforts deserve our praise and commendation.

He has proved beyond reasonable doubt that he is a man that understands Corporate Social Responsibility as a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model and functions as built-in self-regulating mechanism whereby a business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the spirit, ethical standards, and international norms-and manifested by the act of giving back to the society through adherence to the societal norms and support to the spirit of sustainable development and mutual benefit to the organization and her operational environment.

Very instructive also is his relentless effort to find a solution to youth unemployment and developing a climate of sustainable future and innovation in Africa.

Talking about youth unemployment in Nigeria, a report recently put it this way: “We are in dire straits because unemployment has diverse implications. Security wise, large unemployed youth population is a threat to the security of the few that are employed. Any transformation agenda that does not have job creation at the centre of its programme will take us nowhere.

“Youths challenge as we know cuts across, regions, religion, and tribe, and has led to the proliferation of ethnic militia/youth restiveness across Africa.”

Finally, while Elumelu teaches all with his own brand of philanthropy/charity that we are successful for others as the era where winner takes all no longer exists, this piece must as a final note underline that until other rich and well foresighted Africans like Tony start thinking ‘win-win’ for all Africans as well as  recognize that charity entails selfless service where one renders assistance and walks away without waiting for any returns, Africa will continue to be viewed by civilized nations as a dark continent.

By Jerome-Mario Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He could be reached via [email protected]/08032725374.

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