How to Spread It: Tony Elumelu

2013-05-19 06:00

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Chairman of Heirs Holdings, Nigeria’s Tony Elumelu (50), describes himself as a “21st-century philanthropist”.

An avowed Africapitalist who sealed his reputation by introducing banking facilities to so-called unbankable communities, he founded The Tony Elumelu Foundation in 2010. Elumelu promotes impact investing, a model of philanthropy he has pioneered in the continent and which ranges from helping potato farmers in Tanzania to grow more profitable crops to the creation of a commodities exchange in Rwanda. He lives in Lagos.

Q: What kind of philanthropist would you describe yourself as?

A: I am a 21st-century philanthropist who believes that no one can develop Africa except us.

I believe Africans who are endowed with business savvy and material wealth should be actively involved in setting Africa’s development agenda from within.

Aid has been helpful on the continent, but building the capacity of the African private sector, as well as creating the enabling business environment, will be the drivers of true sustainable development in Africa.

This is why I preach Africapitalism, an economic philosophy that embodies the African private sector’s commitment to the economic transformation of Africa through long-term investments that create both economic prosperity and social wealth.

The foundation operates through a series of programmes and initiatives that foster competition in the African private sector. We have leadership-development initiatives like our African markets internship programme (AMIP) to transform management education in Africa.

We are also involved in policy work with African governments, including Nigeria’s, to help create the enabling environment for the private sector to flourish.

The foundation also invests in innovative African businesses and provides entrepreneurs with access to finance.

Q: What is your net worth and how much do you give to your philanthropic activities?

A: As a policy, I do not talk about my net worth or the volume of my giving. In addition, I see my philanthropic contribution as being more than just funding. I also give of my time, my experience, and my influence to drive impact.

Q: You make a distinction between “giving” and “investing”. Could you give us an example of how this works?

A: The Tony Elumelu Foundation is bridging philanthropy (“giving”) and investment (“investing”) to produce a new development model called impact investing. Impact investing is the use of for-profit investment to address social and environmental challenges.

Our inaugural impact investment was made with Mtanga Farms of Tanzania. In May this year, Mtanga Farms, in partnership with the Tanzanian government, announced the registration of four new potato varieties – the first varieties to be released in Tanzania in 30 years.

With access to clean seed material, Tanzanian farmers, for whom potatoes are a major cash and nutrient source, will be able to increase yields by up to three times, thereby creating a pathway out of poverty for a large number of farmers. This was enabled by our investment in a more powerful way than if the funds had just been given away.

More recently, The Tony Elumelu Foundation invested in creating the Rwanda Commodities Exchange to help African farmers get better prices for their produce. Again, this private sector-driven approach will have more impact on the incomes and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the East African region than a grant related to improving value chains.

While Africans have benefited from aid, we do not believe that aid and traditional grant giving is the answer to the continent’s issues. This is why I preach Africapitalism – a private sector commitment to long-term investments that creates economic prosperity and social wealth.

I also use the phrase, “do well, do good”. In other words, I am saying it’s fine to want to make money, but we should look for our investments to also have positive social impact.

Q: The Tony Elumelu Foundation is “dedicated to the promotion and celebration of excellence in business leadership and entrepreneurship” across Africa. Can you give us an example of how?

A: We want to help to identify, groom and encourage young African entrepreneurs to realise their full potential.

I was privileged to have mentors when I started out early in my career, like my boss at the time chief Ebitimi Banigo, and I would like to do the same for, hopefully, thousands of young Africans. Many young Africans today are in dire need of role models, and I would like them to realise that you don’t have to have been born with a silver spoon or go to a foreign school in order to achieve your goals.

Africa is also brimming with tremendous amounts of natural resources, and we need good managers who can harness these resources.

One of our leadership development initiatives at the foundation is our internship programme. It is designed to give Master of Business Administration and Master of Public Administration students and graduates with a passion for African economic development the opportunity to obtain first-hand experience with high-growth businesses in emerging markets, develop essential skills, and build a network in the fields of professional entrepreneurship and business management throughout Africa.

AMIP associates are placed in fast-growing African-owned enterprises with strong management teams. This year, we placed associates in Abuja and Lagos in Nigeria; Accra in Ghana; Douala in Cameroon; Kigali in Rwanda; Lusaka in Zambia; and Nairobi in Kenya. In 2013, we plan to increase that number of cities to 10 across sub-Saharan Africa.

The programme is a win-win opportunity for both associates and firms. It builds the institutional capacity of African-owned and operated companies and leverages global talent to increase the firms’ competitiveness.

Another example is the partnership between The Tony Elumelu Foundation and the Co-Creation Hub (CcHub), Nigeria’s first open living lab and pre-incubation space dedicated to catalysing creative social technology ventures, in an effort to encourage innovative ideas that could help transform the social technology space in Nigeria.

Through the partnership, the foundation will contribute to the growth and development of Nigeria’s emerging tech industry from the “silicon lagoon” by providing managed seed funding to 20 technological ideas/ventures targeted at typical social challenges faced by the average Nigerian.

The fund will support the novel use of technology in several key areas of the economy including healthcare, education, agriculture, governance, inclusive technology, small-business development, and finance.

By focusing on the early stages of high-impact, results-oriented ideas/ventures, the seed funding will support experimentation and prototype development in order to accelerate the adoption of the solutions. Each technology venture will then have the potential to become a self-sustaining, profitable social enterprise.

The foundation team is now in the process of developing an innovative mentoring programme where the lessons I have learnt in building a pan-African business will be imparted widely – another opportunity to build entrepreneurship.

Recently, we brought the Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, who is widely acknowledged to be the world’s most influential management guru, to Lagos to give a lecture to the CEOs of leading companies on competitive strategies. These are the sorts of interventions we make on an ongoing basis.

Q: What attracted you to philanthropy in the first place?

A: In 1997, I led a group of investors to take over Crystal Bank, a small bank that had closed its doors and disappointed its customers. We rebranded Crystal into Standard Trust Bank and, in less than five years, became the fifth-largest bank in Nigeria.

Our success was made possible because we saw a bankable segment that other banks were ignoring – so we took branches to geographies and populations that Nigeria’s traditional banks did not consider bankable. We helped drive trade and commerce in communities that weren’t banked, and those customers made our business thrive. We democratised banking and, through our investment, contributed significantly to economic development.

As a result, I realised that one could make financial gains as well as have a positive impact on the lives of the people. I started to think of a kind of philanthropy – different from the traditional type we are used to – that would make a real impact on Nigeria and Africa.

It was always my plan to give back in an institutional fashion – and so I repositioned the United Bank for Africa (UBA) Foundation as the first institutional corporate social responsibility programme of a Nigerian company. Upon my retirement from the bank, The Tony Elumelu Foundation was established to further institutionalise my philanthropic interests.

In a way, business is the best form of philanthropy, but there are some things business just can’t fix. For those, we should use philanthropy.

Q: If “charity” begins at home, was there anything – or anyone – in your upbringing, environment or family that inspired you to become aware of the concept of giving?

A: I have always been pan-African in orientation and in my activities. Upon my retirement from UBA at a fairly young age (47), I felt that, as a continent, we have tremendous human endowment and natural resources, and I’ve always felt that entrepreneurship and leadership can make a big difference.

When I first went to Dubai, I saw a desert that had been turned into an attractive settlement by human beings. Now Dubai is a vacation destination for many people. I look at Dubai, and then imagine the abundance of resources that we have in Africa – if we could produce more leaders, in this case, business leaders that can take advantage of this, the African continent would actually begin to play out the “last frontier” status that everyone talks about.

So I felt that, based on my experience – having been born and bred in Africa – that if we could raise more UBAs on the continent, we could achieve the rapid economic transformation we are yearning for.

As a result, I decided to start something that would help to promote entrepreneurship and celebrate business excellence. And that’s how we started the foundation.

Also, when I was growing up, I would read about the Rockefeller Foundation, and I was very impressed by the fact that it had been around for, now, almost a century and I was also impressed by the work that it was doing. I would like The Tony Elumelu Foundation to continue to make an impact for decades to come.

Q: Does giving make you happy?

A: Nothing makes me happier than seeing entrepreneurs and business leaders taking charge of their destinies and achieving “impossible” dreams which, in turn, help to create both economic prosperity and social wealth. If I can help produce just 1 000 UBAs in Africa, it would be a good thing for the continent.

My vision for the foundation is to unlock the obstacles that Africa’s entrepreneurs face as they grow their start-ups into small to medium enterprises (SMEs), their SMEs into national growth companies, and their national growth companies into African multinationals.

We are not only focused on businesses, but also on supporting and driving government policies and building government institutions that affect the health of the private sector because we realise that without the right competitive and enabling environment, the African private sector can’t go far.

If The Tony Elumelu Foundation can help Africa’s entrepreneurs create 1 000 or more pan-African companies like UBA that are focused on creating value long term, we could really change the continent. But it takes more than just building big businesses in Africa – it has to be African businesses that are focused on the long term, and are focused on creating value in the continent.

I am also particularly motivated when we do work that has a positive impact on policies and produces maximum benefits for Africans, like our recent collaboration with Nigeria’s federal ministry of agriculture and rural development.

A part of the Foundation’s mission is to provide strategic support to key African ministries to help create the enabling environment for inclusive, jobs-focused growth.

We recently placed the first Tony Elumelu fellow in the ministry of agriculture and rural development to help enable a stronger and more strategic engagement with the private sector. This programme is part of the foundation’s efforts to create the best possible environment for the African private-sector-led economic transformation of Nigeria and Africa.

We see this as a homegrown solution, leveraging the best of Nigerian business talent and private-sector innovation to contribute to driving the right kind of capital into Nigeria’s agriculture sector. The programme has begun with a focus on Nigeria, but we have plans to expand to other African economies as well.

Q: More broadly, is philanthropy big in 21st-century Nigeria?

A: Currently, many of the foundations in Nigeria represent a combination of those established by high-net-worth Nigerians, political leaders, and endowed community grant-making organisations. But organised philanthropy in Nigeria is still nascent and has a lot of room to grow.

We are working to set a high standard for philanthropy in Africa, as well as creating the enabling environment (like the philanthropy legislation bill/the Global Peace Foundation African convention coming up soon) to grow the space in Nigeria.

Q: What has been your best giving moment?

A: As I said, I am truly gratified through mentoring, developing business leaders, and supporting entrepreneurs with innovative ideas.

I conduct a monthly Q&A session every first Saturday of the month on Twitter (@TonyOElumelu) and it gives me great pleasure to answer many of the business or entrepreneurship questions that followers ask me. Giving of my time and experience, to me, is more enjoyable even than giving of my funds.

The mentoring programme we are designing will be built around this.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most burning question or current debate informing African philanthropy now?

A: For me, the burning question is why more of Africa’s high-net-worth individuals have not yet organised their giving in an institutional manner like we have done with The Tony Elumelu Foundation.

I believe that, without such organisation and setting a high standard for philanthropic delivery, the potential for home grown African philanthropy to strategically set the agenda for Africa’s development will not be achieved.

In March, my foundation, working with government, convened the first Nigerian philanthropy summit where we tasked Nigeria’s wealthy to give more strategically. Our objective was to define a new direction for Nigerian philanthropy.

Q: Where do you live?

A: I live in Lagos, Nigeria. I have lived in Africa all my life. I was born here, went to school here, started my career here, and have achieved a level of success here in Africa. This is why the foundation is headquartered in Lagos, and why we have a pan-African vision.

» This series was developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust

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