Chasing Elumelu: On the Road With Big-Hearted Billionaire
In contrast to what everyone will do, on his twitter page, Africa’s front row businessman and philanthropist, Tony Elumelu, has his portrait looking over boundless water.
The billionaire’s masterfully calibrated image in a slick suit on a lofty perch was photographed somewhere in Lagos business district. It mirrors one thing: his boundless beneficence.
For decades, Elumelu has rolled up his sleeves to turn the sod in Africa. Starting from his native country, Nigeria, he built big businesses in an aggressive way, creating employment and bolstering government revenue in multiple countries. Tall, tactical, affable and energetic, it is clear that Elumelu was born to be chairman of chief executive officers.
With his hands in many big businesses and as a poster boy for the banking sector in Africa, it can be explained why Elumelu is a darling of the press. Skim through the dailies and it’s hard to avoid Tony Elumelu every day.
In fact, Elumelu’s blistering schedule means no two days are the same.
For this 55-year-old billionaire entrepreneur and stylish banker, who turned an unprosperous, single-country bank into a pan-African institution with more than seven million customers in about 20 African countries, demanding schedule means late bedtime, something in the region of 2 a.m.
In short, before Elumelu led the acquisition of the United Bank for Africa 13 years ago, he has established his name as a super CEO with busy engagements.
And despite his busy life, he also carves out enough time to read like others in his ilk.
Widely admired people like President Barack Obama, Phil Knight, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Oprah Oprah Winfrey in various interviews say they set aside at least an hour a day to read (or five hours a week) just like a Elumelu does to keep up with torrent of information.
Mr. Elumelu’s reading habit has been essential to his thinking process as a businessman. It has served him well.
In a post on his facebook page, the gifted businessman wrote, “voracious reading is the solution to making a difference. Knowledge increases confidence and confidence is a key attribute for excellence.”
Amid his busy engagements that reveal a pretty jam-packed daily life, Elumelu’s act of charity and entrepreneurial skills transfer are the ones that are dominating debates in Africa in recent times.
So it’s not surprising that when he toured some African countries on a recent week, presidents came out to hail him.
In Kenya, where Elumelu dazzled his audience with his Africapitalism idea, Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, lavished him with praise for his benevolence and business acts in Africa. “It is great to see Africans coming out forcibly to build the continent through initiatives such as this one,” Kenyatta said. “Our continent is endowed with massive resources; we do not have to always rely on support from elsewhere.”
In Kenyatta’s view, by lifting budding entrepreneurs with cash and counseling, Elumelu is doing a good job for Africa’s growth.
The president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, adored Elumelu for his candor, class and commitment to Africa. “Giving a grant, none refundable loan to the young people means the affordability of capital. This reduces risks of acquiring loan money from banks at an alarming interest rate up to 24 per cent in some banking institutions. These children are very brilliant, hardworking and successful. Thank you for the financial support extended to the Ugandan youths,” he said.
With his athletic body, closely shorn head and right gait, Elumelu gives the image of a coach in appearance. But that will define him in the business world, where as a business coach he takes care of each and every situation.
Most recently, Elumelu’s alternative response to a bad situation helped raised the morale of young people in his home country Nigeria. The billionaire banker and economist told a massive gathering of policymakers at the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group in Washington, DC not to see youths in Africa as lazy and laidback.
“In my interactions with young Africans, I have seen people who are determined, energetic, hungry to succeed, make a difference and are extremely intelligent, but the environment makes it difficult for them to succeed,” Elumelu said.
But days before he shared his valuable knowledge of African youths based on his firsthand interactions with them across the continent, Nigerian youths were labeled lazy at an international meeting in London, United Kingdom, by the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari.
To Mr. Elumelu, “governments need to understand that if we prioritise the young ones and make the operating environment conducive, they would be able to optimise the required intellects, they would do well and we would be able to solve some of the problems in the continent.”
And when he cuts in on digital economy, Elumelu was direct. “You can’t talk about digital economy in Africa without fixing critical infrastructure,” he said. “Digital connectivity is a major issue in Africa and you can’t fix it if you don’t have reliable access to electricity. So, if we want to truly address the issue of the digital economy in Africa, these challenges have to be fixed.”
Elumelu’s different view is based on his everyday knowledge of booming activities of young entrepreneurs to turn Africa into a sea of innovation. His direct involvement with budding entrepreneurs through his charity, the Tony Elumelu Foundation makes him an authority. So far, his 10-year, $100 million TEF Entrepreneurship Programme is changing the mood from lamentation to celebration for young people with start-up ideas across Africa.
For instance, Ndubuisi Eze from Nigeria and Edmond Nonie from Sierra Leone, who separately manufactured drones to help farmers in rural areas for mapping construction sites which can be monitored remotely from anywhere in the world are beneficiaries of TEF.
After realising the drones he was importing from China was not meeting the needs of the African farmers his company was serving, Eze, a 2016 Tony Elumelu entrepreneur decided to become a manufacturer.
“We realised that there were a few features that we needed that were not in the drones. So we started developing and designing… At some point we had to make that brave decision to manufacture our own drones,” he said.
Indeed, oceans of anguish abound in Africa, where in place of hope the political leadership in most countries offer hellish landscape that makes it hard for young people to thrive with their ideas, but Elumelu continues to tell the youths to persevere and follow their passion to see their dreams come through despite the huge challenges they face.
He often encourages students to focus on the long-term vision as opposed to dwelling on short-term challenges.
“Think big, but beyond that, act on the ideas and think long-term. The journey would not be smooth but perseverance is key. Success is good for your village, your community, your country and your continent,” he told hundreds of young entrepreneurs at the University of Nairobi during his recent tour.
Robin Chaibva, a young entrepreneur based in Zimbabwe wrote about the influence of Elumelu’s work in her own country. “He has given me hope for Africa despite the feeling that Zimbabwe is not in an economically viable state. Instead of asking of my government to give jobs, I realised that I can build a network of enterprises to provide employment to Zimbabweans while lifting communities Thanks for investing your wisdom and experience with us.”
Arthur Ting Muyepa in Malawi wrote: “It has given me a new perspective of what it means to be an African entrepreneur. I honestly believe that Africapitalism is the key to development.”
Grace Olugbodi, a Nigerian wrote: “TOE Way Values are complete, deep, and as sharp as a razor. The information in there is genius and I will be following it to take my business to the next level. I recommend that anyone reading this who wants to take their business to the next level should too.”
In Rwanda, Yvette Ishimwe of Clean Water Delivery startup told the New Times, described as the country’s leading daily that skill that early entrepreneurs would need to build their business is a preoccupation of TEF.
“Tony Elumelu gave us unique skills that every early entrepreneur would need to build their business idea. This is what is exceptional from many other initiatives. Of course the money is not small as it helps you expand the idea or the business,” she said.
On Tuesday, when shareholders responded to Transcorp’s (one of the mega companies under Elumelu’s leadership) exceptional feat in Nigeria, it was a moment to cherish for Elumelu. “Our corporate ambition is nothing less than the transformation of Nigeria’s power sector, which in turn is the critical enabler of Nigeria’s broader economic transformation,” he said.
This article was originally published on The Cable.