TOE’s Session at the United States Institute of Peace
I have been emphatic in my position that the economic transformation of Africa lies in the hands of our young entrepreneurs who have great ideas, energy and audacity of what and how they can contribute to the transformation of the Continent.
Unfortunately, in terms of job creation and opportunities for our youth, Africa suffers or lacks dismally behind. Youth unemployment is a waste of talent and a betrayal of a generation. It feeds extremism and insecurity. It has therefore become critical to lead conversations and forge partnerships across the world that should help to address this fundamental issue.
US relationship with Africa in my view should be re-imagined away from aid to focus on empowerment of our youth and support for sustainable institutions that should allow the teaming youth of Africa to be productive. Entrepreneurship, peace, conflict are linked one way or the other.
When people are optimally engaged they would like to see peace and they will not be interested in creating problems for mankind. When people feel they are excluded or don’t see economic opportunity or hope they would take to extremism. They will create problems for everyone of us. Poverty anywhere to me is a threat to mankind everywhere.
Extremism is a product of poverty, joblessness, lack of education, poor access to healthcare delivery all of these create a vicious cycle of poverty. The fight against extremism and conflict must start from prioritising our young ones and from creating jobs. We need to remove the incentive of being extremist in the 21st Century Africa by engaging and providing jobs for our young ones.
On my own in 2010, my family founded the Tony Elumelu foundation. Our purpose was simple. We wanted to democratise luck. We wanted to create economic opportunities for people. We wanted to play our own role in economically empowering our young ones and making them become better future Tony Elumelus.
We decided to do so by endowing 100 million US dollars to the Tony Elumelu foundation to help identify and seed $5000 each to these young African entrepreneurs; male female from across the 54 African countries sector agnostic.
We felt that it was not how much we owned that mattered we felt what was important was the kind of impact we can create, the legacy will leave behind by making sure that whatever we have you spread it in a manner that truly creates sustainability, truly help to prioritise people and help to increase and encourage our collective commitment to succeed as a people.
So far we have supported over 16,000 young Africans. We set out to support 1,000 every year but through collaboration with like-minded partners, we have been able to increase and achieve over 16,000 in seven years since we set up the entrepreneurship program.
We train beneficiaries for 12 weeks and at the end of the 12 weeks program we appoint mentors for them and seed $5000. Small money but a vital amount of capital to these young entrepreneurs. It helps them to prove their concept. We know that they need more than $5000 to create the Apple-type of organisation but they need support to prove their concept.
We are scaling up but we seek collaboration to do a lot more. When I see these young entrepreneurs we are supporting I like the excitement I see in them, I like the happiness, I like the sense of fulfilment and I want us to replicate and touch more lives.
Every year we have hundreds of thousands of young Africans apply but unfortunately we are not able to support all. So, what is supposed to help democratise luck and create happiness is almost beginning to affect people in a manner that we did not anticipate. We need our friends especially in the US. We need you more now than ever before.
Last month in Dubai, I received the TIME 100 impact award. As I received it in my acceptance speech I stressed the need for leaders across the world to pull resources together to prioritise humanity by promoting entrepreneurship, gender equity, sustainability and digital innovation. I stressed further that the world we live in today has never been in such a need for all of us, especially the private sector to come together to do something.
I believe ladies and gentlemen that the time to act is now and to do so urgently. We need to work together to avert a global catastrophe one that we can almost see and feel. We need to bring resources together. We need to bring minds together.
On that again President, I want to thank you and Josh and thank all of you for making this platform available for us to continue to dialogue and engage on how collaboratively we can pull resources and work together to help the world. I appreciate your time and the generosity that you’ve shown. I appreciate the hospitality of this great institute and heritage foundation. I look forward to us continuing in this conversation in the dialogue. Thank you very much.
How can the private sector play a greater role in engaging the government on the issue of good governance, which is so important for the enabling environment, that brings foreign direct investment and that builds that economic and social wealth, we talked about? So how is the private sector engaged with the government on that very important topic of good governance?
First is that we need to understand and more so our government needs to understand the role of the private sector in economic development. Oftentimes, I see a disconnect. I speak for not just one country, I speak for most governments across africa. At times, you see the government erroneously seeing the private sector as a competitor.
No, we should see the private sector, the public sector, different partners as all hands working together to advance humanity, to drive economic prosperity, economic growth, social wealth, social justice in the system. And for me for the private sector to do well that enabling environment must first be established and once it’s established the private sector must therefore take advantage of the opportunities created and play its own role.
I see the private sector helping to catalyse economic growth by creating jobs. Government does not have the capacity to create jobs that will sustain the continent. The rate at which we are growing, the demography of Africa and the rate at which people enter the job market on the continent is far more than you can ever imagine and so we need a collaborative approach in making this happen. So I want to see a private sector that is strong on the continent because being strong and succeeding would have to drive economic growth. I want to see us prioritise the small and medium-scale enterprise on the continent, not just the big corporations.
We need to cut across all layers and make sure that every segment is included. I believe in inclusivity in governance. We need to make sure that we carry everyone along. Gender inclusivity, youth inclusivity in all facets of society. The lack of it is part of the reason why I’ve come here. We can’t even begin to address it if we don’t address the issue of youth engagement. The private sector does have a role to play in this and so does our government in creating an enabling environment.
But the private sector must also engage the government to let them know. Like you said the tweet about what I felt was happening, it’s not a criticism per say it is actually what I saw and they need to address it so that we can attract more investment into the country. We need massive investment to help create jobs and when we don’t have investments coming in due to some of these issues, theft, insecurity, etc before it further takes us back and away from achieving our objective of creating development, prosperity, youth engagement on the continent. So, yes we need a more active private sector.
PriceWaterhouseCoopers released some data that was tracking the economic gains enjoyed by African countries that improved their governance over several years. They estimated that if each African country make improvements in governance equivalent to that made by the strongest performer which they considered Cote dívoire at the time.
The continent’s overall Gross Domestic Product will grow by about 23 billion dollars. That’s an enormous amount of money and that’s a very impressive figure. So with that kind of growth possible, what are the things the United States and other partners can be doing to help African people and governments improve their governance to see that kind of a return?
I think for the US government you need to see how the US is perceived across the continent. The US is respected, admired, and loved across the continent. In Fact if anything, people are beginning to wonder if the US is still there for Africa because of the foreign aid to Africa by other world powers. We would like to see the U.S. government engage first to reimagine what the 21st century Africa needs if it’s good because we need to make sure it gets to the last mile.
We need to make sure that we prioritise those who should get it. A situation where you have budgets of millions of dollars coming to Africa and yet we still have the level of youth unemployment. This should tell us that something is not right. The Healthcare system is fragile and so many things are not working. I would like to see
One; a change in policy that helps to prioritise the ultimate recipients of whatever we are giving the continent.
Two; I’ll like to see helping to develop infrastructure that helps to drive sustainability and I like also to see US government help us through the like of the president and the likes of the bank to engage in a manner that policymakers may be capacitated or trained in supporting them to see what I said before to see the link between the private sector success and public sector goals for the people. I believe some of those approaches will help to get there.
But in summary I will like to see a rethink of how to engage with Africa especially when it comes to aid. We want to see it get to the people who really need it. I like to see a strengthening of our infrastructural institutions. There are quite some institutions that are weak and are not able to engender good governance. We need to clean all of this up and then public dialogue with our leaders.
After a decade of training 16,000 entrepreneurs, are you optimistic or pessimistic or maybe somewhere in between about the future for African youth?
First is that I am extremely optimistic about the future and I’m not just saying this for the purpose of being optimistic. Because when I interact with these young Africans I see a lot of excitement and also I see from the people we have supported how they are succeeding, the difference and changes they’re bringing to their communities and business environment already. And I know for a fact that if we can all prioritise them further and give them the support that they need we will do more.
Don’t forget we have over 600 million people on the continent that are under the age of 30 and we are talking here about 16,000 beneficiaries of the foundation. We are still like less than a tiny drop of water in the ocean. For us to make the kind of impact that will increase our optimism about the future of the continent we need to massively scale up this. Again that is the message, let’s pull resources together to deal with it realising that if there is poverty in Nigeria, if there is poverty in Africa it affects everyone everywhere.
There are young Africans who want to get to Europe even crossing the Mediterranean in a very harsh condition and they don’t care. They prefer to tell you we will rather die trying to get there than stay here. So we need to all work together to see how to make this change occur. Yes, I’m optimistic the people who have supported I see successes but we need a mashup plan.
We need something much bigger than this 16,000 to make a difference. We should be talking of millions on a yearly basis across the continent and who are those to make this happen? The African private sectors who are succeeding, the global development institutions and friends of Africa across the world and those who see the linkage between what happens in any part of the world.
So, I see a future but that future will be driven by fundamentals and for me the key fundamental is prioritising the young ones, entrepreneurship and not just entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is not the only way but one of the core ways. For us it’s tested, we’ve done it and we’ve seen it. We’ve seen our own life story, where we were before and where we are today. It’s all because of the private sector, entrepreneurship and success. Which is why we created the Tony Elumelu Foundation to help democratise luck, to help create access and economic opportunities for all. That is the difference, that is the reason why I’m not on the street today.
So we want to make sure that we take more people out of the street through this kind of initiative. The good thing is that they are intelligent. If you see some of the unicorns, some of the young companies coming out of Africa being valued properly and people investing in them, it tells you what the future can be if we give more support to these people and there are millions of them on the continent.
What is it about entrepreneuring that is so well-suited for young people specifically? That’s obviously your focus and you mentioned that as the core solution to these problems. Why are young people so well-suited to do entrepreneurship?
So for me, Africa is a continental fair of entrepreneurs. We have a lot. Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur on the continent and I encourage it. My own story validates that. Today’s Tony Elumelu started from nowhere so to speak and I just would imagine if a hundred thousand or a million across Africa would have this kind of opportunity in 10 years time it would be a different continent. And that is why to me entrepreneurship is key.
Today, I’m lucky to be the chairman of United Bank of Africa (UBA) group. UBA operates in 20 African countries and Paris. London, UK. It is the only African bank in the United State of America that has a deposit taking licence. I didn’t start like that. I was not a billionaire’s son but we created this out of sheer entrepreneurialism. Today we have part of our group that is into power generation. When President Obama launched the Power Africa initiative our group committed to invest 2 Billion dollars to improve assets generating electricity on the continent. Today, we have a generating capacity of 2,000 megawatts of electricity in addition, we supply Republic of Benin power.
I did not start like that, it’s just the thing about entrepreneurship and the determination to succeed. I see in Africa today more people more determined than I was at their age. The difference between those guys and Tony Elumelu of today is access to opportunities and that is what I want to create and that is what I’m mobilising others in the private sector in particular to let’s team up and do something that will be impactful.
Let’s think about legacy and less of what we have in our bank accounts but as we do so we need our government to also help to prioritise the kind of philosophy policy that will help this to succeed and friends of Africa like the United States of America. All of us need to pull resources and see how we can create more Tony Elumelus out of the continent. They are ready. The reason we see extremism today is because they don’t see hope so we need to show examples so that they also get encouraged and know that there could be a better future for them. And I believe strongly that entrepreneurship is one of the ways we can develop Africa in a way that is really sustainable.
Talking about the question that was asked before. We get a lot of support in Africa and that is the truth. But my own is that we should reimagine how we give that support because we need to give from the point of view of creating self-reliance, self independence and making people less dependent on donor aid.
But if we give and forever people cannot finish their budget with aids, people can’t do things without aids then we should question that approach that something is not working because it should be an intervention for a period and then you are able to cater for yourself.
But a situation where it becomes perpetual, it calls for a rethink and I believe that entrepreneurship does not lead to that. Entrepreneurship and laziness don’t go together. Entrepreneurship and that level of dependence don’t go together. You can’t give your support to someone every time. You provide assistance to start running and then you should also be able to expand that, replicate that so that collectively we all work in a manner to improve the society.
What are some of the key programmes and initiatives that the administration is pursuing to really drive that entrepreneurial spirit?
I like to say that when I talk about partners working together to help governance and support young Africans especially those in entrepreneurship I think Google is a good example of that. We also just signed a partnership with Google.
First in 2021, they spent 3 million dollars to sponsor over 600 entrepreneurs through the Tony Elumelu Foundation. But more importantly they sent a team to the foundation who just left last month. We have what we call the TEFConnect which is a digital platform that the Tony Elumelu Foundation uses to reach young African entrepreneurs. Today, we have over a million subscribers and these are young African entrepreneurs networking with digital platforms that help them to interact with one another across the continent, know what they are doing, encourage, support each other, an ecosystem, a world of their own. And then we use that platform to train.
Like this last year we got over 350,000 applications from young Africans who are interested but of course we take only a thousand or two. Now because we have limited resources let’s train all. So everyone that comes in that program we would train them.
Google is helping us to expand the capacity of that platform so we will be able to train more seamlessly across. I think that is a clear example of the kind of partnership that we need and such digital partnerships are critical support for Africa because internet connectivity is not so great, bandwidth availability is not so great yet these young Africans must connect with the world. That is also one area we need to focus on and I like to see all the global tech players support this kind of initiative.
Mr. Chairman, we’ve all been watching, of course, with great concern the surging coups across Africa. At least six coups and attempted coups since 2021. And we know that there are many reasons that contribute to why a coup happened in the country.
But I’d like to get your thoughts maybe on to what extent do you think the lack of economic opportunity is setting the stage for this kind of a democratic backsliding that we see going on? It’s very concerning to many of us who were all thinking of what are the smart interventions. How do you see it from a business person’s perspective? What do you see as the economic cause of some of this?
I think I even like the name Prosper Africa, because what Africa needs is prosperity and that prosperity is what will bring peace and what would reduce conflict on the continent and will stop the coup d’etats that we are beginning to see on the continent. Lack of economic opportunities, lack of economic growth, poverty, joblessness, gender inequality are the issues that create political instability. We cannot have political stability if we do not address these fundamentals.
So it is a problem and we hope and pray that it stops there for the country that have already experienced it and I hope it becomes a wake-up call to others to sit up prioritise these young ones, address these social issues, address the economic problems so that prosperity or at least a drastic reduction of poverty and pulling people out of poverty would help to bring stability. I always preach that poverty anywhere is a threat to all of us everywhere. We can’t have stability if people are hungry. We can’t have stability if people are starving. We can’t have stability if there is no economic hope.
People can endure the way things are going when in 3 or 5 years time things will be okay. But where there’s hopelessness, anarchy reigns and that’s what we see. So the solution is good governance, prioritisation of our people, the young ones in particular, engaging with the private sector to increase their ability to create jobs on the continent so that we can engage these people and making sure that we run an inclusive society that brings everyone to the table. That is the solution.
You make a compelling case for the role of the private sector in addressing long-term instability and conflict on the continent. Would you even imagine that the private sector can play a role in peace negotiations and peace processes?
Private sector, we are not trained to be involved in conflict negotiation. However, we can play a role to prevent it. For me, rather than deal with the consequences, how about making sure it does not happen in the first instance and the private sector can play a role there. Again on the African continent, we have issues. We’re discussing today about some of these pockets of manifestation of bad governance and lack of economic hope and opportunities.
Imagine what will happen in ten years time given the rate of our population growth and especially the demography of our population. It is going to be worse. So we need to do something urgently. I sat at home and I was telling my wife recently. My young ones, I see them play on the iPad and they tell me everyday about soccer, the matches that are going to come up and I’m like, what happens to those who don’t have access to internet connectivity? What future are we creating? So you see a future of these kids who are used to internet access and know what’s happening in the world and you see other kids who don’t even know what’s happening, who don’t even know they have access to it, who cannot even fit and we’re thinking of stability? No, it cannot happen.
So for me, the private sector has a role to play and that is a descent of Africapitalism, the leadership role of the private sector in 21st century Africa in catalysing economic growth opportunities and development. But for that to happen, we need a government to create the enabling environment and I look forward to the upcoming dialogue with African leaders. I pray and hope it is a true dialogue that brings the private sector and African leaders together.
Not written speeches but conversations like this. Let’s engage dialogue and let leaders know what the private sector needs for them to do well. And let them understand that the success of the private sector helps them to meet even their political manifestations and promises to their people. So that they walk in harmony within what is generally acceptable. So that we can create an inclusive government. So the private sector should play a role in helping to avert and avoid conflict rather than being involved in the resolution. But yes, if it gets to that and there is conflict, the private sector should be involved in discussing terms that bring resolution to the table. And I’m sure what the private sector will be saying is let’s create jobs for our people.
Let’s improve access to electricity. Let’s deal with internet connectivity and bandwidth issues. Let’s make sure that we run an inclusive government. Let’s make sure that society is inclusive. Let’s make sure that females have a seat at the table, young ones have a seat at the table and everyone is involved. And that irrespective of your religion or your age, you can have a say in what’s happened. That inclusiveness is what we need to move the world to the next level.
Wouldn’t you agree with me that no matter how much money billions, zillions, we dump into Africa, Nigeria nothing would change because there is no infrastructure? No power, no lights systems and no healthcare systems. And so when you don’t have that environment, no matter how much money you dump in, nothing changes. Let’s look at China. It seems the US seems to have an 18th century policy for Africa, but we did in China quite differently.
We had American businesses go there and start businesses. We can’t make this in Africa right now. We have no power. We have no resources. So won’t you agree with me that unless we have the infrastructure on the ground that no matter what discussions we have or send there nothing will happen? That’s my first question. So my second question, don’t you think we have to revamp the entire US Africa trade policy?
I think your interventions are right. Let me start with the second one. In my remarks I said, it is time we reimagined the relationship between the US as friends of Africa and the continent. And I called it 21st century Africa. For me, it shouldn’t be Africa of dependency, it should be Africa of dignity and self reliance. To me the way to get there amongst others with what I know is entrepreneurship.
Let’s prioritise the young ones and support them because so much billions of dollars have gone into Africa by way of aid yet the continent remains perpetually dependent. If you do something time and time again and it’s not giving the desired impact result, you reassess it. So it’s time to reimagine how that engagement goes. Maybe it’s time to have a new deal that addresses that.
For the first point, infrastructure is such a problem on the continent. Not quite long ago I talked about access to electricity, internet connectivity issues, bandwidth issues. We need to fix all of this so that entrepreneurship and even the private sector can do well. There is so much that can happen on the continent.
However, we cannot give up because if we wait for a hundred percent access to electricity to occur before we start the journey, it will be too late. Some of the entrepreneurs we support go into solar energy, for instance, just doing a little for their business and maybe a small community is something. Some are into waste management and recycling.
Let’s continue that while we wait for the big things to happen. I said a few minutes ago also that we need a mashup plan. We need a mashup to lift Africa sustainably out of poverty. There’s a lot to be done in the area of infrastructure as well as entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurs to do well, you need some of these infrastructure in place, especially access to electricity which we lack in Africa. But at the same time you need entrepreneurs.
One of these movies I have enjoyed the most and the book I’ve read is The men who built America. I like to see how these five men worked very hard in their respective ways and sectors to make things happen. So what I say also to my private sector friends is. Yes, we can see all of these but on our own we should also be able to make a difference.
So let’s not give up hope. Let’s be optimistic. That’s why to your question I respond to I’m optimistic because I’ve seen it. In my own time, if I was hindered or defied or characterised by my background maybe I won’t be where I am today. So let’s keep encouraging people or let’s play our own role in making sure that the economy is not just word of mouth but in reality we are doing something that can bring about the change that we need in Africa.