In this exclusive conversation, Tony Elumelu, Nigerian entrepreneur and investor and philanthropist, discuss topics ranging from the problems of African democracy and the responsibilities of leadership to the challenges of job creation in Africa and youth entrepreneurship.
His Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) is a blessing to many young African budding entrepreneurs, with abundant financial assistance at its behest.
How are you doing this afternoon
I’m doing great, thank you.
So, what has been the highlight of your day because I know you’ve been in a lot of meetings today
UNGA 2022 has been very exciting in so many ways, for us as a group, the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we’ve been able to consummate two significant partnerships. We live in Africa, we see poverty, we see how our people are suffering, we see the energy of our youths (our young ones), we see their ambition, we see their aspirations to make a difference; but access to capital is always a problem for these young ones, and for us at the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we are trying to catalyse luck, we are trying to catalyse entrepreneurship across the continent. But we understand that we can’t do it alone.
Personally, I’m an exemplar of success in Africa. I come from a modest background, I’ve built multi-national businesses, but I realize that we need more Tony Elumelu’s in Africa, and for this to happen, we need to increase our capacity to empower young ones. The Tony Elumelu Foundation alone cannot do this, so we have tried to reach out to like-minded development agencies, governments, individuals, institutions, to partner with us so that we can scale what we know how to do, what we know works through what we have done at the Tony Elumelu Foundation; and happily, at this UNGA 22, we found two partnerships; one with the American Foundation for Africa development, and two, with the UN Agency for capital. So, we’ve signed partnerships with UNCDF, and USADF to scale what we do at the Tony Elumelu Foundation. So, to me, it’s a wonderful time for us as a Foundation because the success of young Africans is our preoccupation. So, we’re happy that we can now do more in partnership with this and existing partners we already have.
So, let’s look at job creation in Africa and youth entrepreneurship because I know that it’s one of your fortes, How do you feel about it? How can governments create jobs for the youth? And encourage the youth to engage in entrepreneurship?
I have often said that youth unemployment is a tragic waste of our talent. It’s a betrayal of a generation, and I know that one sure way of creating employment for our people is by encouraging entrepreneurship amongst our young ones. I live in Africa, I see the harsh impact of youth unemployment, and I know that as an African leader, we must do something about it. The time is ticking so fast. I know from my experience within interacting with these young Africans, they feel highly betrayed, and we as African leaders, friends of Africa, political leaders in Africa, and the world at large must do something quickly so that all of us will have peace. To me, it has become an existential issue. It’s something we must do for our own enlightened self-interest. These guys, very energetic, we either channel their energy positively, or they use their energy in a negative way; and that will be disastrous, and that will be difficult for us to contain.
We can do less now than what we can do in the future if we fail to do what we can do right now. So I believe that entrepreneurship presents the way forward and that is why the Tony Elumelu Foundation will do it. We have trained over 1.2 million young Africans, we’ve provided seed capital of non-refundable $5000 dollars each to more than 16,000 young Africans. Through their works, we’ve created about 400,000 jobs on the continent. This is what we need to scale up. And this space, we don’t want to be in this space alone, we want others to come to this space, and that is why when I told you before, I was happy with UNCDF and USADF who have signed the partnership that we have signed. Plus the existing ones with the European Union and the UNDP, International Red Cross, you know these are great partnerships helping to catalyze more entrepreneurship on our continent so that collectively, we can deal with this issue of unemployment, and also Google has come into the space too.
But what about governments across Africa?
I believe that governments in Africa can do more. I think our governments pay a lot of lip service to the issue and importance and relevance and the future of our continent as it relates to our young ones. The future of Africa truly belongs to the young ones. Their success is our success, and we must see success, modifying success, through that prism, that the success of the young ones, if they succeed, we know that Africa is succeeding and we succeed further. Our government must create an enabling environment. At the Tony Elumelu Foundation, I told you before, we funded over 16,000 young African entrepreneurs, but what is important is creating the enabling environment that will allow and support these young Africans with the seed capital we’ve given them, with the mentorship we’ve provided them, with the business education and training we’ve given them to succeed.
If you’re an entrepreneur, a small-scale entrepreneur and you don’t have access to electricity, please tell me, what can you do with $5000? So government must do something, and government must put in place policies that support our young ones. You know for me, I feel so bad about this and truly so because it seems to me that we miss the point most times, how do we move out of poverty if we cannot empower the young ones; and empowering them like I said is not about the capital we provide, its about creating the ecosystem, the enabling environment that will enable them to succeed. So I look forward to all of us embracing this and I think that this should be the preoccupation of one of the things the AU should focus on.
Youth empowerment, security issues; those two to a large extent will help us, and knowing that for youths to be economically empowered and to succeed, the infrastructure that we need, access to electricity and power is so critical. Stifling policies must be removed, tax reforms that support the young entrepreneurs must be put in place, incentive system to shape the right behaviour must be put in place; and for those of us in the private sector who have succeeded, we must realize that our success is nothing if we go alone. We need to carry others along so they become even more successful than us, so that collectively, we create a commonwealth system that makes it difficult for anyone that wants to destroy because we are all stakeholders. People want to destroy when they feel that it’s true that they are marginalized and so we would need to go together on this journey.
Let’s look at Climate Change and the agenda for Africa. A lot of African leaders here at the UN General Assembly have been hammering on that because they say their economies have been impacted or negatively impacted by the effect of Climate Change. What’s your take on that?
My take is this; first our contribution to climate problem in the world is almost insignificant compared to the rest of the world. Less than 2% of the carbon emissions come from Africa. But we disproportionately suffer the brunt of climate change and that is a major concern and then the world goes on and on, and I believe we need to do something about it and expecting Africa to come on board as quickly as possible and I encourage our leaders to do so. However, what I expect and as we go to COP27 in Egypt, I would like African leaders to come together and speak with one voice. We have not caused this situation but we bear the brunt of it, and I see it firsthand because I live in Africa. Nigeria floods now. In fact, in a Guardian report yesterday, almost 400 people’s lives lost as a result of of the flooding that just occurred. The Lake Chad basin that cuts between the Sahel region and the Savannah region of Africa is drying up and the extremism that we have in the Sahel region today is traceable to that. So we indeed are bearing and feeling the impact of this climate change so we must do something as members of the world.
But what I say is that there should be a deal that recognizes that 1) Africa’s energy transition requires a lot of capital and that Africa does not have that capital. Africa is battling from the Covid pandemic and Africa has a lot of hospital, healthcare issues, access to electricity issues, poverty issues and any transition costs a lot. So my call is let us come together and realize that there is a need for a deal that supports Africa to go through that transition, 2) There is also a need for an accommodation in terms of policies that recognizes the abundance of certain natural resources in Africa, and the fact that we need a combination of renewables and traditional energy sources for the short term to move Africa forward. So, this to me are two major points I believe in. I support climate change, I support the energy transition, but we need massive capital support to go through that and 3) We need to make sure that in the short term, that Africa is supported to approach it by combination of renewable and traditional sources of energy.
Talking about massive financial support this is Africa yet again going to wealthy nations cup+in-hand begging to be saved from the effects of Climate Change and that the wealthier nations do not necessarily owe anything to Africa to support them.
From multinationalism to going alone and we have seen that we live in a global world we cannot go it alone. Advanced countries need the support of everyone. The less developed countries need the support of the more developed countries. We need to work together as members of the global community to address these issues. Climate change affects everyone, a problem anywhere is a problem everywhere. If there is a flood, if there is the drying up of the lake Chad basin creating extremism or migration of people out of Africa it is affecting people in places around the world. The truth is that food security is affecting everyone and we should come together to address these issues. Carbon emission in the west is about 17%.
And carbon emission on the continent is about 2%. So, people are saying there should be a form of energy reparation here to come and compensate us for creating the climate situation. So, I think for me our state men should rise and put some of this criticism behind. It is not time for criticism. One, climate change or climate disaster is real. Tow the solution is that we need to change our ways as members of the world three Africa is part of this and we need to join hands in making this possible.
However, Africa needs capital support because that transition is huge. Also, we must recognise that renewable alone cannot take us to where we are going. Over 60% of Africans do not have access to electricity today. We are not talking of a switch first there is a deficit we need to bridge that gap and then switch the good thing is we cannot leapfrog because leapfrog requires capital.
Mr. Elumelu do you think African countries are doing enough to cushion the effect of Climate Change on their respective citizens in their countries?
I think that first there is a realisation that there is a need to transition that to me is a positive development. Some people did not believe in covid but now people agree that climate change is real. But how are different countries responding to it that is a function of resources available to those countries? Let me tell you what we do at the Tony Elumelu Foundation.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation supports young entrepreneurs to grow. We had a long retreat on this and we came up with the conclusion that people that cause this climate disaster are the private sector to a large extent so we need to instill a new way of doing things to the private sector, let’s capture them young let us cultivate in their mind the need to be more climate-focused. So we can sustain it. So what we try to do is introduce in the curriculum that climate consciousness. We need a secure climate feature for all of us. In everything you do, you business let them be businesses sensitive to climate issues. So I think for me the climate challenge does not call for blame as a world we have blamed one another for too long. It is so easy to blame the government or less developed countries. Our focus should be what can every one of us do.
As the private sector we should be more responsible we should encourage government and find ways to deal with existential crises. If you see what I am saying you would understand. So let’s come together and put resources together and do something. To me the window is closing fast on us the time to act is now if we don’t act now we are putting our future and our childrens future at stake.
Talk to me about what you think about the Africa US relationship in the 21st Century
I think it has been defined or redefined by the Biden administration. A month ago they put out the US policy on Africa and before that we had Trump regime that in my viewpoint did not have any concrete strategy for Africa. Before that was Palmer who had Pan African trade with Africa. I think the US has created a huge void in the continent and they must rise to the expectations. And why do I say that? Most people love the US but they do not think that they are responsive enough on the issues. I speak when I come to the US it is time to engage in a more structured activity in Africa. Aid is good but there is a need for more strategic relations with Africa. There are often the complaints about China and the land grabbing and all the horrible things they said China is doing on the continent but we know how people think of china on the continent.
People think they come to our aid in terms of infrastructural development. America needs to e more active in areas of infrastructural development and more active in youth empowerment for Africa. I took this message to Washington in April this year but I am happy the partnership we signed is a result of that. So people are listening and Joe Biden just released his Africa strategy. And has conveyed the Africa leaders forum for December in Washington. So these are positive signs and indications and I hope it’s sustained. We need a new deal for Africa from the U.S we need a partnership. America’s influence in Africa is huge but I think Americans don’t understand that , every young African wants to behave like an American, speak like an American, and go to school in America. So there is this cultural tie people love America but is America there for us? Look at the Tony Elumelu Foundation the European Union supported over 3000 African Females, they gave 25 million dollars to support over 3000 African women. That s impactful all across the African continent.
So terms for assistance you can see it and you don’t have people taking out of the aid. We want to ensure that the thing that America is doing for the continent is gotten by those who truly need it. The young people the people in local communities who need this development and not the middlemen who divert this or earn by way of commission. I see a progressive forward-looking policy coming and our Foundation is happy that we are at the table negotiating this at the white house. America has done well during covid America helped a lot but there is still a lot to do. Luckily, we also have some Africans who have a bit of resource and want to partner with American organisations.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation through our family has put in 100 million dollars so every year we empower a thousand African entrepreneurs. It is a 10 year program and we want to see others come together to do more. We are seeing moves and we are saying in the 21st century there is a better way of giving in Africa. A more catalytic way of giving a more strategic way that creates self-sufficiency, self reliance and does not keep people dependent on aid.