Tony Elumelu, the distinguished birthday celebrant, climbed onto the sixth floor of life on 22nd March. His wife, Awele, a medical practitioner, was seated beside him at the symposium to mark his 60th birthday in Lagos. As they listened to one entrepreneur after the other, I could sense that Tony and his wife felt fulfilled as the entrepreneurs shared their success stories.
Decked in a black tie instead of his trademark red tie, Tony smiled most of the time. For a man has witnessed several glittering and satisfying moments in life, every minute was joyful while the symposium lasted.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), the philanthropic arm of Heirs Holdings, was launched in 2010. But the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme for young African entrepreneurs was flagged off in 2015. Tony is the chairman of Heirs Holdings, an African investment conglomerate.
The inspiring success stories by TEF entrepreneurs from some African countries that included Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Liberia, Kenya, Benin Republic, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire was proof that Africa’s economy is on the right path for continuous growth and it underscores the need for other African billionaires to follow Tony’s example.
Michael Puyi is a TEF alumnus from Liberia and CEO of Medina Farmers. He described Tony as a “mentor and the lion of Africa.” To date, the farm has sold 60 megaton of rice and supply palm oil to small-scale farmers and the government of Liberia.
Another benefactor, Yaa Aduba Asare, is a Ghanaian poultry farmer who started with 200 chickens and 2,000 eggs weekly. But today, Yaa produces 12,000 eggs weekly and employs six staff – in addition to 20 men and women engaged as casuals in the poultry value chain.
Joycee Awosika (nee Awojoodu) is the founder and chief executive of Oriki Spa, a luxury personal grooming and lifestyle brand that uses natural ingredients to create personal care products for women and men. She passed through the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme as a beneficiary of the first cohort in 2015 and I was her mentor.
I am happy to report that Oriki Spa is part of a group of companies established by Joycee that is doing well. She’s now the mother of two young boys and together with her husband, Tola, who is also a consummate entrepreneur, Joycee is building a global hospitality and wellness business across regions and continents.
In a BusinessDay interview in 2019, Joycee revealed that her passion for natural beauty products started early in life: “My journey into the world of natural oils began at the age of 12 when I mixed avocado, yogurt and olive oil together to make a mask for my hair which awed me”.
She kept the dream alive since that young age by establishing Oriki Spa when she returned to Nigeria from the UK. Joycee also launched PowerCareers, a leading recruitment and training company to bridge the human capacity gap in the energy sector.
These are the testimonies by TEF alumni that thrill Tony each time he hears them as travels round the world and he is encouraged to do more in order to expand his reach and impact. The sector does not matter, according to Tony. What is important is the idea that can be curated for exponential growth.
How do you get to be at the right place at the right time? Tony calls it “democratisation of luck” – when luck meets opportunity and you grab it with both hands. But you must work hard and build a wide network to succeed in whatever you do. You also need character, competence and capacity while not overlooking the importance of communication.
Since the inception of TEF Entrepreneurship Programme, over 18,000 young entrepreneurs in Africa have received nearly $100 million seed funds and they have created over 400,000 jobs. This is truly remarkable!
Every year, each beneficiary receives $5,000 non-refundable seed capital, in addition to training, mentoring and peer-to-peer engagement which allows them to build a formidable network and alumni.
With the increasing number of applications, TEFConnect, a digital proprietary platform, was launched and it has provided capacity building support, advisory and market linkages for nearly 1.5 million SMEs.
TEF may also grant additional $5,000 in loan or equity to some of the businesses founded by these amazing and innovative entrepreneurs. This noble initiative is due to Tony’s philanthropy, large heart and good fortune deployed to serve humanity and make other people’s lives better.
He could have left the money in the bank and earn double-digit interest. After all, he is the chairman of UBA, Africa’s global bank with presence in 20 African countries, Paris, London and New York but entrepreneurs think differently. They like sowing seeds that germinate to create wealth and when they grow their investment, people are employed. The result is an economic ecosystem that thrives.
Tony says nations that prioritised their youth will always do well because they are the future of the world. “Leaders must create the environment that attracts our young ones back home, while those who are at home should remain and prosper,” he says at every opportunity.
A lot of young Africans are travelling mainly to Europe and North America in search of greener pastures. For how long will the brain drain continue?
At a speaking engagement at Columbia Business School in the United States five months ago, Tony, as he always does, motivated and inspired the students, most of whom are keen to start their own businesses. You could literally see the excitement on their faces and the fire in their bellies.
Tony said we must solve African challenges by ourselves. Since government cannot create jobs because they don’t have the capacity to do so, Tony explained that SMEs – the engines of economic growth – are required to create jobs.
Young entrepreneurs create jobs for themselves and others. “When you graduate, you can either get a job or become an entrepreneur or support entrepreneurs,” Tony advised his young audience.
He also said that Africa, the second-largest and second-most populous continent after Asia, must create 10 million jobs every year until 2030 to achieve a critical mass for sustainable growth and development of the continent.
Tony is a global icon and he has become a leading voice for Africa. Last year on 28th March, he was honoured as one of the recipients of Time 100 Impact Award which held at the Museum of the Future in Dubai.
At global events such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland or the last climate change conference (COP27) which held in Egypt, his message is consistent and it is about investment in the continent. “Africa needs urgent investment to industrialise and build capacity”, Tony said.
According to him, close to 600 million people live without access to electricity in the continent, and to address the energy poverty, we need investment, technology and knowledge transfer. It will enable clean energy transition in Africa.
The chairman of TEF has had similar speaking engagements at Oxford University and Stanford University. He uses each forum to pitch Africapitalism which is his philosophy on how the private sector can transform Africa through long-term investments in key sectors, thereby creating economic prosperity and social wealth.
For example, Heirs Holdings has investment in the financial services, power, oil and gas, hospitality and healthcare sectors. Tony’s key message is that Africa is the next economic frontier of the world.
Apart from holding 65 per cent of the world’s arable and 10 per cent of the planet’s internal renewable fresh water source, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the largest reserves of cobalt, diamonds, platinum and uranium in the world are in Africa.
Tony was barely 34 years old when he was the CEO of Standard Trust Bank (STB) – the fifth largest bank at the time – that eventually morphed UBA in a talk-of the-town strategic merger when he was 42 years old. In 26 years since his days at STB, Tony has recorded a long list of achievements and 60 years looks so good on him. He wears it confidently and stylishly as he thinks of his next move.
For the 2023 cohort of the entrepreneurship programme, entries are on and will close on March 31.
Let us toast to Tony Elumelu – a great mind, visionary, serial investor and entrepreneur, and the shining star of Africa from Nigeria. Congratulations and may your days be long!
Braimah is a public relations strategist and publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)