Africa’s key to peace and stability? A ‘mighty private sector,’ Elumelu says

Tony Elumelu, one of Africa’s leading investors and philanthropists, recently brought his message to USIP: For Africa, a strong private sector, spurred by entrepreneurs, is critical to advancing peace, stability and development. While promoting business formation is no substitute for strengthening Africa’s weak infrastructure, governance and institutions, neither are challenging business conditions a reason to delay unleashing the entrepreneurial energies of African youth, Elumelu said.

Chioma Ukonu, co-founder of RecyclePoints — an organization dedicated to addressing Nigeria’s growing environmental challenges and waste crisis — is an alumni of the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s entrepreneurship program. (Tony Elumelu Foundation)

In line with that vision, Elumelu, whose foundation trains, supports and provides seed capital to would-be entrepreneurs, called for a “reimagined” U.S. relationship with Africa. Washington needs to shift its focus from aid that inevitably encourages dependency to support for institutions that help empower a burgeoning population through businesses and the jobs they support, Elumelu said.

“Entrepreneurship, peace and conflict are linked one way or the other,” said Elumelu, the chairman of the United Bank of Africa, one of the continent’s leading financial services groups. Young people who are engaged in bettering their own lives and their communities will reject the lures of extremism and crime, he said at an event co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Heritage Foundation.

“The private sector makes innumerable contributions to securing peace,” Lise Grande, USIP’s president and CEO, said in introducing Elumelu. It provides jobs and economic opportunities, promotes education, advances institutions that protect the rule of law, and helps to address the social pressures that lead to extremism and democratic backsliding, Grande said. Those pressures include a soaring population, observed the Heritage Foundation’s Joshua Meservey: 60 percent of Africans are younger than 25 and by 2035 the continent’s working class will likely be larger than China’s or India’s.

“By necessity, peace and security are in a symbiotic and simultaneous relationship with greater economic growth and investment,” Dana Banks, the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for Africa, who appeared with Elumelu, added later.

A Rise to Power

Elumelu cites his own story as a hopeful example of what African entrepreneurs can achieve and the impact they can have. Born to a modest family in Jos Plateau, Nigeria, Elumelu began his working life as a copy machine salesman after university. He says a lucky break landed him his first job in banking, where he worked his way into the executive ranks. In 1997, he led a small group of investors to acquire a distressed bank that he turned around to profitability and in 2005 he led one of the largest bank mergers in sub-Saharan Africa, buying the United Bank of Africa, where he remains chairman. He is also chairman of Transcorp, one of Nigeria’s biggest employers and capital investors. In 2010, he formed the family investment firm Heirs Holdings, whose portfolio companies include oil, power generation and hospitality businesses.

Makila James, a USIP senior advisor; Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation; Dana Banks, senior director for Africa at the U.S. National Security Council; and Tony Elumelu discuss entrepreneurship and peacebuilding in Africa.

Also in 2010, Elumelu founded the Tony Elumelu Foundation to spur entrepreneurship across the continent. Committing $100 million over 10 years to the project, the foundation has offered training to more than 15,000 entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries, drawing from hundreds of thousands of applicants to the program. Upon completion, each receives a $5,000 grant that Elumelu said is aimed to fund proof of concept for their plan. The foundation seeks to scale its dispersion of knowledge on business formation through the TEF Connect digital network, which links over a million African entrepreneurs. The foundation has partnerships with the European Commission, the United Nations, Red Cross and other development agencies.

Across Africa, governments too often see the private sector as a competitor, which abets instability, he said. Leaders must understand that only the private sector — particularly small and medium-scale enterprises — can catalyze economic growth by creating jobs. At the same time, the “enabling environment” of government-involved infrastructure demands massive investment. Investors, however, are reluctant to finance or build projects in countries plagued by theft, insecurity and corruption, he said, so a “mighty private sector” will place increased demands on political leaders to improve their countries’ governance.

A Strategy for the U.S.

Asked what the United States can do to improve Africa’s governance, Elumelu replied that “people are beginning to wonder if the U.S. is still there for Africa because of the foray into Africa by other world powers.”

Yet America remains admired and respected, he said. A critical step would be to make sure aid makes it past the “last mile” to its intended recipients and purposes; another would be supporting institutional infrastructure that helps address sustainability; and U.S. policymakers and financial institutions should impress on African leaders how their own political goals and private sector success are linked. Overall, there needs to be a “reimagining of what Africa needs” — a necessity demonstrated by a dangerous level of youth unemployment that is not improving, Elumelu said. The recent string of coups across Africa should serve as a “wake-up call” for the urgency of addressing the social and economic conditions that lead to political instability, he said.

Dana Banks, the National Security Council’s senior director for Africa, who appeared with Elumelu, said the administration is “looking at how we can partner and how we can support entrepreneurs on the continent,” for now primarily through Prosper Africa.

Begun under the Trump administration and relaunched by President Biden in July, Prosper Africa brings together services and resources from across the U.S. government to support U.S. investment in Africa, as well as bolstering trade between the United States and the continent. Added recently to the “toolkits” available through Prosper Africa, are ties with the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the  U.S. African Development Foundation, that are expected to provide additional credit facilities to African startups, Banks said. USIP recently noted the role of the DFC in promoting stability in coup-plagued West Africa.

Elumelu pointed to a partnership with Google as a good example of the relationships that can promote entrepreneurship among young Africans. The tech giant has committed a team to expand the training capacity of the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s digital network, which already includes about a million active and aspiring entrepreneurs. As the foundation’s program can only accept up to 2,000 students from 350,000 applicants, Google is helping develop a training platform with unlimited reach keyed to African conditions.

“That digital partnership is such critical support for Africa,” Elumelu said. “Our internet connectivity?  Not so great. Available bandwidth? Not so great. Yet this young African is connected to the rest of the world. And that is an area we know we need to focus on.”

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