Nigerian billionaire philanthropist Tony Elumelu on US tour to boost African entrepreneurship

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Wednesday, 4 May 2022 17:03, updated on Thursday, 5 May 2022 19:10
Tony Elumelu, Non-Executive Chairman, United Bank for Africa. Arrival of business leaders and participants for the second edition of the Tech for Good Summit on May 15, 2019 at Hotel de Marigny in Paris, organized by Emmanuel Macron, President of French Republic. Paris, FRANCE

Nigerian billionaire businessman and philanthropist Tony Elumelu is on a US tour to drum up public and private support for his quest to kickstart African entrepreneurship.  

The chairman of the United Bank for Africa and founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation met with US officials in Washington last week before checking in on his business interests in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Utah.

It’s his first US trip since the Covid-19 pandemic and a chance to share his vision of Africapitalism with the Joe Biden administration that has made “trade not aid” a central tenet of its engagement with Africa.

“The trip isn’t just about business – it’s about making sure that we’re advancing a common agenda for the African continent,” Elumelu told The Africa Report in a brief interview at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, where he discussed the nexus between economic opportunity and regional peace. “It is that intersection of business and doing good that makes us different and unique.”

Elumelu arrived in the US fresh from being recognised in late March as an inaugural winner of Time magazine’s list of 100 leaders shaping the future of their industry.

He was notably rewarded for his foundation’s gift of $100m to entrepreneurs across Africa. The Tony Elumelu Foundation, which was established in 2010, has mentored, trained and funded  more than 16,000 entrepreneurs across all 54 African countries.

“The world is in need of people like us – more than ever before,” Elumelu told his fellow business leaders at the ceremony in Dubai. “We should pull resources together; we should commit now to help in any way possible in economically empowering others.”

In April, Elumelu met with the president of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Jean-Claude Kassi Brou, to discuss the private sector’s role in the regional body’s priorities, including trade, infrastructure, power and peace. In a thread on Twitter, Elumelu said he was bringing the same message to US officials and potential investors as he seeks to empower the next generation on the world’s youngest continent, where 60% of people are under the age of 25.

“Youth unemployment is a waste of talent and a betrayal of a generation; one reason some African youth fall prey to extremism is because they don’t see hope. It has become critical to address this issue,” he said. “We should not be Africa of dependency, but Africa of dignity and self-reliance, and entrepreneurship is the gateway. This week I carry this same message to the United States of America, as I strengthen our partnerships and draw attention to the investment potential of Africa.”

Business and politics

Elumelu has long worked closely with the US government. He was one of the first business leaders on the continent to endorse President Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative almost a decade ago, with his Heirs Holding investment company collaborating to expand the Ughelli power plant in the Delta region of Nigeria. In February 2020, the United Bank for Africa – the only sub-Saharan African bank with an operational banking licence in the US – signed a memorandum of understanding with USAID to increase two-way trade and investment under President Donald Trump’s Prosper Africa initiative.

To help make inroads with the Biden administration, Elumelu hired Africa-focused lobbyist Riva Levinson and her firm KRL International. This is the first time he has retained lobbying assistance in the United States.

The firm is tasked with helping “generate new opportunities for strategic collaboration by building relationships with investors, research institutions, support organisations focused on entrepreneurship, and with US Government programs”, according to its lobbying registration.

In a flurry of meetings last week, Elumelu notably met with the new president and chairwoman of the US Export-Import Bank, Reta Jo Lewis; US African Development Foundation President and CEO Travis Adkins; and leaders of the Development Finance Corporation and Prosper Africa as well as members of Congress. He also spoke with the senior director for Africa at the White House National Security Council, Dana Banks, during his appearance at USIP.

“We are so excited to have partnered with you and your foundation, with Power Africa as well as Prosper Africa,” Banks told Elumelu. “[…] I think that is sort of the genesis of where we are today, the conversations that we’re having currently in the administration, when we talk about supporting entrepreneurship and youth entrepreneurs on the continent and how that feeds into broader economic growth.”

The US Institute of Peace event, in partnership with the conservative Heritage Foundation, was also a chance for the congressionally established USIP to expand its cooperation with the African business sector.

I believe that, in the 21st century, we need to drive development on the continent to the private sector, in collaboration with the Friends of Africa across the globe.

“From a USIP angle, it was a precedent meeting, as it represents a shift in their direction, recognising that they need to engage the Africa business community directly into the discussions about peacebuilding,” Levinson tells The Africa Report. “They will soon be setting up a Working Group. For Tony’s group, there were robust discussions about how the US can partner with his entrepreneurship program to achieve some of the US policy goals with youth and women, particularly leading to the US Africa Leaders’ Summit.”

Elumelu told The Africa Report that his goal is to “change the conversation” around Africa and reimagine the way the US supports the continent.

“I believe that, in the 21st century, we need to drive development on the continent to the private sector, in collaboration with the Friends of Africa across the globe,” he said. “The reason I’m in the US is to engage with policymakers, with lawmakers, with leaders of the development, with business sector leaders, to see how we can galvanise, bring resources together, to help to develop Africa in a manner that is sustainable, in a manner that creates true and lasting impact.”

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