Tony Elumelu is one of the most influential businessmen in Africa. An African economist, banker, investor and a noted philanthropist with a passion for building Africa ‘from the inside out’. He first stepped into the spotlight when he took the helm of Standard Bank Trust in the late Nineties, then in 2005 led the largest merger in the banking sector in Sub-Saharan Africa to acquire United Bank for Africa. He retired from banking in July 2010, and set up Heirs Holdings.

We are fortunate that Tony gave the Afropolitan a few minutes of his time at the BRICS Business Council meeting held at the Sandton Convention Centre.

You are known for turning around struggling corporations. What business practices can you say contribute to that success?

Tony Elumelu is one of the most influential businessmen in Africa. An African economist, banker, investor and a noted philanthropist with a passion for building Africa

First and foremost is your ability to manage resources. When you take on an ailing business, you need to understand the industry, the sector and the organisation itself. Simply ask yourself: is the sector doing well or not, or is this particular business the only one in the sector that is not doing well? It’s easier to fix the problem if it’s the actual business that’s not performing well, as opposed to the entire sector. You investigate why the business is lagging, then you address the issues. But one thing that is common to all businesses – both struggling and outperformers – is people. That’s why the ability to manage human resources is the key in turning around a business. 

What motivated your decision to retire at the age of 47?

[Laughs] I became a bank CEO at a relatively young age and so at 47 I had known 13-and-a-half years in banking and there was a national regulation that came in that people who had done 10 years as bank CEOs should not continue. So even though I was only planning to leave in about three years, when the regulation came into effect, I decided, “Well, it looks like I am leaving this year.” I just felt that after 13 years as a CEO, it was time to try something new.

In your opinion what is an Africapitalist?

Let’s start with: What is Africapitalism?’ It’s a call on the private sector, like we are doing here [at the BRICS Business Council meeting], to invest long-term in key sectors of the African economy. In the long run investment in those key sectors will have to address African development and local issues. For the private sector to do well, the public sector must create an enabling environment. And in Africa, as Africa’s private sector, we must demonstrate confidence by investing. If we do it others will follow. These are the key pillars that drive the concept of Africapitalism. So when you call someone an Africapitalist, it’s someone that practices all of these things: someone who invests long-term; someone who invests in a manner that ultimately creates a profit, and through this, someone who addresses Africa’s many social challenges. If you have a company that employs 5000-10000 people, then you are helping with unemployment issues, while you are making profit. If you have a power plant, and you are generating electricity, then you are making money, but at the same time you are helping Africa address its power infrastructure challenges.

What is the working relationship between Heirs Holding and the Tony Elumelu Foundation?

I founded both. Heirs Holdings is for business and for profit, while the Tony Elumelu Foundation is not for profit. The foundation is based on my career path. I have realised that I am also consistent with the tenets of Africapitalism. I have realised that the private sector has a key role to play in African development. As African business leaders we need to deliberately cultivate, nurture, groom and create entrepreneurs – it can’t just happen by accident. [Laughs] Well it does sometimes happen by accident, but it’s better if we deliberately set out to do it. When I founded the Tony Elumelu Foundation I felt it was time to help Africa in my own little way, and it’s all about creating entrepreneurship across Africa.

What sectors is Heirs Holdings most active in?

We invest in key sectors such as power, oil and gas, real estate and hospitality, healthcare, agribusiness, and financial services. These are the sectors that play a significant role in helping an economy perform well.

One of the areas where you’re making a real difference is the plight of the African farmer…

In agri-business we have set up Africa Exchange Holdings (Africa Commodity Exchange Limited or AFEX), which has started up in Rwanda, and the whole idea, is to take this model to other African countries that can support it. By having a commodity exchange, you do make profits, but it’s the social impact that is huge. More so than the business impact. Because you prize discovery, you prize transparency, you encourage farmers to employ more, and you’re moving farming from a subsistence business to a commercial business. At the end of the day it is a mechanism to enable them to get the best price, without your goods perishing.

The amount of aid that has flowed into Africa is enormous. Why has all this failed to make any tangible change in the lives of Africans?

Look, it hasn’t been bad. If we look at statistics over the decades, a huge amount of aid has flowed into Africa and we have not made any significant progress. Let’s look at other growth models, at other growth approaches…. One of the speakers today [at the BRICS Business Council meeting] said that when the private sector moves into an area, it send out the signal that something must be right. If we must have aid, then let those funds be used to support business rather than be used for charity. Having said that, there are a few areas – such as natural disasters – where relying on charity is inevitable. But let us look at charity with the mindset of eradicating issues, and not perpetuating issues.

What frustrates you about doing business on our continent?

Policies, policies, policies! Africa is improving, and good policies are coming in place, but we are still lacking in consistency, and we need to encourage African leaders to be more consistent in this area. The problem with inconsistent policies is that it helps to perpetuate misinformation about Africa.

Let’s talk about the concept of ‘Africa rising’.

We keep reading in the press, about ‘Africa – the recipient’. The mindset is: ‘We need to help Africa.’ That was even the focus of the dinner event we attended before this event kicked off. As a continent we can do it for ourselves. 

You have a very strong passion for philanthropy, why is that?

I am Africa-born, African-bred and African-schooled, and I have managed to acquire some wealth and comfort in Africa. When you look around, you see poverty. And you think to yourself: “These people are likely not poor by choice.” I want to create an environment where people can be who they should be, become who they were meant to be. I feel that if one dedicated a portion of his wealth to playing a role in creating the kind of Africa that we could all be proud of, then things won’t be too bad. So that is my motivation; that is my driving force. That is why I feel like Africa is not about charity. It’s about creating change that is sustainable. It’s not about doling out money. It’s about using money in a manner that can truly change things. If you act to ensure that the right policies are implemented that create employment in a country that, to me, is more important and more powerful.  


Fast Facts about Tony Elumelu

·       He is the originator of the term “Africapitalist”

·       He is an alumnus of Harvard Business School

·       He won the 2006 African Business Leader of the Year by Africa Investor magazine.

·       Forbes magazine named him one of Africa’s 20 Most Powerful People in 2012

·       New African magazine featured him in their list of the 100 Most Influential Africans in Business

·       He holds the Nigerian national honour: the Commander of the Order of Nigeria

·       Tony recently committed $2.5 to Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative

·       He has five daughters, and is one of five children himself

·       His middle name is Onyemaechi

Words: Stacey Vee