The Founding Trustee of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Dr Awele Elumelu is the wife of the billionaire banker and philanthropist, Mr. Tony Elumelu. With her position, she occupies the driver’s seat in the organisation’s decision to empower young entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries with business management training, mentorship, coaching, funding and access to markets and key networks. In this interview with Festus Akanbi, she spoke on sundry issues including the role of private sector as a catalyst for development, the dual purpose of business in achieving profit and prosperity, her role in the Tony Elumelu Foundation and the nurturing of a new class of Africa’s entrepreneurs
One of the uniqueness of the Tony Elumelu Foundation is the focus on the Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) which is popular among the youth and marginalised segment of the society in Africa. What will you describe as the driving force to help this class of people?
As individuals, my husband and I have always believed in our continent. As my husband always says “He was born in Africa, raised in Africa, studied in Africa, worked in Africa, and has achieved success in Africa.” Same with me. I am an African product through and through. We also very much believe in ‘doing well and doing good’. Business should have a dual purpose of achieving profit and prosperity. The private sector must play a leading role in development. We cannot continue to outsource the role of development and transforming our continent to public sector alone. We have extended this belief, which is known as Africapitalism to our business practices as well as our philanthropic endeavours. Africapitalism espouses that the private sector has the power to transform the continent through long-term investments, creating both economic prosperity and social wealth. Africa has unique challenges, and we believe that as private sector players we act as key enablers to bring about lasting solutions.
Through Heirs Holdings, our family-owned investment company, we invest in key sectors that contribute significantly to Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Through our philanthropy, The Tony Elumelu Foundation, we empower young entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries with business management training, mentorship, coaching, funding and access to markets and key networks.
Indeed, at the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we are focused on empowering African entrepreneurs of all ages and across all sectors through our annual Entrepreneurship Programme which was conceived to identify, train and provide non-refundable seed funding to 1,000 entrepreneurs per year. This year, we recently announced that over 5,000 entrepreneurs were chosen for the 2021 programme. As I said earlier, we centred entrepreneurship as our cause because of our firm belief in Africapitalism, our guiding principle which states that the private sector – that is, the entrepreneurs that we are empowering – hold the key to the social and economic transformation of the continent. By empowering these micro, small and medium enterprises, we are helping them to catalyse change in the communities as they create jobs, add value and help eradicate poverty in their communities.
Finally, we sought to democratise luck. Yes, hard work plays an important and undeniable part in success, but one must not discount the role of luck – someone being willing to take a chance on you or business idea by empowering you through training, mentorship or funding. We have seen firsthand the role of luck in our success and we are trying to replicate our success by making this luck available to as many people as possible. Our hope is that, through the Entrepreneurship Programme, we would help the next business leader or captain of industry be whom they are meant to be.
In many cases, philanthropists often find it difficult to make their spouses buy into their generosity. At what point were you convinced that Tony Elumelu Foundation was pursuing a just cause?
To be honest, one does not need convincing to do the right thing. It didn’t take much to convince me. My husband and I are passionate about Africa’s socio-economic transformation and always thought about how we could contribute and pay forward the good fortune we have been fortunate to have experienced. According to my husband, we committed ourselves to ‘institutionalising luck’. I knew from the onset that what we set out to do at the Foundation and what we are currently doing is the just thing to do. Beyond business success, one must always look for ways not only to give back but also to empower the generation coming behind us so that they can go even further than we have. That is how we can enact this social and economic change that we are all seeking in our country and on our continent. As a parent, one’s desire is for your children to do better than you and so you will provide the resources and materials that they need to ensure that they go far in life. Similarly, at the Foundation we are equipping the next generation with the tools they need to succeed.
Since 2010 when we launched the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we have rolled out many different initiatives aimed to target structural barriers for entrepreneurs. We also launched initiatives focused on identifying and developing the next generation of African leaders. Initiatives such as The Tony & Awele Elumelu Prize, to recognise, reward, and inspire academic excellence in tertiary institutions across Africa, The Elumelu Professionals Programme, an MBA internship program designed to improve the competitiveness of innovative small and growing African businesses while introducing some of the world’s brightest young Business School students to the growth opportunity that African markets represent. We have also had the Blair-Elumelu Fellowship which was a partnership between the Tony Elumelu Foundation and Tony Blair Institute to aid African governments with policy advisory, leadership and management support.
From running these different initiatives over the years, it became clear to us that there were some key gaps. Access to early-stage capital and business development support were not available on the right terms nor scale to entrepreneurs across Africa. And so, in 2015, we commited US$100 million to identify, train, mentor, fund and provide networking opportunities for 10,000 African entrepreneurs across 54 African countries over 10 years.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme, which has become the flagship programme of the Foundation, has now grown beyond our initial plans. Every year, interest, participation and partnerships increase. We have now been able to empower and fund 15,847 entrepreneurs to date and support 1.2 million through TEFConnect, our online digital platform.
The Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme is the most extensive program of its kind in Africa, reaching Anglophone, Lusophone, and Francophone regions alike, cutting across all 54 countries on the continent. We have been able to create a bridge to connect and cater to all corners of the continent, and I am proud of this achievement. I am also quite proud of the increase in female participation, especially with the 2021 cohort where we witnessed a record 68% selection of women entrepreneurs!
I will say of this generation, that in addition to being smart and technology savvy, they are also very entrepreneurial. They have refused to follow the traditional paths that we took in our day where a lawyer was just a lawyer who gradually and patiently climbed the career ladder, or a doctor was just a doctor or an engineer just an engineer. No, this generation is entrepreneurial and solutions-driven and so, are applying their academic knowledge along with digital savvy to bring innovative solutions to endemic social and economic issues. Their businesses have improved the ease of cross-border payments, health care record management, intra-Africa logistics, and even improved representation in health prostheses to name a few. These are laudable and need to be encouraged and empowered. We must continue to encourage them as much as we can and with the resources that we can. I do not think one needs to be convinced before one sees that this is the right thing to do.
In what way(s) is your training as a medical practitioner adding value to your position as a founding trustee of TEF?
My experience as a business leader in Africa, especially in an industry as highly regulated as healthcare gives me first-hand insight into the operational environment and some of the challenges our entrepreneurs face.
Avon Medical Practice has been in business for over 10 years. What started as a small hospital in Surulere has now become a group of hospitals, specialist, and worksite clinics all over Nigeria, as we plan for further expansion in 2022.
In addition, as a medical doctor and chair of healthcare investments within the Heirs Holdings Group, healthcare will always be at the forefront of many of my contributions to the foundation. This is because of the critical role healthcare plays in fostering economic development. Although there are countless studies proving the links between the health of a population and increased economic growth and prosperity, one only needs to look at the impact that the ongoing pandemic has had on the global economy to come to the conclusion that there is no business without good health systems. To underscore this point, at our last Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Forum in 2019 which we held at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja, I convened a panel that included the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus; the Vice-President of the Internal Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Gilles Carbonnier, and other distinguished regional leaders as we discussed the central role of healthcare in economic transformation.
Therefore, in my personal capacity, I ensure that we have representation from healthcare-focused entrepreneurs who can help strengthen and innovate our health systems and I truly believe that Africa can be a locus of technology-led healthcare innovation.
I get a sense of fulfilment from mentoring our Tony Elumelu entrepreneurs. With each mentee, I know I am not just supporting a business but also a community. Beyond the funding, a lot of our entrepreneurs look forward to the guidance and steer; instilling good corporate governance practices and sharing insight on how to adapt to challenges with creative thinking are lessons I continue to share.
It’s not just about disbursing funds, we want these businesses to succeed and so ensuring their success whether through advocacy for an improved operational environment, funding or mentoring, we do the utmost to contribute to the progress of our entrepreneurs.
Do you still practise as a medical doctor or you have finally hung your stethoscope?
(Laughs) Can one ever truly hang up one’s stethoscope? In this day and age, and especially with the ongoing pandemic, one has to continually learn through formal and informal channels and stay abreast of medical trends in order to provide quality healthcare delivery.
To answer your question, I made an intentional decision a few years back, after several years of working in the field, to move to the business side of healthcare. I envisioned building an institution where we could provide affordable, quality healthcare with empathy and equity at its core. This led to me founding Avon Medical, a multi-specialty hospital network with locations in Lagos, Abuja, Delta and Rivers State to name a few, and Avon Healthcare, a health management organisation, which is a top 3 HMO in Nigeria – thanks to my dependable and capable CEO – Simbo Ukiri, a woman also! Although I do not practice as much as I did in my early days, I am very involved in the day-to-day operations of the hospitals both from the clinical and also on the business side.
I will say though, that my medical license is also fully active for the times I may need to jump in here and there
Mr. Elumelu is a global entrepreneur who is practically on the move every time. With your active participation in TEF, how are you coping with the home front?
I am not only a Trustee of the Foundation but also, as mentioned earlier, I straddle different roles as the Founder and Chairman of Avon Medical and the Chairman of Avon Healthcare, our HMO business, member of Heirs Holdings Group Board, Member, UBA Pensions Custodian Board. I also sit on the board of the Sirleaf Johnson Foundation, the board of the Yale School of Health, and serve as the GAVI Private Sector Champion for Africa.
But as we say, family comes first and with our seven children, it’s a delicate balance to ensure that we are raising healthy, diligent children who are not only learning but living the values that we are teaching them. It is not easy, I must say, but one must realise that as with all things in life, one has to be very deliberate with our choices. While yes, I am very hands-on with all aspects of our children’s lives, education and everything that has to do with the home, so is my husband despite his hectic schedule. We make joint decisions on everything that concerns our children and our home.
Can you elaborate on the partnership between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) which produced TEF-UNDP Youth Entrepreneurship Programme to empower an additional 100,000 young African entrepreneurs over the next 10 years with seed capital, business training and mentoring?
The TEF-UNDP Partnership builds on Tony Elumelu Foundation’s proven model for empowering young African entrepreneurs across all 54 African countries through our flagship TEF Entrepreneurship Programme. The TEF-UNDP Partnership scales the existing TEF Entrepreneurship Programme to reach thousands more across Africa. With this partnership, we are targeting African youth in underserved communities, including the Sahel region which is home to the youngest population in the world with about 194 million people under the age of 25.
The partnership is not only about providing economic empowerment to these young Africans, but it is also a way to give them hope and help stabilise this volatile region. We will harness their ingenuity and ideas in a way that can benefit their communities and the continent at large.
This partnership is also in line with the UN SDG goals and the AU’s Agenda 2063 so we will be hitting micro- and macro-economic development goals.
This partnership which began in 2018 has today empowered over 5000 entrepreneurs from across all 54 African countries.
We have recently just announced an additional partnership with the UN, UNDP and UNICEF where the Tony Elumelu Foundation will be the implementing partner for the United Nation’s Sahel Initiative for the Youth, called “A Regeneration”.
What are the challenges to the implementation of the TEF programmes given the fact that we are talking about entire Africa as a catchment area?
As with any ambitious venture, there will be challenges but at the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we like to say that we do not see challenges but rather opportunities to learn and scale. As a testament to the strength and hard work of the Board, management, and staff of the Foundation, most of what would be challenges were foreseen and processes were instituted to forestall them before they surfaced. For instance, leveraging on technology to train, mentor and coach our thousands of young entrepreneurs from across all 54 African countries, we have managed to leapfrog a lot of the challenges that would have come with implementing the programme across Africa. This year alone, the Tony Elumelu Foundation trained over 200,000 young African businesses through its proprietary digital platform, TEFConnect.com
I commend the pioneer CEO of the Foundation, Wiebe Boer, his successor Parminder Vir, and incumbent, Ifeyinwa Ugochukwu.
One issue that could have been a major challenge for us is the disbursement of funds to entrepreneurs. Our Entrepreneurship Programme empowers entrepreneurs across the 54 countries in Africa while our base of operations is here in Lagos. This may have posed a bit of a challenge as a result of issues with cross-border payments and in ensuring that payments are going to the intended recipients. Luckily, our partnership with the United Bank for Africa (UBA), Africa’s Global Bank, has helped us to simplify this process seamlessly. Working with UBA, which has over a thousand branches in 20 African countries, serving over 26 million customers, the bank has made our work in disbursing the funds easier as a result of their massive footprint and capacity.
Are there mechanisms to keep a tab on the activities of beneficiaries of TEF training and funding in other to ensure the survival of their businesses?
At the Foundation, once an entrepreneur is selected for the Entrepreneurship Programme cohort, we have designed a robust mechanism to keep them engaged and to monitor them. When they are selected to be part of a cohort, they work closely with the Entrepreneurship Programme team keeps and are introduced to Hub Leads, who are alumni of the programme in their different countries and locales so that they get physical support both from the Foundation and from their peers. On completion of the program, they are considered alumni and are handed over to the Alumni Engagement Team at the Foundation, which helps with issues within their purview. Then there is our robust Monitoring and Evaluation Unit which sends out periodic surveys and provides reports to the Board on the general health of our entrepreneurs’ businesses.
As I also earlier mentioned, TEFConnect, which is the largest digital platform for African entrepreneurs for them to connect, engage and seek funding and mentorship as needed. It is a very active platform with over one million users which helps us keep tabs on entrepreneurs and also helps us get feedback from them so that we can know where and how we can better help them with their businesses.
At the Foundation we have access to unique data and have leveraged this to produce original reports which support our advocacy agenda to improve the ecosystem for African entrepreneurs. For instance, the Foundation’s publicly available 2021 Impact Assessment published by PWC, the TEF beneficiaries have collectively created over 400,000 direct and indirect jobs in Africa!