On Friday, upon invitation from the U.S. State Department, I spoke at the U.S. – Africa Ministerial Session on Increasing Trade and Investment, in DC chaired by US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
First, let me commend the US government for creating a conducive platform for top US Administration officials and 37 African Ministers and delegates to engage in a rich debate about a new form of partnership where Africa’s economic potential is realized in a sustainable fashion that creates value for the majority and not the minority. It was a productive discussion that covered important aspects of the paradigm shift in development including, adopting more strategic methods of investing in Africa, long-term capacity building for SMEs which will drive greater interconnectivity on the continent, and other forms of intervention that go beyond aid to transform the continent in the 21st century.
Let me start with investments: to drive this, the investment climate must be encouraging for business. We must walk the talk. In my remarks, I stressed to the African country delegates present to take this important counsel very seriously. Additionally, there is need to showcase ongoing reform achievements to prevent information asymmetry – one of the major challenges the continent grapples with. When new enabling policies are created, or existing ones that hinder business growth are dismantled, it is important to create awareness around these small wins. The more information is provided and accessible to the public news from the continent is, the more likely we will be in winning the fight against changing the pervading negative narrative Africa continues to battle.
We can’t forget the issue of electricity. As Chairman of Transcorp, the largest power generator in Nigeria, I recognize that power is not just an end but a critical element that job creation is entirely dependent on. To create employment in Africa, we must deal decisively, once and for all, with the power sector – across the value chain of Generation, Transmission and Distribution- to provide reliable, accessible and affordable electricity to Africans across all 54 countries. In the absence of power, poverty is reinforced and passed on from generation to generation. The good news is that the African private sector is maturing, our governments are gradually liberalizing, and the private sector leaders are financially and technically ready to partner with global firms ready to do business in Africa. As a result, foreign companies in the power business, transmission and distribution in particular, who want to come to Africa will today, have more ready African investors who are ready to co-invest in new opportunities.
Finally, I spoke about the issue of unemployment. Yes, power is critical in addressing this but equally important is what I call a global attention and shift of mind to issues that can help us create massive employment – and that is the small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs). I called for more channelling of resources towards supporting African entrepreneurs and SMEs to significantly address the issue of job creation. The jobs we need in Africa cannot come from the big corporations, the jobs we need in Africa would come from small and medium scale enterprises.
Their success would be the success of Africa. We are not doing so well in this area of supporting these enterprising and entrepreneurial youth to achieve their dreams, and I speak from experience.
As Founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation where we support African entrepreneurs in 54 African countries in funding of up to $10,000, and other non-financial components, we have seen through experience that these youth can make a great difference, massive impact. They help to generate employment and new revenues, and that is why I commend the interconnectivity programme of the US government because these entrepreneurs need this kind of access to do well.
So I want to say to the country and individual donors, the development world and all others – let us begin to rethink how we support Africa’s development and economic transformation. Let’s see how we can reach the very last mile and support these young African entrepreneurs and SMEs; therein, in my view, lies the true path to Africa’s economic transformation and how to genuinely create jobs, jobs, the jobs we desperately need on the continent.