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What does Tony Elumelu want?

In a philanthropy psychology class, it will not be unlikely to ask what people like Tony Elumelu want with their devotion to philanthropy. Some universities now run courses or degree programmes in philanthropic studies or philanthropic psychology. So what does Tony Elumelu want? 

There are very many reasons why highly successful people are motivated to be philanthropists, instead of enjoying their success, often denominated in wealth.  So what could be motivation of Tony Elumelu, who has been making headline news in philanthropy?

One of the most recent was at the National Theatre in Lagos, where The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) signed an MOU with the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture for the development of Nigeria’s creative industries.

The partnership is to provide a framework for bringing creative industry stakeholders together with investors, financiers and business leaders to transform the creativity of industry entrepreneurs into a profitable sector capable of attracting international collaboration and contributing consistently to the national economy.

In April, the minister approached TEF with a challenge: “How can we work together to help transform the currently underdeveloped and unstructured creative industry ecosystem into an organized and profitable pool of creative industries that provide meaningful employment to thousands of Nigerians?”

The Foundation’s response is the framework which undergirds the MOU.

Before then, in July 2016, the Presidency, through the office of the First Lady of Nigeria, Mrs. Aisha Buhari and wife of the Vice President of Nigeria, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo partnered with African businessman, Tony Elumelu, on an initiative to boost potential of Nigerian women in export.

Themed ‘Achieving Zero Oil Growth Through Women Inclusiveness in Global Export Trade’, the stakeholders forum and exhibition organised by the National Export Promotion Council and the International Trade Center (ITC) in Geneva, explored measures to increase economic empowerment of women through trade via the ITC’s SheTrades Initiative.

The goal of this initiative is to connect one million women to the international market by 2020.First Lady, Mrs. Aisha Buhari stated that, “Nigerian women are extremely hardworking. We only need a little push, and this is the time”.


Tony Elumelu is so famous his profile is all over the internet: “Tony O. Elumelu is an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. The chairman of Heirs Holdings, United Bank for Africa Plc, and Transcorp Nigeria Plc.

“In his early career, he made a name for himself by turning the nearly bankrupt Standard Trust Bank into a top-five player in Nigeria. In 2005 he led the largest merger in the banking sector in sub-Saharan Africa, acquiring United Bank for Africa (UBA). In five years, he transformed it from a single-country bank to a pan-“African institution with over 7 million customers in 19 African countries.

In 2010, he commenced full-time operations at Heirs Holdings and founded The Tony Elumelu Foundation, an Africa-based and African-funded philanthropic organization focused on supporting entrepreneurs in Africa by enhancing the competitiveness of the private sector.

“He serves as a member of the USAID’s Private Capital Group for Africa Partners Forum. He sits on the Nigerian President’s Agricultural Transformation Implementation Council and serves as Co-Chair of the Aspen Institute Dialogue Series on Global Food Security. He played a leading role in the formation of the National Competitiveness Council of Nigeria and serves as its vice chairman. He is also a member of the Global Advisory Board of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.

“He is the author and leading proponent of the philosophy he calls “Africapitalism,” which is the private sector’s commitment to Africa’s development through long-term investment in strategic sectors of the economy that drive economic prosperity and social wealth.

“In 2003 the FG of Nigeria conferred the national honour of Member of the Federal Republic on Mr Elumelu. In 2012 he was also awarded the Commander of the Order of the Niger for his service in promoting private enterprise. He was recognized as one of “Africa’s 20 Most Powerful People in 2012” by Forbes Magazine.

Tony Elumelu’s Philanthropy

Following his retirement from United Bank for Africa in July 2010, Elumelu founded The Tony Elumelu Foundation.  The Foundation is the leading philanthropic organisation in Africa with the aim of promoting entrepreneurship as the catalyst for the socio-economic development of the continent. The Foundation has set itself apart from grant-making bodies, by operationalising integrated programmes to support entrepreneurship in Africa and by enhancing the competitiveness of the African private sector. TEF has achieved this namely through its flagship initiative, the TF Entrepreneurship Programme, a 10-year, $100 million commitment to identify, train mentor and fund 10,000 entrepreneurs.


  • Tony Elumelu was a member of the World Economic Forum’s Regional Agenda Council on Africa.
  • His presence on the Bretton Woods Committee, which brings together senior leaders in the global banking industry, is recognition of his work on African development.
  • He is a Fellow of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI).
  • He is involved, through his foundation, with the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) in a partnership to strengthen the private sector’s role in the economic transformation of select African countries. This partnership is called the Blair-Elumelu Fellowship Programme.
  • He is co-chair of the Africa Energy Leaders’ Group (AELG)
  • Elumelu is a Trustee of the Infant Jesus Academy in Delta State Nigeria.
  • Although under-reported, he is known to rush to the needs of people, and organizations caring for people in distress. He is said to be silent about those.

Visibility at Business Fora

When a business forum matters here in the country or overseas, you are most likely to find Elumelu there promoting Africa business and entrepreneurship. At the US – Africa Business Forum (USABF) which was organized by Bloomberg and the United States department of Commerce held alongside the 2016 United Nations General Assembly, U.S. Secretary of Commerce commended Elumelu for his pivotal role in US-Africa business relations.

Elumelu was host to over 200 global leaders with Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker as the guest of honour at the event. Indeed, he had spoken at the USABF earlier that day after President Obama’s address, re –emphasising that America needs to expand and scale up their policies in Africa and not necessarily make changes to what they are doing on the continent.

Ms. Pritzker commended Tony Elumelu saying “Tony is an incredible entrepreneur and pivotal to U.S-Africa business relations. He is a great friend of the U.S.”

Also in attendance at the event were, former president of Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo; Senior Political Analyst, Professor David Gergen; Chairman US EX-IM bank, Fred Hochberg; President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Elizabeth Littlefield; U.S. Executive Director at the World Bank, Mathew Mcguire; CEO UBA, Kennedy Uzoka; former CNN anchor, Zain Verjee; Vice Chairman, corporate council on Africa, Robert Perry; Founding President Devex, Raj Kumar; CEO of the Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC), Olusegun Awolowo; CEO, President of the Business Council for International Understanding, Peter Tichansky amongst others.

So what does Tony Elumelu want?

Fame:  Some people give for no altruistic reasons, but for fame, to show off that they are rich. For an already wealthy and famous man, a multiple chairman of companies with strong entrepreneurship pedigree, Elumelu couldn’t be driven by the quest for fame. Otherwise, in the popular Nigerian style, he would as well have been dripping with chieftaincy titles, with visible presence at social functions.

Politics: Many people are involved in philanthropy with their eyes on politics. But the demography of Tony Elumelu’s philanthropy does not hint about that motive, except in the most unlikely scenario of a wish to become the first President of the United States of Africa.

Silent Motives: There are silent motives and benefits of benevolence, but they are common to all givers and philanthropists. They include spiritual benefits, happiness and good health.

A 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and colleagues found that giving money to someone else lifted participants’ happiness more that spending it on themselves (despite participants’ prediction that spending on themselves would make them happier).

Happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, saw similar results when she asked people to perform five acts of kindness each week for six weeks.

Scientists also believe that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.” 

Also, many studies have linked different forms of generosity to better health, even among the sick and elderly. In his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post, a professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University, reports that giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people.

Shades of Altruism

Researchers have been investigating the motives for philanthropy over the years. They found that it falls into three broad categories, from the purely altruistic – I donate because I value the social good done; the “impurely” altruistic – I donate because I extract value from; and the not-at-all altruistic – I donate because I want to show off how rich I am.

From the texture, focus and demography of Tony Elumelu’s philanthropy, it would seem, without being told, that it is an altruistic personal motivation to support a cause close to his heart, part of which is sharing an overflowing gift of entrepreneurship with people across countries. Turning the nearly bankrupt Standard Trust Bank into a top-five player in Nigeria and leading the largest merger in the banking sector in sub-Saharan Africa, suggest a rare gift.

He admits this motive when he says: “Africa’s development has become somewhat of a personal mission. It is my belief that Africans should take primary responsibility for our own development – because, to be blunt, no one is going to develop Africa but us. I also believe “charity” as conventionally defined is not the best solution for our continent. Instead, we need a “new philanthropy” that focuses on building the capacity of the private sector to create jobs and wealth – and that this leads to sustainable development.

“I firmly believe that we should be strategic and catalytic in our philanthropy. It is not, and should not be, about simply providing funding, as this is only one of many possible tools for impact. I would encourage entrepreneurs to give their time and experience, and use their influence, to create impact.”


This post appeared on The Cable