Heirs Chairman, Dr. Tony Elumelu, is still going about doing good and touching lives.
I am pleased to announce that today on the Presidential Panel of the Africa Union AfCTA Business Summit in Niamey, Niger Republic, the Tony Elumelu Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced a partnership to empower an additional 100,000 young African entrepreneurs over ten years. I commend and appreciate our friends and allies at the UNDP for their deep commitment to young Africans. In 2019, UNDP supported 764 African entrepreneurs through the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme, and now, they have scaled this partnership to 100,000 beneficiaries over ten years.
The first phase of this TEF-UNDP programme will empower 1000 young African entrepreneurs this year from the following countries in the Lake Chad – Sahel region: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria. Sahel has the youngest and most vulnerable population in the world, with 194 million people under 25 years old, translating to 64.5% of the total population. The Sahel story is one of structural deprivation, poverty, high youth unemployment, and vulnerability, and its population will continue to grow beyond the region’s capacity if this situation is left unaddressed. The number of youths—those younger than 20—will double by 2050. This programme is our own intervention to transform the regional economy through its young people. From today on TEFConnect.com, the portal will be open. As a young person in any of the seven listed countries, you can visit any branch of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) to learn more about the programme and apply to be selected. This is all about action, not talk, and ultimately, it is all about jobs for our youth.
For us at the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we believe that in the 21st century economic empowerment, entrepreneurship development and support for SMEs is a sure way – and indeed the most effective intervention – to develop the entire African continent. The era of a perpetual reliance on aid is over. Aid, while extremely useful for certain situations, is not a sustainable growth strategy. Massive economic empowerment is a far more effective strategy. We must develop the capacity for self-reliance in our young ones and eliminate the perpetual dependency on others. We must unleash the individual capacity of our youth to actualise their own hopes and aspirations for them to achieve the futures they desire without dependency on handouts.
For me, this is a personal commitment. I fully believe and trust in our youth to step up and use their talent to uplift our continent if given the right support and opportunity. If we ignore our young ones, we ignore our collective future. Like my fellow partner on poverty eradication, Ahunna Eziakonwa – UN Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Africa said today, “if the village does not embrace its youth, the youth will burn down the village for warmth.” Our youth need the warmth of our embrace, our support, our encouragement, our investment and our commitment. They need this warmth and a supportive enabling environment to unleash the full extent of their talent. We must create structures that strengthen our youth and enable them compete globally with their peers from other regions. Our youth are our greatest resource. Without them Africa will go nowhere. We will certainly not go fast, and we will not go far.
While speaking on the keynote panel to discuss the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA) in more depth, I reminded the audience that SMEs across the continent are currently responsible for 80% of Africa’s employment and 50% of its GDP. In other words, the vision behind AfCFTA will fail without the contribution of our youth and their small and medium enterprises. They are the ones that we must position and support to leverage on the AfCTA to increase local production, competitiveness, innovation and ingenuity in order to drive prosperity for all. To actualise the benefits to be gained from the AfCTA, our SMEs and the wider private sector must be fully on board and involved. The AfCTA needs the private sector’s expertise, networks and pan-African vision to become a reality. And as a private sector leader with investments across key sectors from power to real estate to oil and gas and banking, I support the need to open our economies, create a large and unified market, and empower our SMEs and corporates to drive economic output and the production of goods and services.
People underestimate the capacity of young Africans to do great things. I say this because I interact with them regularly. At the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we have supported 7000 young entrepreneurs in 5 years, and in these young men and women, I see raw ingenuity, talent, and a strong capacity and desire to do things and make things happen. What we have seen them accomplish so far is amazing, and I can only imagine that with the AfCTA in place, we will unlock and create even more opportunities for them. While some critics may focus on our “weak economic base”, we should remember that all countries start like this. Instead, what we should focus on is ensuring we have the right enabling business environment in place for SMEs/corporates to thrive. We must collectively come to the realisation that our enterprises must be empowered if we are to leapfrog in the 21st century and change our narrative.
Instead of telling the world stories about wars and internal crisis in Africa, we should tell a full story that captures the full picture of the opportunities that abound. Like me, the most discerning investors will recognise these “challenges” as opportunities. To wise investors, the glass is always half full. To address some others who are concerned about opening our markets up, we can’t keep closing our markets for fear of foreign competition. We must welcome all investments to our continent in order to create the jobs and growth that we urgently need. The wars and clashes that some critics exaggerate and unduly focus on are as a result of joblessness and poverty. With investments, flourishing businesses and economic growth, there will be more opportunities to eradicate this poverty and restiveness.
We must also prioritise industrialisation to fully leverage and benefit from a unified larger market. The reality is that you cannot trade what others don’t need. If our neighbours can’t find what they need within the region, they will continue to import from other continents. Therefore, we must work collectively to rapidly industrialise so that we can actively play in this huge market we have created. So that we can sell to each other in Africa the goods and services that we most need. This industrialisation will also help us improve income per capita for our people. Because again, in order for intra Africa trade to become more meaningful, we must grow disposable income and purchasing power on the continent. If you look at our countries and levels of income, you will find that demand is largely insufficient. Going forward, we need AU, nation states, agencies, etc, to work to support the development and growth of SMEs because these create jobs and contribute to income per capita on the continent which ultimately will boost demand and purchasing power.
To effectively leverage the unified market resulting from the AfCTA, we also need efficient and reliable payment systems. To this end, I am pleased that the United Bank for Africa is working with AFREXIM to deepen intra Africa trade and economic integration by improving payment systems to help facilitate trade. In our Group, we have always had a long term, pan-African vision. Indeed, this is why our banking arm is called “The United Bank for Africa”, not the “United Bank for Nigeria.” I sincerely commend the African Union, the President of Niger Republic, President Mahamadou Issoufou; President Afrexim bank, Prof Okey Oramah; and Executive Secretary of UNECA, Dr Vera Songwe, and the larger team, for their work on the AfCTA initiative. I have always been a member of the school of thought that today’s AU must be more focused on Africa’s economic advancement. During the struggle for independence, the AU’s political orientation was high and rightly so, but today we need the AU to evolve to focus on economic development and not only political emancipation since this has largely been achieved. Moving in this direction, the AU’s push for a common market for Africa and closer economic integration deserves commendation. Indeed, it is all about poverty alleviation and job creation – and ultimately the AfCTA will lead to this.
Personally, the AfCTA calls out to me to explore more opportunities and invest more in Africa. The President of Niger revealed that the country buys power for 14 cents. In our Group, we are the largest generators of electricity in Nigeria through Transcorp Power Ltd. I would like us to supply power power to Niger at much cheaper rates. We will also explore the manufacturing sector and all other opportunities to do more. Poverty alleviation in Africa is a collective responsibility for all of us and our Group will continue to play a leading role in this.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation will continue to collaborate with our global development partners and friends of Africa to empower and capacitise more SMEs so that today’s SMEs can become tomorrow’s MNCs exporting across Africa and the rest of the world. The TEF – Sahel and Lake Chad Region Entrepreneurship Programme is a catalytic initiative that unleash innovative business ideas, restore hope, reawaken the sense of purpose in our young ones and cause them to regain belief in their abilities. With this new programme we are helping to eradicate poverty and transforming our continent for good.