By Kenneth Amaeshi
On the 26thof July 2019, the pan African entrepreneur, Mr Tony Elumelu, through his Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), will gather young budding African entrepreneurs and put them in front of some of Africa’s illustrious business and political leadersfor inspiration. These prominent Africans include Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda,MackySall of Senegal, Felix Tshisekedi of DR Congo; as well asAdesinaAkinwunmi, president of the African Development Bank, Benedict Oroma, president ofAfreximbank among others. Mr Elumelu’s relentless pursuit of entrepreneurship, through what he calls Africapitalism,positions him as an Africonscious entrepreneur and leader.
When I came across his Africapitalism idea in 2013, it captivated me. Firstly, it resonated with my bourgeoning research interest in the broad area of business and society in Africa. Secondly, I was very impressed that a hard-nosed successful entrepreneur, like Mr Elumelu, could key into such a society-oriented interpretation of entrepreneurship, which is still largely ignored in Africa. This fortuitous discovery led me to write a piece on Africapitalism as an economic philosophy for the sustainable development of Africa in The Guardian (UK).
I can hardly forget my first meeting with Mr Elumelu following my piece on Africapitalism. When he saw me, he was very relaxed and friendly. He jokingly asked: “are you the professor?” I replied; “yes”. And he retorted; “you are very young!” obviously expecting to see an old, all grey gentleman. We both laughed. Coincidentally, it was Heirs Holdings’ 5th birthday. He had a party for his team and asked me to join them.
At that party, Mr Elumelunarrated how Heirs Holdings was a child of circumstance. Perhaps, if he did not leave the United Bank for Africa (UBA) when he did, Heirs Holdings would not have been born; a lesson in how what one might consider an unexpected change in direction can turn to a blessing in disguise. After all, entrepreneurial success can also be serendipitous and Heir Holdings is an excellent example of that!At the end of that party, we agreed to meet again to discuss my interest in Africapitalism.
The next time we met, it was strictly business. We discussed Africapitalism. Incidentally, my doctoral thesis at the University of Warwick was in political economy. We discussed how capitalism has evolved as a cultural product and how it manifests in different countries in different ways. He liked the sound of it and asked: “what can you do for Africapitalism?”
This question led to a research project on mainstreaming Africapitalism in the global academe funded by the Tony Elumelu Foundation at the University of Edinburgh.
It is instructive to note that throughout the project, Mr Elumelu never interfered. He did not have a set agenda for us. He was open to the surprises of research and was keen to let Africapitalism have a life of its own. The research was a good example of a successful town-gown relationship, which has helped many great academic institutions around the world today.
In my opinion, Mr Elumelu’s interest in and approach to funding academic research should be a lesson for other successful African entrepreneurs and business leaders. African academic institutions will benefit tremendously from such symbiotic relationships.
However, I must confess that at the time of the research, I was not sure what to expect from Mr Elumelu. The main thing for me was that I loved the challenge of the research project and set my eyes on delivering the terms of the engagement. Happily, the research exceeded expectations. It led to an academic peer-reviewed journal article and books published by Cambridge University Press – the first of its kind on Africapitalism – and Routledge publishers, respectively.
Today, Africapitalism is making its way, albeit gradually, into the global academe. In all this, one thing that stands out for me is Mr Elumelu’s desire to contribute to the transformation of Africa through entrepreneurship – a unique and imaginative positioning. A task he has also conducted very well.
Mr Elumelu puts entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship at the heart of his Africapitalism agenda. While Africa is to some extent characterised by conflict and ethnic rivalries, entrepreneurship offers a different space to appreciate value creation and appropriation by different actors. Entrepreneurship becomes the new ethnic group, with its language, characteristics, and identity. The only thing it understands is value creation and appropriation. This quest for value creation and appropriation can be a binding force and a possible meta-narrative to overcome the many unnecessary sources of tensions and underdevelopment in Africa. Mr Elumelu is the champion of this new meta-narrative and African identity.
Putting Africa first is at the heart of Africapitalism. It is an understanding of Africa primarily as a place (and not necessarily as a market) with meaning and value to people’s identities; a form of entrepreneurship, which seeks to meet Africa where the continent is in her development path. Most of the entrepreneurial ideas funded and supported by Tony Elumelu Foundation in Africa meet this criterion. Based on these, it is obvious that Mr Elumelu has proved himself a quintessential Africonscious entrepreneur.
Love him or loathe him, Mr Elumelu has succeeded in positioning himself above the primordial antagonisms of ethnic rivalry, especially in Nigeria. His actions, business decisions, interactions, and associations portray his detribalised state of mind. His Pan-African entrepreneurship programme is one that sees and appreciates the value of commercialisable ideas, irrespective of where they manifest in Africa. The idea of putting Africa first is to rise above the artificial and false boundaries used by colonialists to divide and rule Africa, as well as the original temptation to base our actions and decisions on ethnicity and religion – the two things that have dangerously set Africa behind.
It is not out of place, therefore, to appreciate Mr Elumelufor coining Africapitalism, as a way of interrogating entrepreneurship in Africa, and for committing to promoting entrepreneurship in a continent once considered as dark and unproductive. This view aligns very well with the African Union’s Agenda 2063. The over 3000 entrepreneurs who made his list this year and those that will receive funding from him this month are symbolic and a testimony to this. He has obviously put his money where his mouth is and should be applauded.
However, there is a temptation for entrepreneurs to focus excessively on their prowess for profit making to the point that they lose sight of what matters to society. The other related temptation is hubris and entrepreneurs are not short of it. Both are actually the dark side of heroic entrepreneurship, where entrepreneurs see themselves as the masters of the universe and look down on anyone outside this club. As such, the possibility of the entrepreneurial class becoming an ethnic group onto itself, with all the primordial sentiments of the existing ethnic groups it seeks to rise above, is very real. Hopefully Mr Elumelu and those who embrace his gospel of entrepreneurship and Africapitalism will be able to shun this temptation and remain focused on the sustainable development of Africa.
Long live Africapitalism and Africonsciousness!
Kenneth Amaeshi is a policy analyst and professor of business and sustainable development at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. He tweets @kenamaeshi and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org