Interview: Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu on France-Nigeria business ties
Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu was in Paris to meet with French business leaders to discuss investments in Africa and France. The head of United Bank for Africa, Heirs Holdings and Transcorp sees lots of potential in developing French-Nigerian business partnerships. He is also keen to promote the work of his foundation to help create the next generation of African entrepreneurs.
You’ve been meeting with Medef, the French employers federation. What did you discuss?
I met with the president and we discussed a partnership to support French business leaders that want to invest in Africa, what sectors do African business leaders have interest in, and how can French investors navigate the terrain in Africa to be able to succeed. Also, if African business leaders would like to invest in France.
What cooperation or deals did you specifically discuss with French companies?
Business partnerships are not a one-meeting event, it takes a series of meetings. I think we’ve started with the right building blocks - the president of Nigeria creating the France-Nigeria business council, coming to Paris to woo French investors, French investors coming to Nigeria to visit and explore the terrain, United Bank for Africa hosting investors who came to Nigeria. And now I’m back here, I’m being hosted again by Medef. So this kind of interaction, partnership, platforms and events help because you want to do business with your friend. People do business with those they know and there’s a trust. So I think starting in this manner is a good prelude to actually consummating business transactions. Beyond exploring how United Bank for Africa - our presence in 19 African countries, especially in French-speaking African countries - can help French businesses in Africa, by way of funding their business, providing working capital for them, loans, issuing corporate bonds for them and also facilitating payments and having to remit dividends to France for them. The other areas we’re exploring are in the areas of ports, construction, transport, rail opportunities. We’re exploring power, both solar and thermal power opportunities and even hospitality and tourism. We’re exploring the possibility of hosting another French-Nigerian forum next year. I think these areas will begin to see some fruition from all of these ongoing efforts in the next one year and beyond. It takes time to forge a partnership and it takes time to see the impact, the fruit of the partnership. But the good thing is that we’re on the right track.
Going back to banking, do you see deals with French banks? For example, do you see the United Bank for Africa taking a chunk of a French bank?
Just to say that I wear many hats, I go beyond banking, banking is one of my investments. We are significant investor in the power sector, we own the biggest power plant in Nigeria. We’re in hospitality and real estate, where again we hold large land banks and also the biggest hotel chain in the country. In addition to other areas like healthcare and agriculture. Speaking about banking, I see opportunities and partnerships between African banks and French banks starting with United Bank for Africa. We have a representative office here in Paris and the purpose is to be able to facilitate transactions, trade transactions, payment systems and collection services for French companies that are operating in Africa. Helping to point them in the right direction and giving them financial advice and services. Beyond this I see corresponding banking relationships, I see agency banking relationships and I see advisory relationships. Lazard they’ve been talking to me about how we can partner across Africa in seeking advice on supporting African governments to drive their infrastructure development projects. So I see a lot happening, but the first step for the time being is on the bilateral national level and on the business level so that the right tone is being set. France and Nigeria are cooperating in many ways. The French government helping Nigeria with security issues and the Nigerian leader reciprocating coming here and also the private sector now taking the lead. I think a lot will come out of all of this.
Interesting that you’re cooperating with French companies because you coined this idea of Africapitalism - involving African businesses developing Africa - but you’re talking about involving French companies.
You can’t remove commerce, I’ve always said we need to complement, we need to support government because government wants to create a better society for mankind. Government alone can't do it, we’ve seen through our private sector involvement and activities, that government has limited capacity and the private sector can do a lot more if we work together. So we can’t set government aside, we want to engage government to work together, government has to create the right environment so that the private sector will do well. And private sector has to do well to support government to realise its promise to the people, so we need each other. However, we also need foreign investors, that is why we would like French investors to continue to explore the investment opportunities that exist in Africa. But as French investors come to Africa they also must find worthy, reliable and capable African partners that they can work with. That is what we’re trying to do working with Medef and trying to make sure that all of us embrace African capitalism as an investment philosophy. Because there’s no point investing and exploiting the continent if investing in an exploitative fashion or in an extractive fashion, we need to invest in a manner that creates local value for the community and creates value for the investors. It becomes a win-win investment, it becomes an all inclusive investment.
This principle is also very interesting given that we’re in France and given the large public sector here.
There is a large public sector in France, but I speak as an African private sector person who has lived in Africa and invested in Africa, and who has seen the power of the private sector. I think French society, you must have seen justification for the model, growth model or development model, that you’ve adopted. But for us in Africa, we’ve seen government for a long time, not able to fulfil all our aspirations and we think the private sector should support the government now to do this.
Tell us about your entrepreneurship programme and how it’s advancing.
We launched the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme last year. Basically it’s a 100 million dollar programme which we set aside to help identify, train and provide seed capital for 10,000 African entrepreneurs in 10 years - 1,000 every year. For Africans who have entrepreneurial ideas across Africa. The first year is over, we chose 1,000 Africans, male and female from across Africa, 52 African countries, 30 per women, 70 per cent men. We want to create more awareness this year so that next year’s cohort or batch, we want to see more women, we want to see 50:50. Going back to the programme, its been quite increasing, we’re sector agnostic, we don’t discriminate, any sector can be chosen, what’s important is the ideas you have and how good and viable those ideas are. Because we want people to succeed, we don’t just want to give out grants, just say 10,000 dollars to people who are not serious. We’ve been quite impressed, we worked with Accenture with working with them to help identify these entrepreneurs and so far, so good. The excitement we have seen, we trained them for 12 weeks, online training for 12 weeks, we assembled a boot camp and we have 400 mentors, to mentor these 1,000 people. My intent, I hope that out of the 10,000 Africans we have many who create jobs, so that we can create the employment that we need so much in Africa.
Interview conducted 12 November 2015.