If young people succeed, Africa succeeds: building a digital future

30-second summary

  • Economist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Tony Elumelu believes that Africa’s human capital, when twinned with the transformative power, of digital technology, offers the best route towards sustainable development for the continent.
  • The digital economy is not just about devices, says Tony Elumelu. Digital is also about enabling communities in remote parts of Africa to receive better healthcare, giving young people access to online educational material, and much, much more.
  • The Tony Elumelu Foundation supports 1,000 young African entrepreneurs every year by capturing their passion for success: ideas that come from passion are far more likely to succeed.

It’s a cliché, I know, but the world – and indeed the African continent – today is very different to the one I grew up in.

The current African landscape is blessed with a deep abundance of human capital that is well positioned to leverage and take advantage of the emerging advances in digital technology across the continent. The sheer energy and passion of our young people, 60% of whom are under the age of 30, offer enormous opportunity for Africa as a whole, and their collective ingenuity will no doubt accelerate the region onto a sustainable path of broad-based growth and prosperity.

As a businessman and entrepreneur for the better part of 30 years, I know first-hand the struggles and anxieties of seeking seed capital and support to grow a start-up enterprise – having an idea is one thing, turning it into a profit-making business is quite another.

Helping entrepreneurs take flight

That’s why eight years ago I set up the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Africa’s largest philanthropic organisation dedicated to entrepreneurship, to empower and champion the next generation of African entrepreneurs. As our founding objective, we are focused on catalysing Africa’s economic and social development by addressing poverty, youth unemployment and actively integrating women in the economic activities of the continent.

In implementing our flagship entrepreneurship programme, we have provided seed capital finance, training, mentoring, networking and pushed targeted policy advocacy to help young Africans in all 54 countries across the continent. We are now four years into our programme to ultimately fund 10,000 African entrepreneurs over 10 years, creating 1,000,000 jobs and generating $10 billion in social and economic wealth – and we’re well on track to do so.

Each year as we support 1,000 young African entrepreneurs, digital technology remains a constant presence for these young leaders striving to grow their businesses, and for the Foundation itself, where technology underpins our training and mentoring of all selected entrepreneurs as well as our alumni engagement processes.

As one who has supported thousands of these young Africans: I see enthusiasm, I see intellect, I see discipline and a determination to succeed, and most of all, I see the willingness to do so. The question now is how Africa must harness the energy and talent of these young people. There is no more effective means to propel the continent to prosperity than investing in these young ones.

Instead of exploring different growth models, why not create the right operating environment that would enable these youths and their small businesses to succeed. In the 21st century, Africa with its abundance of resources and unique demographic structure and population dividend should model its own growth path. Our growth path should be based on our people. If we prioritise our people, we would see massive development on the continent.

But we can’t do it alone. It doesn’t matter if you are developed or developing, just starting out or long-established, no organisation, country or continent can hope to progress without tapping into technology and its rich potential to transform lives and countries for the better.

So, what needs to be done from an African perspective?

Developing Africa’s digital economy

I am typing this on my iPad – an apt metaphor for the ongoing digital revolution. It is quick, effective and makes life and business more efficient, so much so that I can’t imagine life without it.

The digital economy is not just about devices – important though they are. Digital is also about enabling communities in remote parts of the continent to receive better healthcare. It is about giving young people access to a world of online educational material. It is about opening up new avenues of growth for citizens young and old. And it is about helping entrepreneurs ascend the ladder of opportunity towards sustainability and profitability.

The prevalence and power of digital technology means that there is no one route to development. But what is critical is that there must be a purpose behind it; a purpose to move people out of poverty, a purpose to be inclusive, and a purpose to do all this on a platform of transparency. When there is alignment along these areas, development will come.

But it’s easier said than done – and that’s even with so many of the continent’s population being under the age of 30, forming a huge market and offering a strong intellectual platform for us as a continent. Attractive as the digital landscape appears, we can’t speak about the digital economy in Africa without fixing critical infrastructure, particularly the digital connectivity issue. Electricity – taken for granted in developed economies – is far too unreliable across the continent but without it we can’t develop a digital economy.

And then there is the issue of government. I don’t doubt that policymakers enter public service to do good but too often, there is a failure to prioritise the needs and aspirations of our young people. To strengthen the emerging digital economy, government should develop tech hubs and incentivise investors. By extension, our governments must create an enabling environment for entrepreneurs to flourish by removing burdensome regulations, addressing tenuous taxation issues, and prioritising intellectual property.

Last month, I spent time with the chief executive officer of IFC, Philippe Le Houerou, exploring how to de-risk opportunities on the continent, particularly in the digital economy, to attract massive inflow into the continent and unleash enormous opportunity. As private sector leaders in Africa, we cannot wait for government or development partners to help fix our problems for us in Africa. We must mobilise our resources and collectively invest in our young people. If they succeed, we all succeed.

This is consistent with the philosophy of Africapitalism, shared prosperity, and inclusive development.

Capturing the passion

I also know that ideas that come from passion are far more likely to succeed. This has also been confirmed by the Foundation’s success stories.

So, my advice to young people, including my children, is to follow their passion. I know that challenges may adorn the horizon, but passion, twinned with digital technology, can overcome them.

For the entrepreneurs in Africa, I would say let’s not just look at the challenges, let’s also look at opportunities. It is up to all of us to unlock a brighter, digitally enhanced future across the African continent.



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