Tony Elumelu @ 61: A giant, yet still his mother’s generous son, By Victor Nkem


The apple does not fall far from its tree is a popular saying that rings true in the career and life of serial entrepreneur and turnaround champion, Tony Onyemaechi Elumelu, whose life as a businessman and career philanthropist mirrors that of his mother, a
woman whom he venerates and credits for most of his successes.

On Mother’s Day, less than two weeks ago, Elumelu took to his LinkedIn page to pay tribute to his mother, to whom, he said he owes his instincts for business successes.

“To my mum whose experience served as my first initiation into a world where hard work translates to success. Growing up, I worked at my mum’s restaurant, watching her steer her business with leadership and so much strength. These formative years of my life made me the entrepreneur and leader that I am today. I am always grateful,” Elumelu, who today sits in the middle of a multi-billion-naira business empire ranging from financial services to hospitality, power and many more, said in deferring humility.

Those who knew Chief Mrs Suzanne Elumelu will say that apart from his never-say-never approach toward tackling challenges, Tony Elumelu also caught a significant dose of her mother’s philanthropy. The soon-to-be 96-year-old matriarch was known in her community of Onicha-Uku, Delta State, as a dogged entrepreneur and giver, whose doors were always open to those around her that were in need.

One of those who knew the Elumelu family in the days of yore told of how she gave everybody around her access to water during periods of scarcity. “Growing up in Onitcha Uku, the only person who flung her door open for everyone to fetch water during harmattan, the thick of scarcity of water was Mama Elumelu. So, when I tell people that Tony O. Elumelu didn’t become philanthropic because he is rich, rather, he became rich from being philanthropic, a lot seem to wonder. Tony Elumelu was groomed and nurtured in philanthropy by this great woman,” wrote Eche Munonye, Publisher of CSR Reporters.

Those who have been struggling to situate the origin of Tony Elumelu’s life of giving will understand, from the life of his mother that the billions of naira he has invested in charities steps from a well of kindness that runs in his family; it is in his DNA.

Today, Tony Elumelu is 61 years old. Coincidentally, it was on his birthday, 10 years ago that he launched what looked like a seriously ambitious project of empowering young African entrepreneurs. Not many people thought he was thinking clearly when he announced the setting aside of a whopping $100 million of his funds to support enterprises in Africa. But since he embarked on the project, it has grown from strength to strength, as an ever-increasing number of Africans have been benefitting from the project executed under the auspices of the Tony Elumelu Foundation and the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme.

Records indicate that since the launch of the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme in 2015, the Foundation has trained over 1.5 million young Africans on digital skills. There has also been a disbursement of close to USD$100 million in direct funding to more than 18,000 African women and men, who have collectively created over 400,000 direct and indirect jobs across the continent. The impacts made by the Foundation have not gone without being noticed. Only recently, the Harvard Business School launched a first-of-a-kind African philanthropy case study that was focused on the Tony Elumelu Foundation and its unique approaches and transformative initiatives. The case study showcased how strategic philanthropy is driving positive change and elevating countries and communities.

In the pantheon of revolutionary philanthropists that have walked this earth, Tony Elumelu, still active and working, would stand side-by-side with renowned global givers like John D. Rockefeller, Alfred Nobel, and Henry and Edsel Ford, men who gave what could well qualify for a part of themselves for the betterment of other people and worthy causes outside their immediate environment.

The gift of money may make the headlines and draw attention, but this is not where Tony sets his limits. In the realm of mentorship, the maverick investor is also unrivalled. Inside that can pass for the Tony Elumelu Alumni Association are men and women whom he nurtured in enterprise and management and whom he rewarded with prime positions for understanding and living a life of excellence.

Paraphrasing former American President, Abraham Lincoln, those who have passed Tony’s fire became “fine steel”. There are hundreds of notable people in this cluster including names like Charles Nwodo, who is the CEO of XL Management Services; Valentine Ozigbo, who was unarguably the most cerebral governorship candidate of the PDP in the last election in Anambra State; Obinna Ufudo, who was the pioneer CEO of Transcorp Group; Nnamdi Okonkwo, who was CEO of Fidelity Bank until recently, and Phillips Oduoza, who is the founder and Chairman of the board of Nova Merchant Bank to mention but a few. Only recently, Obong Idiong, who was Elumelu’s Executive Assistant, was elevated to the position of CEO of Africa Prudential Plc and later, as the CEO of Heirs Technologies.

It is perhaps this spirit in him that compels generosity and mentorship that is also impelling him to lead the charge for continental economic and social renaissance, which he has summed up in a movement which he called, Africapitalism, an extension of his social evangelism and a movement he is championing to ensure that Africans mobilise resources and take front-row seats to develop the continent.

Elumelu believes only Africans can, will, and should develop Africa, and in Chapter 4 of the e-book titled; ‘THE PATH TO ECONOMIC PROSPERITY AND SOCIAL WEALTH: Rebuilding and Rebranding Africa as a Land of Investment, Innovation and Entrepreneurship,’ he said: “It is important to remember that the best way to attract outside capital and accelerate the pace of growth even further is for Africans themselves to lead the way with value-adding domestic investment. This is true despite the strength of the investment case that Africa can make for itself: no region in the world offers a greater diversity of opportunity, and few other regions are expected to have growth as high and sustainable as Africa. Africans must lead by example, investing in Africa to build economies and domestic industries that rival those in other parts of the world. Africans can no longer wait for outsiders to make the first move, or depend on outsiders for validation of Africa’s investment opportunities before taking up the mantle themselves. Ceding “first-mover” status to outsiders potentially puts them in the driver’s seat, once again leading to the forfeiture of Africa’s economic self-determination.”

If anyone had predicted when Elumelu and a few friends and believers came together to acquire the banking licence of Standard Trust Bank in 1989 that he would one day grow to become one of the most important figures in Africa, the man himself might have doubted it. But today, at 61, Tony Elumelu planted trees with roots transcending the continent to other parts of the world. And unlike the few other people with such multi-sectoral commercial and social interests, those around him rarely notice him appearing under pressure, a situation which makes people wonder about the stuff he is made of.


Victor Ikem, an author and brand strategist, is the CEO of BRANDish Media