Tony Elumelu, Chairman of United Bank for Africa, UBA Plc and Heirs Holdings, emerged Vanguard Newspaper’s Personality of the Year. As a leading philanthropist in the area of entrepreneurship through the Tony Elumelu Foundation and an accomplished banker and businessman of good repute, with interests across key sectors of not just Nigerian but African economies, it became necessary to get his perspectives on the many issues that have challenged the Nigerian and African economies, as well as his perspectives on development strategies of the nations in the continent. He spoke to the team of Vanguard Business Desk including EMEKA ANAETO, the Business Editor, BABAJIDE KOMOLAFE, the Deputy Business Editor, and NKIRUKA NNOROM.
VANGUARD Newspaper just announced you as the Personality of the Year primarily due to your successful foray into Africa with the UBA brand as Africa’s global bank with about 17-country locations in Africa and some outside Africa, how would you receive this recognition and how would you explain your motive towards the continental perspective to business?
Let me thank the publisher and the full editorial board, the management and entire staff of Vanguard Newspaper for first finding me and my team worthy of this recognition. I say, team because I am just one of many people within the Group who make my choice as an awardee possible.
They should consider this not just as recognition for me as a person but for all of us and everything we do and the reason why we wake up every day to do what we are doing in the continent of Africa. So, we are indeed grateful to your organisation for appreciating our little efforts in moving the people in our continent towards the development and transformation of Africa in a manner that will bring prosperity to everyone and help alleviate poverty and uplift the overall standard of Africa. As entrepreneurs, we must believe both in the private sector and in the philanthropy spirit, the belief that entrepreneurship is one way, if not the way to help to develop our continent.
I see this award and recognition as a vote of confidence in young Africans, including young Nigerian men and women, who toil day and night to not only improve their lives but to make sure that through their efforts, people within their communities and their respective geographies are empowered. The philosophy that encapsulates all of this is what we call Africapitalism which is an intersection between business and doing good. It is the belief that we, as the private sector, must play our own role to develop our continent through our business, through our philanthropy, through advocacy, through everything that we do.
You talked about UBA which is one of our businesses. Everything UBA does is driven by this same philosophy. We do business to prosper the shareholders, but more importantly, the overall stakeholders, the people we work with, the vendors and staff, the local communities, government and so on. We have seen that businesses built on such platforms succeed and grow. If you look at our trajectory from where we started, we started small from a distressed institution that we took over to where we are today. You talked about 17 countries, but actually, we operate in 20 African countries with about 1,000 branches across Africa. We also operate in London as a bank, we have a representative office in Paris, and we are the only African bank that is licensed and regulated in America to do banking business. We attribute all of this to Africapitalism, which is the philosophy that underpins our business and recognises the role of corporate institutions in developing the entire spectrum of our communities, from shareholders to the staff. We continue to export this philosophy to other areas of our business engagement.
Beyond banking and UBA you are doing so many other things in the Group through Heirs Holdings. Tell us about them briefly.
Yes, the most visible part of our business is banking; UBA, but we do more than banking in our Group. We have interests in the power sector. Through our investment in Transcorp Power, we are the number one producer of power in Nigeria today. When we took over the power asset that we bought in 2013, power generation by the plant was less than 150MW per day. Today, we have the capacity to generate over 750MW on a daily basis, depending on gas supply and the transmission’s ability to pick up our generation, we do between 550MW and 680MW.
This, to us, is Africapitalism in orientation and Africapitalism in action because we are making profit for our shareholders, but more importantly, we are contributing to the development of our country. We realise the importance of power to the economic development of Nigeria and the entire continent. This is one of the reasons why we decided to invest in this sector.
Investors in real estate
We are also investors in real estate and hospitality. Transcorp Hilton, Abuja, the flagship hotel of Nigeria, sits within our Group’s portfolio. If you have been there in recent times, you will see our impact, we turn around assets and build them up to be viable investments.
We also operate in the area of health care because we realise that providing the best healthcare is a priority for nation-building. So, health care delivery for us is one of the ways of practising what we preach about the private sector playing its own role in the development of the continent. As private sector players, we would try in our little way to contribute and to support, both sides of the value chain. From the supply side, we are making sure that good hospitals exist and on the demand side, we are making sure that people have access to affordable health care through our Health Insurance Business, Avon HMO, a leading health management organisation in Nigeria.
Finally, we have our philanthropic arm which is the Tony Elumelu Foundation. What we do in the Foundation is to make sure that we democratise luck, that we democratise prosperity, that we help our fellow Africans, realising that no one but us will develop Africa but us. When an African improves his life, he also improves the life of the community. We do this not because we are the most endowed; far from it. We do struggle to do what we do. We do it because we realise it is not about what you have, it is about what you are able to do with what you have, the impact you create and the legacy you leave behind.
How about the impact of UBA?
Talking specifically about UBA, the bank today operates in 20 African countries, London, New York and Paris. UBA serves over 17.6 million customers, and it is still growing. The bank creates huge employment, both secondary and primary; direct and indirect employment for people. UBA has over 20,000 to 25,000 people that work directly with us across Africa, including vendors, who feed off so many things we do within our ecosystem. UBA is not just a Nigerian bank operating in this country but a pan-African bank operating in many African countries, localizing our operations in every country we operate. We are happy with what we are doing in Africa, and as I said, for UBA, it is not just about making profit, the bank identifies with all the countries and communities it operates in. It identifies with the aspirations of the people, it identifies with the needs of the people, especially their infrastructure development needs and some other areas of their socio-development needs. We are Africans doing business in Africa. Our drive is beyond making money, it is about helping to develop the countries. In a country like Senegal, the President will tell you that but for UBA, electricity provision in the country would have been a challenge. You go to Ghana, and UBA is actively involved in road construction. Even in countries like Cameroon, UBA is involved in certain infrastructure and socio-development projects.
In almost every country you visit in Africa, you hear about UBA prepaid cards. Today, it has caught on like fire; it brings about ease in banking. For us at UBA, it is always about how we can improve the standard of living in Africa. This mantra and this mission drive everything we do. In the next five years, we want to continue to see UBA deepen payment systems across Africa. We have already done quite well and will continue to do more.
We want to continue to support the development aspirations of our host countries. We want to continue to assist with the realisation of the needs of the countries and communities that we do business in across Africa. Our presence in New York, has helped with supporting sovereign states in their national treasury to meet their financial obligations.
Speaking about our people, I have said this before, when I was in Standard Trust Bank, one of our objectives was to develop human capital because we realised that we were and still are in dire need of quality human capital or manpower in Nigeria and Africa. What I used to say back then was that I would like to see a situation where our institutions is able to produce leaders who become Presidents and Governors with a private sector mentality.
In the next five years, I want to see UBA developing such leaders. We set up the UBA Academy for training and development of our people. I want to encourage some of them who are interested in public service to go into public service because the more professionals and private sector led and minded leaders we have in policy making, the better for everyone in business. We want to see all of this; we want to continue to operate as good corporate citizens.
We have always operated in countries and jurisdictions by abiding by the laws of the land. So, with that, profit will come ultimately as we do all of these things, but it is not the sole motive. We believe strongly that if we do these things in this manner. It will lead to huge profit that will make our shareholders happy but that is not the sole and primary motive. In fact, if we want to make more profit, then this spreading across Africa might not be the solution in the short to medium term. In the long term, yes it will, but in the short to medium, no. We want to continue to support small businesses realising that as they grow and prosper, we would also benefit from it.
UBA Nigeria is still dominating the Group profit and this leads to the question of whether the continental strategy is really yielding profit, though you just said that profit is not the motive but profit is very important.
I have already mentioned that profit is not the sole motive. It is not the primary motive, but of course, we preach sustainability. You cannot do business if you are gratuitous and you don’t make profit from it, but it is not the principal aim. For instance, let me tell you what happened when we started the spread across Africa. The first country we branched into was Ghana. When we went to Ghana (that was in 2005 or 2006), I said to the CEO, Ghana is our first operation outside Nigeria; I want you to note the following points. One, as the first Nigerian bank to go to Ghana, and given the negative perception of Nigeria at that time in Ghana, (that was the peak of 419) I said, I don’t want any infraction; not one.
So, go there and operate in a manner that will even help other Nigerian banks that may want to set up shop in Ghana eventually, help change the perception of Nigeria to a positive one. If you recall, a bank in Nigeria had gotten approval in principle to operate in Ghana, but this was later withdrawn before we went in and got an approval. At the time, it was important that we change that perception about Nigeria, and we did.
The fact that after our bank, Ghana allowed other banks to come in, (Intercontinental Bank, Zenith Bank, GTBank, FirstBank and Access Bank), attests to the fact that we were good ambassadors of Nigeria in that country. Did we make money later? Yes, we made good money.
My second point was to democratise banking, democracy is government of the people by the people and for the people. So, let’s make banking or do banking that way. It was also important to create opportunities for Ghanaians, because of the banking density, the people that had bank accounts back then were very few. I wanted us to democratise banking in Ghana. One was to spread and have branches across Ghana, which would create access. We pursued an aggressive branch strategy that gave us about 30 branches in Ghana within a short period of time. If you understand economics and business, if you have more branches, it affects your break-even. We were not able to break even for years because of this aggressive strategy. Again, it is always about our long-term approach to doing business.
The third thing I said is that, we were the first bank in Ghana, in fact, we were the first bank in the whole of Africa to open bank accounts with zero balances. And the fourth thing I said was to pursue customer service; Cut no corners, just customer service and UBA Ghana on record for the first five years did not make any profit but when profit started coming, we were making about $5 million, $7 million a month but that is long term. So, we pursued customer satisfaction through customer service. We pursued the democratisation of banking services, access to banking services, and we ensured that our corporate reputation and regulatory compliance were not compromised. These are not objectives that give immediate profit but they give you long term profit and sustainability. So, when I say that profit is not our primary motive or main purpose that is not to say that we don’t want to make profit but you put that first and other things will follow.
UBA has about 13 ‘firsts’ attributed to it. For example, UBA was the first bank to have a foundation, first bank to launch a cheque deposit ATM, another first is the Leo chat box. What is behind these feats? How much of such innovations should we expect in the next five years?
First, we believe we have a reputation in the market place as turnaround managers. We believe we have a reputation for growing value to shareholders, and when it is all about growing value for stakeholders, your customers, your shareholders and non-shareholders, you always have to keep thinking of the ‘how’. I said to someone yesterday, I have not actually had a Christmas holiday because my people and I have been thinking about ‘what’s next’; how can we make our mission come through and deepen it because the marketplace keeps changing; it is dynamic, and the last thing you want to do is to become static. When you become static, you become like those companies you said you used to hear about, and especially in a marketplace like this. When value creation is at the core of what you do, it leads to a lot of innovations. It moves the mind, the brain will always be thinking. For me, it is not just about UBA, it cuts across all the businesses and sectors we engage in.
Let’s look at Transcorp in 2012. Prior to our investment in Transcorp, it never paid dividend to shareholders. Post investment in Transcorp, this should be the fourth year consecutively we have paid dividend to the shareholders. People who did not know where their certificates were are now writing on social media, how can we get our dividend. When someone who is a very senior corporate citizen of Nigeria said to me, ‘Tony congrats for what you and your team have done with Transcorp; Transcorp, is now one of the things I want to bequeath to my children’. It makes me realise the responsibility that we carry and the amount of confidence people have in our ability to grow and sustain value.
You said that Africapitalism is at the heart of what you do across the Group. Why are you so passionate about Africapitalism and what has been the response from African business leaders and political leaders?
These days, in fact, almost every day, I see different people discuss Africapitalism. It has become like our Group’s gift to the world, especially now that Africans realise that in the 21st century, we should do business in a different way and that in the 21st century we should also give in a different way. So, it is always good when people are purpose led when people are driven by a vision. We want to do business in a manner that creates profit for prosperity but equally important, in a manner that creates social well-being or social wealth for others. As I said, if you look at all the businesses we operate in – healthcare, power, financial services and some we are going to go into soon – it is not only about but profit, but about social impact; not just for ourselves but for everyone. So, at the heart of it all is a realisation that sustainable success comes from a point of view of shared success. So, the passion, in my view, is self-enlightened interest. I think it is either ignorance, myopic or too much of self-centeredness that makes people who are in a position to do things differently and empower others not do so. Every time I want to do certain things that benefit others, it is almost always from a point of view ofprioritisation because the means are totally limited.
I think, gradually, others are jumping on board. What we did was that we shared the philosophy; we created a white paper and today people have jumped on board and are taking it further. The Nigerian University Commission is thinking of introducing it into the curriculum. Nowadays, if you open the newspaper, almost on a weekly basis, you see people writing about it. So, it is an elevation of consciousness of how we all should do business.
Empowering the continent
So, it is spreading gradually and also, we laced it with this entrepreneurship drive. I recall when we started the Tony Elumelu Foundation in 2010, we said we wanted to catalyse philanthropy because we know that our people are competitive; we know that our people have the mind to give, but we realised that we were not deliberate in our giving. So, let some people lead to shine the light for others to follow and that is also working today. You see many people talking about entrepreneurship and how they are empowering the continent. I say to my people: Don’t be shy of using that word because that is what we do. We are catalysing to empower; we want our people to be empowered economically. When they are empowered economically, they will help to develop everyone and the continent. So, I see that there is consciousness in how we do business today.
You have been giving seed capital to young African entrepreneurs and you have done it for some years starting from 2010 like you just mentioned. So, do we have success reports from the beneficiaries of the seed capital provided by Tony Elumelu Foundation?
We have a documentary which speaks to the impact of the Tony Elumelu Foundation on these young African entrepreneurs. It tells the story of young Nigerians whose lives have been transformed due to what we do at the Foundation. We set up the Foundation in 2010 and in 2015 we launched the flagship entrepreneurship programme. We are now entering the fifth round and will announce the 1,000 beneficiaries in March. Again, for me, as I said before, this does not come from a place of abundance, it comes from a place of trying to give a helping hand to others, trying to democratise access to prosperity. That’s our mission, it is our purpose. Today, we have other partners who appreciate what we do that are coming on board to partner with us. When we started in 2010, we didn’t need anyone’s help, but we now want more partners to take on the entrepreneurs who would not be selected outside our 1,000 beneficiaries. We need to keep catalysing this kind of giving, this kind of philanthropy, this kind of mindset realising that ultimately, the more, the better.
Is there a difference between Tony Elumelu of Tony Elumelu Foundation who wants to and is always giving seed capital to start-up entrepreneurs, and Tony Elumelu of UBA who may be thinking like a typical Nigerian banker who does not trust the young entrepreneurs enough to give them loans?
Your comment on Tony Elumelu of Tony Elumelu Foundation and Tony Elumelu of UBA is quite interesting because, at heart, I understand the power of entrepreneurship, I understand how entrepreneurship can lift up a society, community, families and individuals and transform their lives. I am a beneficiary of this and I want to spend a lot of my resources in providing helping hand to others to also succeed. One of our businesses is United Bank for Africa, UBA. Where does my money come from? I am an investor (a shareholder) in UBA. I earn dividends from UBA. So, UBA is one of the ways I make money that the Foundation uses to do what we are doing. To a large extent, if not because of my dividend in the bank, I will not be able to do what I am doing across Africa to empower entrepreneurs. That is why whenever I go to countries across Africa, people say, “God bless UBA for what Tony Elumelu is doing”. This is because they realise that UBA plays a key role in what I am doing. As a business, UBA generates profits, I earn part of the profit as a shareholder and I channel part of the dividend I earned in what I am doing with the Foundation. So, is UBA supportive of entrepreneurship on the continent? The answer is a big yes.
UBA as a bank also supports Small and Medium Enterprises, SMEs, within the confines of the law. It supports SMEs because it has the heart to support them. You have bad debt, regulators tell you your loan portfolio is bad because you are lending to that sector. Banking is about saving and lending. The source of your money for a commercial bank is short term. Therefore, when a commercial bank wants to lend, it also tries to lend short term so that there is no mismatch. What countries that understand the power of SMEs as catalyst for economic development and job creation do are that they encourage different institutions to support people that have entrepreneurial ideas that don’t have collateral. In fact, in Nigeria, it is against the banking Act to lend without collateral. You can go to jail in Nigeria to lend without collateral but the same people will blame banks for not lending to people without collaterals. So, for me, it is part of the realisation that there are constraints in some of our businesses. You know what? I don’t want to die a man who came and realise that this is the path to development and did not do anything. It is in this vein that Tony Elumelu Foundation and in fact, UBA Foundation were formed. In fact, the world does not even know a lot about what UBA Foundation is doing.
Development of the power sector
UBA Foundation has been supporting people. Is it Nollywood? UBA Foundation has supported Nigerian Mmovie awards. Through UBA Foundation, we are doing economic empowerment and we will do more. So, through both the Tony Elumelu Foundation and UBA Foundation, we are trying our best to help push and support entrepreneurs and SMEs.
Let’s talk about the power sector where one member of your Group, Transcorp Power, is holding sway. Most African countries are facing similar power challenges as Nigeria, where we don’t see the power generated. What is the problem and what is the way forward?
As an investor in the power sector and the Chairman of the Group (Transcorp Plc) that generates the highest in terms of output of electricity in Nigeria on a daily basis, I believe we can do better as a country in the power sector. Every sector has its own challenges, but there are a few things we need to address if we are genuinely committed to improving power availability. One is debt. Government is the sole buyer of power in Nigeria and they owe a lot.
Our Group, Transcorp Power, is owed over N80 billion by the federal government. It is just a miracle that we are in business and we keep generating power for the country. We need this debt settled so that we all can contribute to the development of the power sector. We are not the only company the government is owing, but we need to fix it to drive the sector. Power is the single, most critical development infrastructure that we need. It can change the face of the country.
Number two is the transmission lines. I see some progress in the leadership of Transmission Company of Nigeria, but they need to do more and quickly too because our people need vast improvements in our access to electricity. Number three is gas supply. I think that government should allow power operators, who have the resources and capability to take over abandoned gas fields in the country, develop them and use them as feeders to their plants to increase power generation.