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Nigerian Banker Urges Business Approach to Poverty in Africa

Tony Elumelu, a Nigerian businessman, joined with five other colleagues to put up $5-million in 1997 to acquire a struggling Nigerian bank. Five years later, the bank merged with another to become the largest in West Africa, employing about 25,000 people.

Mr. Elumelu, who has become one of Africa’s most prominent philanthropists, likes to contrast the results of that $5-million investment—the jobs it helped create and the tax revenue it generated for governments—with what he sees as the disappointing track record of foreign-aid money showered on Africa each year.

Tony Elumelu

The Nigerian businessman thinks it’s time for a new approach to Africa’s problems, and he has been pitching the idea in speeches to donors and businessmen and to the news media.

He calls his idea “Africacapitalism,” a business-led, African-run approach to spurring entrepreneurialism and fighting poverty.

In 2010, he started the Tony Elumelu Foundation to finance nonprofit work that supports economic growth.

Led by a former Rockefeller Foundation official, Wiebe Boer, the Lagos, Nigeria foundation seeks to groom business leaders, change government policies that discourage the creation of new enterprises, spread research on entrepreneurship in Africa, and provide capital to businesses that have a social purpose.

Jane Wales, founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum, says Mr. Elumelu stands out as a philanthropist because he doesn’t just rely on grant making. He also ties his investments to businesses that bring about social change and uses his own voice and influence to sway policy makers.

“He employs all the tools of strategic philanthropy, and he does so deftly,” she says.

Mtanga Farms, in Tanzania, received an "impact investment" from the Elumelu fund.

Mr. Elumelu also wants to improve philanthropy in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent. His organization is pushing legislation in his home country that would seek to organize nonprofits by requiring them to disclose more information about their work.

But Mr. Elumelu is tight-lipped about his own giving, declining to say how much he’s donated to the foundation. Mr. Boer says the foundation will start providing that information soon, most likely in the next year.

Mr. Elumelu is part of a small but growing cadre of philanthropists in Africa, say experts. Some of the most prominent African donors, like Sudanese-born Mo Ibrahim, run their philanthropic foundations from outside of the continent. (Mr. Ibrahim’s fund, which focuses on good governance in Africa, is based in London.)

Ms. Wales says she sees the African philanthropists following in the footsteps of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and others who want to use their wealth to solve social problems in their lifetimes.

“In Africa, you’re seeing the same thing: folks who were very successful in business and who are very quickly moving into philanthropy and doing so in a very generous way,” she says.

Send an e-mail to Caroline Preston.

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