In the African corporate community, the name Tony Elumelu rings loud as one of the top five multi-sectorial big players in the continent’s economy. Originally a banker, Elumelu, who plays big in the Nigerian economy, regional economies and notable in the global terrain, is breaking grounds in sectors unrelated to his core skills as a banker. He holds sway at the commanding height of various sectors including banking, hospitality, power, oil and gas, health and philanthropy. In this interview with Arise News, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers, Elumelu, who is the President of Heirs Holding Ltd and Chairman of United Bank for Africa Plc, speaks on a wide range of issues in the economy, investment, power sector, entrepreneurship, amongst others. Nume Ekeghe, Chris Paul and Nosa Alekhuogie bring the excerpts:
In 2010, you left your position as the GMD/CEO of UBA and then ventured into serial entrepreneurship. Today, you run Heirs Holdings, Transcorp, you are into oil and gas, the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) and many more. How do you manage to juggle all of these and what are challenges you face in terms of managing all your businesses?
In 2010, when I left United Bank for Africa (UBA), I founded Heirs Holdings which is a family investment company that invests in key sectors of the African economy. We basically are driven by our philosophy of Africapitalism. We want to see the private sector-based role in the economic development of our continent and that is why we founded Heirs Holdings. When we started, the ambition was to help to improve lives and transform the continent and we thought that the way to do this is by investing in critical sectors of the economy such as Power. Access to electricity we believe, is very critical for the economic upliftment of our people and the development of our country. We also decided to make sure we have an integrated energy, not just Power, but we made sure there is gas that helps the Power to operate. That is why we are also investing in oil and gas. For us, it’s just to make sure the ecosystem is complete, and we help to power our country out of poverty and into economic prosperity.
We also believe hospitality is critical for attracting investment into our country and the continent hence the acquisition of Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja and today, we are doing a lot. In the area of healthcare, we are also doing quite a lot to help improve the human capital of our country. We’ve seen with the pandemic that health is wealth. Talking about the challenges and how we have been able to juggle all of this, as I’ve always said, investment and success in the private sector to a large extent depends on leadership surrounding itself with capable hands that are more intelligent than the leadership. In our group, we have quite a lot and it seems to people that it’s stressful, yes it’s tough, but I’m blessed with capable hands. If you look at Transcorp, we have competent leadership.
The President/Group CEO of Transcorp Owen Omogiafo; CEO of Transcorp Hotel, Dupe Olusola; CEO of Transcorp Power, Chris Ezeafulukwe; CEO of Trans-Afam Power, Vincent Ozoude; and others, they are very capable people. They help to fire our growth. Also, if you look at the area of healthcare, Dr. Awele Elumelu, my wife, runs our Avon Medical business; while Simbo Ukiri leads Avon HMO, our health insurance firm. So these are great leaders, who help to make this enterprise not as difficult as it would have been. My job today is more of thinking, sitting at board sessions with them, providing some level of strategic direction at that level, but allowing them do what they know how to do. The challenge we face is basically the challenge as it is with any other enterprise, which is how to manage the macro and socio- economic issues. But basically we are happy with what we are doing, and with the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), we are also happy that we are able to impact lives and help to transform our continent through the economic empowerment of our young ones.
Taking it back to 2010 when you were forced to step down as MD/CEO of UBA at the age of 47, with so much to still offer the bank, would you look back and now say especially with the trajectory you have achieved that the then governor of CBN, Lamido Sanusi, did you a huge favour?
So that day, we had a Bankers’ Committee meeting and at the end of the meeting, the then CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, said the CEOs who had done 10 years will step aside. I immediately called the Chairman of UBA to explain what happened, and the next day, we conveyed an emergency board meeting. At the board meeting, it was a divided household for the first time: some directors said no, we have to go to court to contest it, and about one or two other directors did not think so. But I spoke and I told the board members that there are five critical stakeholders: the customers of UBA, will they like to know that we took our regulator to court? No! Then the staff of UBA, will they be comfortable working in a bank that took their regulator to court? No; then the shareholders, and then the regulator wouldn’t like it.
So, four constituents will not like us going to court, there is only one constituent that may like it and that’s Tony Elumelu, which makes it one over five, that’s 20 percent which is certainly not enough to go to court. And by the way, 10 years is not bad. Also, I had been planning to move on and leave at the age of 50; so what happened kind of fast-tracked this. It was also why within 24 hours, we appointed a successor. The pipeline for succession at UBA is always there, about 1-5 people are always there to step in. Looking back today, we’ve come a long way, and it’s always been about impacting humanity, improving lives and transforming everything we do. In business, we are known as turnaround experts, we take businesses and transform them. In philanthropy, we are also catalysing the creation of a new crop of African leaders. It’s all about transforming our society and making sure we leave the society better than we met it. For me, that opportunity to start all these three years ahead of the planned time, is a blessing.
What’s your take on the power sector in Nigeria today, what do you think needs to be done to make it more efficient particularly in terms of service delivery?
In the power sector, there are three parts to it: the generation, the transmission and the distribution. Transcorp, through Transcorp Power and Trans-Afam Power as at today in Nigeria, we own the highest generating capacity in the country. We have a generating capacity of about 2,000 Megawatts (MW) of electricity a day, but unfortunately we do less than 500 MW at this point in time. A major constraint in this area is gas, then there is the issue of transmission and evacuation of the generated electricity, and there is also the issue of payment. For us to be able to generate more, we need to have gas, and this is why our Group invested in oil and gas. Investing in oil and gas as a Group isn’t necessarily because of oil, it is more because of gas. We want to be able to ensure that we have gas from our oil and gas production to convert it to electricity.
With the acquisition we did recently, I’m happy to say it is already supplying gas to our Trans-Afam power plant, but we also need to make sure we stabilise our transmission lines. This country needs at least 100,000 MW of electricity a day to power the economy, but today we operate less than 5,000.We need to do more. Some other critical parts are payments, distribution, and metering. I must commend the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, he has done very well because he came in to help increase revenue in that space. Up until end of last year, we used to get less than 20 per cent payment for power supplied, but today, it’s improved to 50 per cent.
Transcorp Power alone is owed over N100 billion, but it’s gradually improving. For the power sector in Nigeria to work well – if we want to drive this economy – we need to increase generation, make sure we address gas, supply to generating companies, we need to make sure the transmission lines are capacitised to evacuate the power, we need to also make sure that power generated is taken by DisCos and the metering should be right for the end users to pay. If I generate electricity, I should be able to get money so that I can service my obligations as well as make sure that the spares in particular are serviced to ensure the generating plants keep running.
It is a critical sector, we need to invest in it, and the stakeholders need to make sure that it works. If it works, the country’s economic development becomes more real, if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be a problem. I, through the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), empower young entrepreneurs and if you ask them what the challenges they face in this country are, they tell you that it’s poor access to electricity. And so, any amount you give, some of them will not succeed because they spend so much on electricity. Even in the hospital business, healthcare, every sector in our economy, we need to fix the power sector. We need to prioritise it more, but I commend the efforts going on now making sure we privatise the remaining GenCos. But the transmission lines needs to be fixed and the payment system needs to be improved.
Do you think the Nigerian government should hands off transmission and are you going to make a bid for some of those GenCos that the government is proposing to privatise?
We will be interested in one of the Hydros. In the area of the transmission line, I think that ultimately, it should be privatised. What some of us have advocated is that the GenCos and DisCos, the entire power stakeholders should come together and have a deal with the Federal Government, take over the transmission lines, and it will be in our self-interest to make sure it works. If you have the transmission lines and it doesn’t work, there is no way to evacuate your power. That sector is so critical and pivotal for the survival of our power sector, it’s critical for improving access to electricity. What is important to us as operators is to have expanded capacity, but I’m sure if you talk to people in the transmission line, they will also give you reasons why they have their own constraints. But to us, we want to see massive improvement, we should be able to capacitise that space. I think the Ericsson deal I’m told is able to make that happen, the details of that I don’t know but I’m told it’s to help capacitise the transmission line.
Do you subscribe to the unbundling of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) for efficiency in the power sector?
What I do know is that we need to improve capacity in the area of transmission, and whatever we need to do to make that happen should be done. The time is now because we are all suffering this. At times, the generating plant runs into difficulties because you generate and it can’t be taken, and the power plant can just break down. We don’t need all of that frustration in the power sector. Whatever it takes to fix that sector, we should do so. Some of us in the power generating space have signified interest to be involved in the transmission so that collectively, we will be able to make it work. But even when that works, we need to make sure that the last mile, people are metered and they pay. The distribution companies should also take what is supplied to them and they pay to NBET who will in turn pay the GenCos. So, each of the three critical parts must work well; the generating companies must generate, the transmission company must transmit, and the distribution company must make sure it gets to end users because that’s where people feel the impact of electricity.
What is the update on Transcorp Hotel Glover Road, Ikoyi?
It is in the pipeline. We had issues with certain government authorisations and that slowed things down. We have done a lot and we are in a good place now. I must commend the leadership in our hospitality space; it is about having good people work with you. They are doing quite a lot, being very creative and innovative. Watch this space, I believe before the end of this year, you will see a lot. The hotel is a medium-to-long term plan but in the short term, the team want to do certain things. I think before the end of this year, you will see some commercial activity going on there.
Is the project of the old Falomo shopping complex still ongoing, what is the state of that?
About the Falomo shopping complex, we were extremely excited, we wanted to put up something very magnificent because Falomo is kind of the heart of Lagos. We ran into difficulty with the Ambode government. Again, it had to do with government authorisation and we kind of went to court, but at some point, there is a limit to how you can litigate on these things. But where we are at now is very good. Last Sunday I had meetings on this and I’m happy to say that the government, the company, the investors in the company, are finally coming together to start it again. This time, we are thinking of putting up an office complex, a hotel and a small mall because there is also concern about the traffic conditions there. We have finally come to terms under the new leadership in Lagos State, which is quite interesting as it started with Fashola’s regime, Ambode’s regime truncated it, and now the new government, Sanwo-Olu is reviving it. So, we are happy we are there now. Unfortunately, it costs more to do now compared to what we would have achieved if we had put it up then because of the exchange rate then compared to today, it’s totally different, it will cost three times more. That’s why we are also changing the initial concept but we want something extremely iconic in that place.
Afam Power plant costs over N100 billion, why haven’t you concluded the payments of Afam GenCo as required? Could you please clarify the situation of things?
Transcorp has two companies in the power sector which are Transcorp Power and Trans- Afam Power and they are all limited companies. Transcorp Power owns the Ughelli power plant and the in-store capacity is about 980/990 MW of electricity, we own that 100 per cent. The second Trans-Afam Limited, which comprises Afam Power Plc and Afam Three Fast Power Limited, is a $300 million acquisition. Our deal with the federal government is hinged on the fact that the plant has not been completed. General Electric (GE) is handling the fast power and they promised to complete it this year, but the Government believes in what we have done at the Ughelli power plant. When we took over the Power Plant, it was generating 150MW of electricity per day. We took Ughelli‘s generation to 750 MW and the Federal Government was very impressed – that was under President Jonathan’s regime. Now, under President Buhari’s regime, we completed the Trans-Afam power plant deal. The current government impressed with our track record in Ughelli allowed us to invest there, and the understanding is that GE will complete it.
But while that’s pending, we wanted to take over the plant and say, pay 25 per cent, while supervising the completion of the installation which is ongoing. Thanks to the Federal Government, thanks to the Minister of Finance, and the CBN, because they are making the payment so that GE can complete it. When they do, we make the final payments. Trans-Afam Power and Transcorp Power combined have about 2,000 generating capacity, which I earlier spoke about. We have a track record of turning around businesses, and in this case, seeing what we did at Ughelli, moving it from 150 to over 750MW per day. Nigeria needs huge electricity, we don’t have enough. I think the government is doing the right thing in encouraging people who have the capacity to help improve electricity to do so. We want to do that and we want to even do more in the country in this space. With our gas supply to the power plant, we think we are just starting.
Earlier this year, Heirs Holdings acquired a 45 per cent stake previously held by Shell, Total and ENI in OML 17. Does that deal give Heirs Holdings operatorship or is that going to be handled by the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company?
Again, the acquisition of investment in Oil and Gas by Heirs Oil and Gas is one that speaks to our overall energy strategy. Our energy strategy is integrated to make sure we help the least person in Nigeria and Africa to have improved access to electricity. So we acquired the OML 17 from the international oil companies you mentioned and then we made a case to the NNPC and we justified that we have the capacity and capability to operate the asset and they approved for us to operate. I’m happy to say that it is a truly indigenous oil and gas company owned by Nigerians, operated by Nigerians and between when we took over and now, there has been an improvement. Today, we produce over 31,000 barrels of oil per day, which is a slight improvement from what it was. We think we are just starting. The CEO of the company resumed just yesterday (Tuesday). Our ambition is to produce over 100,000 barrels of oil per day because the asset in the past has produced close to that. We want to do what we know how to do which is extracting value for stakeholders. We are really happy to have that responsibility to operate this asset and we think it will be done to the benefit of all stakeholders, the government, host community and the investors.
There are concerns expressed by market observers that those acquisitions are funded by UBA. What’s UBA’s exposure to your companies by the way of insider lending?
Let’s start with the Oil and Gas acquisition we just made, UBA didn’t participate in the funding. It’s a club of international and local lenders. For people to know, the local receiving bank for our proceeds is Union Bank of Nigeria. The international receiving bank for the proceeds of our oil sales is Standard Chartered Bank, London. The transaction, if people read, would have seen it was funded by a consortium of banks, Standard Chartered bank, ABSA in South Africa, Union Bank, Fidelity Bank in Nigeria, and a host of others. We are mindful of all these issues and we are very prudent in making sure we do not put pressure on the bank. So, we do go out to seek funds to support our operations. We also put in equity investment, our own investments but when we need to get funding, we try not to put pressure on the institution. The other businesses like Transcorp Power, UBA, participated in the syndication that was done for the Transcorp power acquisition. In total – UBA, AFC, FCMB, Fidelity, and two other banks. This is the limit of the exposure, but what is important to note is that it is within the single obligor limit and it is performing very well.
With the issue between First Bank of Nigeria (FBN) and CBN over insider trading, insider lending, do you think that the situation could have been handled differently?
I am the chairman of a competing institution, UBA, it may not be prudent for me to express judgment or comment on this. It may not be very professional of me. I know the shareholders in the bank, the regulators and the regulatory mindset. The regulators want a sound and safe banking environment. I believe the shareholders also seek that and in due course I believe they will be able to resolve the issues. I believe the issue will be resolved. What is important to me is best practices, sound corporate governance, and survival of the Nigerian banking system. I must say that the Nigerian banking sector has done very well, both the participants and the players and the regulatory body.
UBA operates in 20 African countries, it is the only African bank that operates in the United States of America (USA) with a deposit-taking license, and a member of the Federal Reserve Clearing System in US. We are also in the United Kingdom (UK). The toughest regulatory environment in the world is the USA. UBA, a bank with Nigerian heritage, operating in the toughest regulatory environment in the world with a 2 rating which is 80 percent in the USA, is something that must give pride to Nigerian regulators that an offshoot of the Nigerian banking system is doing so well. Across Africa, we see the standards, and I must say that regulations have changed. I commend the regulators, not only them, also those being regulated because it’s a two way thing to create this kind of environment.
How have you dealt with the challenges brought about by COVID -19 and the macroeconomic challenges that we have now. How will you want the federal government to ensure that other businesses thrive and jobs are created?
It’s been tough. The first time I saw the CEO of UBA since March last year was on the 6th of April during the Annual General Meeting. Things have changed, we never anticipated this, the world has moved. I tell you a story: Last year at Heirs Holding, our HR organisation made a presentation on new modes of working, asking us to consider off-site working arrangement. When they were presenting it, I told them to stop, don’t get too excited, how can people work off-site, you have to come to work 8am in the morning and close. That was just January 2021, fast-forward to March 2021, how do we work today? Offline. Things have changed, the world has moved, the digital evolution is here.
For us, we’ve come to realise further that people are indeed critical and if you understand that your human capital are the best, then, their health becomes very important. We have seen the hazard this pandemic has caused so we are trying to make sure we embrace the new world. It’s not been easy and I must use the opportunity to commend our staff and workers in general. I posted something on my blog (TOE Blog) about Workers’ Day and in it, I commended workers everywhere because it has been a tough time. If you look at banking and other essential services, people have to work, it’s like putting your life at stake. If you look at the power generation business, we have to generate electricity, Nigeria cannot be in the dark. If you look at health workers, they have to go out to support others, putting themselves at risk, it has been very challenging and yes May 1, this year was truly symbolic.
I thought should pass with saluting the courage, perseverance and suffering of our people. Not just people working in our Group but workers in Nigeria, it’s tough. On what the government should do, for me, there’s so much to be done. They are trying but there’s still room to do more. The whole philosophy of Africapitalism means that we should not only look at the government for solutions. Those of us in the private sector, what can we do to augment or support them so that we have a right environment for everyone? I must say that in Nigeria here, the CBN Governor put together the CACOVID. The founding members are the CBN Governor, myself, Aliko Dangote, Abdulsamad Rabiu, Jim Ovia and a lot of others came together to support the country through various means, putting money on the table to make sure we survive this period and also, advising the government on economic policies and programmes that should be deployed. People see the things that have happened, Nigeria opening up, but they don’t understand that there was a process, a lot happened behind the scenes. We spent money, we engaged the federal government, telling them the benefits of these things. I know that the IT teams of UBA, Zenith, GTB, Access, there was a period that they did not sleep, developing the platform that will people move in and out of the country, to enable the opening up. A lot is going on and all stakeholders have a role to play.
Lots of multinationals are going to Ghana, how can you sell Nigeria to the world and what does Nigeria have to offer?
My heart bleeds when you see conglomerates moving their investments or quarters from Nigeria to Ghana. Nigeria is a huge market and honestly the macroeconomic environment needs to improve. The concern most of them have is the security challenges in the country but for us in the private sector, the best way we sell our country is through the investment that we make. When I go out and people say things are bad, I say to them the glass is half full, there is nowhere else you get returns on investment as what you get here in Nigeria. I speak as an investor in Nigeria, in Africa and other parts of the world. But the truth is we just need to be totally aware of the trend of people moving out of the country to invest in smaller economies. When I talk to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Niyi Adebayo, he tells me his plans, his ministry, and what they are doing to improve this.
I know the Vice President of the country has been driving the ease of doing business, I know the finance minister and CBN governor have been encouraging people. We just need to keep working together. For us in the private sector, when we invest in Nigeria, it tells our friends outside the country that we are not stupid, we are making economic investment decisions when we invest in Nigeria, it shows there are opportunities here. Ultimately, the ease of going business must improve for the country to attract and retain investments in Nigeria. The aspiration for all of us is to make sure Nigeria is seen as a place where private capital should settle and all of us must play our own role in making this a reality.
What do you think about the forex management situation in Nigeria and how the CBN is going about it?
In 2018/19, there was a time when the VP convened a meeting of a few of us to express our opinion on the economic issues. I took a position there, people were in attendance, and I was quite critical of certain things at the time, it had to do with a lot of things you mentioned. But today, as things improved, you must also be bold to commend and say when things are moving in the right direction. Today, things are moving in the right direction. I support convergence a 100 per cent and I think we are there. On the issue on convertibility and other things, I think at times it’s easier to prescribe and when you are saddled on the seat, you see issues differently. Let’s look at Nigeria, we generate foreign currency largely on oil. We used to produce about 2.5 million barrels of oil before, today, I think we do about 1.4 million barrels of oil a day. That should have an impact on our foreign currency, it is not rocket science.
There was a time oil was $100 per barrel, it dropped to $40, and thankfully today it’s $69 per barrel. There’s a basket of so many things you have to watch as economic managers in making decisions, there’s a lot of pressure on our foreign currency. What people want to see from outside is a low exchange rate, but in the business world, people prioritise predictability – that this will be available when I need it, and I think to a large extent, that’s happening in Nigeria. But we need to do more, we need to improve our productive base as a country to make sure we diversify our foreign exchange earning sources as a country. We need to make sure that the ease of doing business and creating the right environment that will enable people, businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive so that collectively we can create prosperity. All this will help in what we have in the basket of our foreign exchange.
Talking about the Tony Elumelu Foundation, how many startups have you funded and what’s your impact across the continent in regards to job creation?
The Tony Elumelu Foundation was put together to help create more successful African business leaders because we believe the future of Africa is in our young ones. Also, entrepreneurship has a key role to play in developing our continent and for me, it was an opportunity to democratise luck and give luck to those who have ideas. We all are who we are today because at some point in our lives, people gave us a helping hand to pull us up. I felt that it will be useless of me to say I have money in my bank account, if there’s poverty all around us. The Foundation was set up to support young Africans, male and female. Every year, we support them with $5,000 each in non- refundable seed capital, at least a thousand people every year, we train them for 12 weeks and we appoint mentors to guide them, we created a networking platform, TEFConnect, the largest networking platform for African entrepreneurs so that they do well. This is the seventh year of the programme and as a Foundation, we support 1000 people, but fortunately because we preach our global advocacy that in the 21st century you must engage with Africa, not from outside, but from within. While we appreciate aid and donations for natural disasters, we know that we want our youth to become fishermen.
To provide for themselves. We want to create entrepreneurs that will feed their families and maintain the dignity of existence and support our overall economic growth. Today, we have partners including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the European Commission which just gave $25 million which is going to impact 2,400 females across Africa. So, with the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we are happy with what has happened so far. About 10,000 Nigerians and other Africans have benefitted from the programme and we are still counting. Every year, the participation and support is increasing. We empower our own 1,000 entrepreneurs, and our partner institutions also help to scale to more thousands. We have done a lot with the UNDP in the Sahel region, the ICRC in Nigeria’s North East and Niger Delta, etc. Ultimately, we want all stakeholders to join hands in fixing unemployment. Our young ones are suffering, there is hopelessness. Through the intervention of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we want to encourage them and give them hope, through the seed capital we provide, training and mentoring. Collectively we can fix the unemployment situation we have in Nigeria. Job creation is very important for us to have peace in our society.
I have seen first-hand the poverty around us. I was born and bred in Nigeria. I have seen both sides of the coin have worked in Africa, done my business in Africa and made some earnings in Africa and I have seen that the private sector has a role to play. Africapitalism is a call to private sector leaders that we all have a role to play in the development of the Africa. How? By investing in critical sectors of the African economy, not trading, but investing in critical sectors; power, electricity, railways. We need to do all of this to help the continent develop, by investing long-term in these sectors, you create economic prosperity for you the investor but also create social wealth, it is a win-win for everyone. It is a new way of investing, being involved in a true and meaningful way in the development of our continent. For example at Transcorp, we invest in power to make money, but we also invest in power to help catalyse the economic development of Nigeria.
These students, patients, businesses, both small and big need electricity. Our young ones are multi-talented, extremely talented, I tell you that if we improve access to electricity, we will create our own silicon valley, our own Steve jobs, our own Bill Gates. What is holding our people back is the absence of power. Africapitalism is realising all of this and calling everyone, the private sector to invest in the real sectors and also the government to create the enabling environment that allows the private sector to invest and do well. To our international partners, come, we have a new crop of leaders in Africa today. We have tangible investment in Africa, come and let us team up together to create a new Africa. That is Africapitalism, it is not an ideology, it’s the way we must operate henceforth if we are truly serious about the economic development of Africa from within with the support of our friend and government creating the right environment for the private sector to do well
What is your view on the girl child education, women empowerment and the role of women in society?
You guys are touching the real points. It’s good to talk about business, but I wish that I had more time to talk about youth empowerment, what the foundation is doing and gender equality and gender inclusion. I am so passionate about that. To a large extent, my mom played a role in shaping me. I’m a direct beneficiary of the catalytic impact of women in moulding and shaping society and I want to continue to encourage that. Beyond my mom, I have sisters, one of my biggest confidants and advisors is my sister, Agatha, she says it the way it is. My daughters and my wife are my refuge and strong pillar, quiet, but extremely supportive. Women are loyal, very reliable. Girl child education, its goes beyond that, making sure that at the table, everyone is there. In some countries where we have very bad stifling/discriminatory land policies, I speak against this, I engage their presidents about this and I am happy that in some countries, this has been improved. It is something that everyone must know, the time has come for us to realise the immense potential of women in shaping and making a good society.