Africa’s Billionaire Entrepreneurs Are Helping the Continent Battle the Covid 19 Challenge

By Ebimo Amungo

As Corona Virus ravages the world, straining health systems to creaking point in America, Italy, Spain, and countries considered advanced, the world watches with trepidation as the virus makes its way slowly, but surely, towards Africa. The World Health Organization and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have warned about the consequence of the virus taking hold in Africa. The prospects are dire for a continent with a dilapidated healthcare system and governments burdened with myriad fiscal and political challenges.

Yet, African governments have been proactive in trying to stem the tide of the virus. Most have implemented measures like lockdown and issued social distancing directives, while they have striven to improve healthcare facilities, acquire text kits, build isolation centers and implement social welfare programs that include the distribution of food and healthcare products.  Most governments have been supported by the contributions of the private sector, led in most part by some of Africa’s most accomplished entrepreneurs.

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In Kenya, Manu Chandaria, a leading member of the Comcraft Group of Companies, a conglomerate with subsidiaries in over 40 countries, donated water tanks and hand sanitizers to the National Police Service. While James Mwangi, Chief Executive Officer of Equity Bank contributed $3 million to a government Covid-19 fund.  Zimbabwean tycoon Strive Masiyiwa focused on healthcare workers by providing protective clothing, cash, life and health insurance and transport for nurses and doctors. In Nigeria, Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man  and founder of Dangote Group is part of a private sector response called  the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID)  which includes, Access Bank, Zenith Bank, Guaranty Trust Bank. Their objective  it to provide  financing for immediate purchase of medical supplies and the creation of isolation centers. Guaranty Trust Bank had earlier worked quickly to transform a stadium into a 110-bed isolation center within five days in partnership with Lagos State. 

Egypt’s Sawiris family donated   100 million Egyptian pounds (about 6.3 million U.S. dollars) to back the country’s efforts in combating the spread of COVID-19. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI, who is the majority owner of the shares of the conglomerate SNL, ordered the creation of the Special Fund, initially worth over $1 billion, to mitigate the social and economic effects of COVID-19. Since then, Moroccan institutions and corporations have stepped up with contributions, racking up an additional $1 billion. Morocco’s OCP Group donated $310 million to the Fund while Afriquia Gas, led by the billionaire Aziz Akhannouch contributed $103.5 million. Bank of Africa, owned by Moroccan billionaire Othman Benjelloun, decided to allocate its profit from the first quarter of 2020 as a contribution to the special fund.  In south Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the setting up of a privately-managed Solidarity Response Fund. The billionaires, Patrice Motsepe, Johann Rupert and Nikki Oppenheimer where among the first to donate to the fund.

But long before the Covid 19 scourge, Africa’s billionaire entrepreneurs had become notable for their philanthropy and social enterprise projects. Many have set up foundations with which they coordinate these activities with some of the most notable being the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, The Dangote Foundation, The Motsepe Foundation, the Tony Elumelu Foundation, James Mwangi Foundation.

In my new book, The Rise of the African Multinational Enterprise, which was published and recently released by Springer of Switzerland, I outlined the contributions of these entrepreneurs in myriad ways that continue to benefit Africa. The book was released under the Management of Professionals series of Springer, one of the largest publishers of academic and professional books and journals in the world and it is a 310-page ode to Africa’s private sector enterprises.

The book is the culmination of several years of research in a topic that has formed the plank of my academic interest. In the book, I explained the contributions of African Multinational Enterprises, which I call the African Lions, to the various economic sectors and segments and enumerate how these contributions are accelerating the development of Africa.

Many of these African Lions were founded, nurtured into domestic growth and international expansion by Africa’s new age entrepreneurs. These are men and women who looked beyond Africa’s limitation and challenges to found some of the largest corporate entities on the continent. The process of growing small and medium enterprises into large firms is daunting all over the world but in other climates there are structures that enable growth of firms. In Africa, the process is more onerous. African countries occupy the lower rungs of the Ease of Doing Business Index of the World Bank and the Country Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum. Africa also rank poorly on the Corruption Perception Index. The Heritage Foundation captures Africa’s poor ranking in the Economic Freedom access. These indexes lay bare the herculean task entrepreneurs have to overcome to become successful in Africa.

African governments differ in their attitudes toward entrepreneurship. Some have deliberately discouraged the emergence of private African capitalism. So, the road to entrepreneurial success has involved building a complex web of relationships in an environment with high corruption, poor infrastructure, little access to finance and tribal and ethnic tensions. Managing these relationships into a mutually reinforcing dependency is the unique gift of African entrepreneurs.

So, putting the real achievement of this new age entrepreneurs in context, they formed large companies on a continent that has preponderance of informal and small business entities as well as a plethora of physical and institutional challenges. In order to build their companies, these entrepreneurs have had to wear many hats. They were visionary, seeing opportunities in places others saw risks entering segments and sectors that has yielded vast profits and growth. They were activist who prodded governments to open up sectors that were dominated by inefficient public monopolies. They were advocates for better regulations and policies to support private sector investments. African entrepreneurs also prompted their companies to innovate to overcome operational challenges. They invested in developing supply chains and were quick to build their own infrastructure where critical utilities like power, water and security are not available. As leaders of expanding companies, African entrepreneurs searched for new sources for funding for their businesses. They convinced new investors to invest in Africa. They were also marketers, who pitched their message to financiers and investors at regional, continental and global forums, inviting them to partake in the economic growth of Africa

An entrepreneur like Strive Masiyiwa was an activist who battled with the Zimbabwean government to allow private participation in telecommunications service. Today, the company he founded, Econet Wireless, is one of the continents preeminent telecom companies. Algerian tycoon, Issad Rebrab is a believer in the diversification of African economies away from their primary source of income, commodities. The investments he has made with his Cevital Group is a testament of that belief.

African entrepreneurs make the huge capital investments other are too scared to undertake. After investing in building cement plants in 14 countries across Africa, Aliko Dangote has been able to mobilize $17 billion for the construction of one of the largest refineries in the world in Lagos. That is after Mike Adenuga, founder of GlobaCom had singlehandedly made a $1 billion dollar investment in a submarine cable from Europe to Africa.

Others like Tony Elumelu, who oversaw the expansion of United Bank of Africa into 20 markets in Africa, and Ahmed Heikal who founded Qaala Holding, are salesmen for Africa, pitching Africa’s promise and inherent profits at global forums like the World Economic Summit and the United Nations General Assembly.

The success of the companies founded and nurtured by Africa’s new age entrepreneurs has made them magnets for investors and these companies are some of the most sought after in the various stock exchanges across the continent. Today, African Lions pay huge taxes to governments, employ large numbers of people, produce goods and services for Africa’s growing population, promote intra-African trade and they are also some of the largest vehicles of foreign direct investments into several African countries.

African Lions, founded by these new age entrepreneurs, are helping to accelerate the development of Africa.

Dr. Ebimo Amungo is the author of The Rise of the African Multinational Enterprise and the  Managing Partner of Amungo Consulting Limited

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