Chairman of Heirs Holdings, Nigeria’s leading multinational group with interests across the financial, Energy, Hospitality, Healthcare and other sectors in many countries of the world, Tony Elumelu, in this interview bares his mind on public interest issues around the group and the Nigerian economy. Excerpt.
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 the 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 had to make 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 these, 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 of work and it could be 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. These are great leaders who help to make this enterprise not to be as difficult as it would have been.
My job today is more of thinking, sitting at board sessions with them, providing some strategic direction at that level, while also allowing them to 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.
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 owns 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 the end of last year, we used to get less than 20 per cent payment for power supplied, but today, it has improved to 50 percent. 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 all the parts 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 will 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 as the government has been making sure we privatise the remaining GenCos. But the transmission lines need to be fixed and the payment system needs to be improved.
AFAM Power plant costs over N100 billion, but Transcorp is yet to complete payments of both plants: that’s AFAM power station and AFAM Three East. Could you please clarify the situation?
Transcorp has two companies in the power sector: Transcorp Power and Trans- Afam Power and they are all limited companies. Transcorp Power owns the Ughelli power plant- the installed capacity of Ughelli Power plant is about 980 to 990 MW of electricity, we own that 100 per cent. The second plant is the Afam Power plant – TransAfam Limite 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 believed in what we had 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 daily generation to 750 MW and in record time and the Federal Government was very impressed – that was under President Jonathan’s regime.
Now, under President Buhari’s regime, we did the 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 pending that, we wanted to take over the plant and so they said, pay 25 per cent. take over the plant and take over the supervision of the completion of the installation which is ongoing now. Again, 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. That is the fact. It is all about comfort with us.
We have a track record of turning around businesses, and in this case the generating plant, seeing what we did at Ughelli, moving it from 150 to over 750MW per day, and also the need – 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.
Onto your oil and gas interest; 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 last 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 also 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. Actually, the CEO of the company resumed just yesterday. 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. So, yes, 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. Is that true? 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 did not even 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, they would have seen it was funded by a consortium of banks, Standard Chartered bank, ABSA in South Africa, Union Bank, AFREXIM, 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 by the way, it is performing very well.
With the issue between First Bank of Nigeria (FBN) and CBN over insider trading, insider manipulation, insider lending, do you think that the situation could have been handled differently? How will you have handled this if you were to have advised?
I think you need to understand the unique position I am in here. 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 leave that to those who are not so involved to comment. 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, 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. If you talk to people, you will note that 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 the 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 everyone in Nigeria and 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 totally in Nigeria. I commend the regulators, not only them, also those being regulated because it’s a two-way thing to create this kind of environment. I’m sure this will also be resolved.
What do you think of the forex Management situation in Nigeria and how the CBN is going about it? We have numerous FX windows, and people have asked for convergence of FX, so what will like to see?
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 some 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 of 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.
Also, there was a time oil was $100 per barrel, it dropped to $40, and thankfully today it’s back to $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 want 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, to succeed, we need to put that in place, so that collectively we can create prosperity. To ensure demand and supply. All this will help in what we have in the basket of our foreign exchange. So, convergence? Yes, are we there now? I will say we need to fix the supply side.
Talking about the Tony Elumelu Foundation, how many start- ups have you funded and what’s your impact across the continent with regards to Job Creation?
The Tony Elumelu Foundation was put together to help create more successful African businesses, 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 some of us have been lucky growing up, 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 would 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, female, Nigerians, Africans. 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, and as a Foundation we support on our own, 1000 people, but fortunately because when we go out, 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 Union which just gave $25 million which is going to impact us this year. It will help to support 2,000 females across Africa. So, with the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we are happy with what has happened so far. About 10,000 Nigerians and young 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 EU, the ICRC in Nigeria’s North East and Niger Delta, etc. and so, it is growing and for us, 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 all fix the unemployment situation we have in Nigeria. Job creation is very important for us to have peace in our society.
You champion the concept Africapitalism, what is this about? Is it an ideology? Are you going to write a book about it?
It is not an ideology, I have seen first-hand the poverty around us. I was born and bred in Nigeria. I have seen both sides of the coin, I 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 Africa. How do we do this? 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, and so, by investing long term in these sectors, you create economic prosperity for you the investor but also create social wealth, it becomes a win-win for everyone.
It is a new way of investing, of 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 more importantly, 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 in this country, 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. And so, 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 to a large extent, and with the support of our friend and government creating the right environment for the private sector to do well.