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Giving Back: The Face Of Africa’s New Donors

According to an article published on Ventures Africa , as a new generation of wealthy businesspeople make different choices, turning their backs on the one-off donations of the past, so the face of African philanthropy is shifting.

Rising from the depths of the global financial crisis, Africa’s richest are faring well. Among them is a breed of “billionaire philanthropist” – men and women who want to give back to their communities like never before. Philanthropy is alive and well on the continent, with those who made fortunes through their own business pursuits donating millions of dollars to disaster relief, education and young entrepreneurs. Africa’s new super-rich are going beyond just shelling out money for causes: their philanthropic pursuits are aiming to change the way Africans live.


Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

Traditionally, the majority of the wealthy in Africa made their millions (and billions) through their connections to, or influence in, government. But with more self-starters now in the wealthy pack, according to the African Grantmakers Network there is more “credible potential” for philanthropy. People such as Ugandan tycoon, Ashish Thakkar, see the need and value in giving back. Thakkar’s entrepreneurial spirit emerged at age 15, when he began a small business selling computers. Now aged 32, he is CEO of the Mara Group, a conglomerate with some $100 million in revenue each year. Thakkar wishes to “pay it forward” by setting up mentorship programmes for young entrepreneurs to launch their careers. “This is why I am now so passionate about supporting and developing other entrepreneurs,” he says. “I feel like my development now lies in helping others to grow, be the best they can be, and avoid making the same mistakes I made.”

Supporting Good Governance

While philanthropy in Africa has a long and colourful history, goodwill and charity on the continent have often been marred by claims of corruption, and of donations being swallowed up by vague “administrative costs”.

Many countries in the region have few formal structures in place to monitor where donations go and how much aid actually reaches communities. Recently, wealthy donors themselves have moved to improve the environment for giving, change the negative stereotypes and hold organisations and governments accountable.

Sudanese telecommunications magnate, Mo Ibrahim, put the spotlight on national leadership across Africa by setting up the Ibrahim Index of African

Governance to create “a scientific, objective basis for discussion”of the strengths and weaknesses of different countries. The index ranks each country according to factors such as safety, economics and human rights. Rather than compile this information just for scholars or officials, Ibrahim seeks to “disseminate it to the widest possible audience so the citizens in every country know what the government is doing”.

Ibrahim further encourages good governance with his Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which is awarded to former African leaders who have avoided corruption and managed their countries well. Winners include former Mozambique president, Joaquim Chissano, and former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae. Each recipient gets a prize of $5 million, plus $200,000 every subsequent year for the rest of his or her life.

Ibrahim’s projects may be the most ambitious in geographic scope, but across the continent, philanthropists are attempting to introduce higher standards of governance into their charitable and philanthropic giving. In Egypt, Marwa El-Daly has managed to revive the Islamic notion of waqfor endowment, the traditional form of giving, by encouraging and institutionalising philanthropy through her Maadi Community Foundation, which also helps to maintain public accountability for the funds. South African Allan Gray, who made billions through his namesake investment firm, keeps a close eye on the money he donates. He spent $130 million setting up the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, which provides scholarships for South African high school students, including living expenses and tuition.

Cultivating the future of Business

A belief in home-grown solutions to the continent’s problems unites the likes of Thakkar, Gray and many other African philanthropists. “Be particularly wary of the idea that African philanthropy is only about giving grants,” Graça Machel, former South African statesman Nelson Mandela’s wife, recently told an African Grantmakers Network assembly. “Instead, consider ‘working and walking with Africans’ by cultivating humility that seeks to understand and prioritise the needs of the communities, so that [we] can adequately elevate these experiences to national and international levels,” Machel said.
In line with this sentiment, many of the continent’s superrich are helping young Africans follow in their entrepreneurial footsteps. Some have set up foundations and mentoring programmes to help bright youths from disadvantaged communities get a foot in the door of the modern business world. Take, for example, Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa and Nigeria’s first billionaire, worth an estimated $20.2 billion. Among his estimated $35 million in donations in 2012 alone, Dangote pledged $2 million to the Young Global Leaders programme, a World Economic Forum initiative that identifies nascent talent. “We should give while we are alive and also when we are young and capable,” Dangote said at a recent charity event. “We should all be problem solvers and ready to make people happy when the opportunity comes.” Also priming young African entrepreneurs is Nigerian banker, Tony Elumelu, whose eponymous foundation has disbursed $6.3 million for the cause. Among other programmes, the foundation runs monthly Twitter tutorials for aspiring entrepreneurs. Its goal is to “prove that the African private sector can itself be the primary generator of economic development.”

Other philanthropists provide vital venture capital to young entrepreneurs who have bright ideas but lack the means to see them to commercial fruition. Grocery wholesaler Nathan Kirsh, a self-made billionaire from Swaziland worth $3.1 billion, has provided start-up capital for more than 10,000 people opening small businesses across Africa and the Middle East. Thakkar’s Mara Launch Fund offers venture capital for start-up and early-stage businesses. Unveiled in Uganda last year, the fund has since extended its reach to Tanzania, with plans to open in Nigeria and South Africa. At present, up to $12,000 in capital is on offer to African businesses. “Funding has been the missing link but with Mara Launch Uganda Fund we have completed the ecosystem for supporting young entrepreneurs,” says Thakkar.

While start-up capital is critical for businesses on the continent, advances in technology can play just as big a role in fuelling growth. Nigerian banker, Jim Ovia, had the latter in mind when he founded the Youth Empowerment and ICT Foundation. Information and communication technology (ICT) now generates 7 percent of Africa’s GDP, with the market predicted to be worth upwards of $150 billion by 2016. Keen to involve young Nigerians in this growth, Ovia’s foundation awarded $320,000 in grants to 10 “techpreneurs”, to develop their own technology businesses.

Investing in Education

Nelson Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” While some of the generous well-to-do are helping young Africans get their businesses off the ground, others are targeting them even earlier, working to make education more accessible.

In South Africa, only 13 percent of young people attend university, and almost half of them never graduate. Hoping to tackle the problem, billionaire Donald Gordon spent $17 million building the Donald Gordon Medical Centre at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. A private academic hospital, it was established to create a facility for the training of specialists and sub-specialists, with all training programmes fully integrated and complementary to the existing training programmes within the university’s faculty of health Sciences.
In Zimbabwe, Strive Masiyiwa, the founder of telecommunications giant, Econet Wireless, spent a reported $6.4 million setting up a trust for African students at Morehouse College, a historically black institution in the United States. Aliko Dangote has also been spending on education in Nigeria, giving $6.3 million to six Nigerian universities, including $3.1 million to develop Bayero State University Business School in the state where he was born. Congolese fashion model, Noella Coursaris, has focused on girls’ education, launching the Georges Malaika Foundation, which runs a school for 180 young women.

The approach Coursaris has taken in establishing her own school has proven popular with other philanthropists across the continent. Banking billionaire Jim Ovia established James Hope College, a high school situated on the same site where Ovia was educated as a young man. The new facility will accommodate over 400 students, tuition-free. Ovia hopes that “the future alumni of James Hope College will have the integrity, wisdom and strength to be future leaders in whatever endeavours they pursue. The education I undertook set the foundation for a belief in lifelong learning which has been the keystone to some of my achievements as a businessman, a family man and now an educationalist.”

Donors Saving Lives

The continent of Africa continues to grapple with several public health crises. Some 60 percent of the world’s population with HIV/AIDS lives in Africa, with cases increasing eight-fold in recent years. Nine out of every 10 cases of malaria worldwide are contracted in Africa, which also has 19 of the top 20 countries with the highest maternal and newborn mortality rate, according to the latest WHO regional report. When done right, philanthropy has the potential to eradicate infectious diseases and lower mortality rates.
Former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo’s charitable work exemplifies the holistic approach to public health that some African donors take. Mutombo put $20 million into the new Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa, DRC, named after his mother, who died of a stroke in 1997 because she was unable to get to hospital in time. Mutombo also set up a charity to provide healthcare through the hospital as well as promote disease prevention, medical research and access to healthcare education in the country. The foundation gave 10,000 doses of de-worming medication after it was revealed that hookworm was a serious health problem in the country.

Read more on Ventures Africa

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