Could the Next Bill Gates Hail From Africa?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Angelina is about to get some competition.
By Laura Secorun Palet
In a hotel conference hall in Nairobi, Kenya, dozens of aspiring young African entrepreneurs are fiddling nervously in their chairs. After all, they’re about to meet the business mentors who will help turn their dreams into reality. The program is free, funded by one of the many generous benefactors trying to help Africa rise — except that in this case, the entrepreneur’s last name isn’t Gates or Winfrey, but Thakkar. And he’s not American; he’s Ugandan.
Ashish J. Thakkar is the continent’s youngest billionaire and the founder of the Mara Group, a business conglomerate that spans sectors including financial services and technology. While he founded the Mara Foundation to empower African entrepreneurs, he’s just one member of a fast-growing group of millionaires comprising football stars and oil tycoons who are using their wealth and influence to help their continent prosper. And as Africa grows economically, so does the ranks of its philanthropists: Since 2000, the number of locals here with assets worth at least $1 million has grown by 145 percent.
Most of them are based in countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. But it’s not money that breeds generosity here, says Ndidi Nwuneli, director of the African Philanthropy Forum, an institution created two years ago to build cooperation between the continent’s affluent givers. “Charity is part of African culture — whether you are rich or poor, you must give,” she says.
Indeed, the concept of philanthropy may have first accelerated in the West, but community-based solidarity is certainly not a foreign concept here. The continent is peppered with local nongovernmental organizations working on everything from education to HIV/AIDS prevention, and Africans living abroad send more remittances back to their home countries than the entire foreign aid community combined — some $52 billion each year.
They are determined to tend to the root causes of problems, moving away from “Band-Aid” solutions and one-off projects that disappear when the funding dwindles after a few months.
This new crop of homegrown donors could have a great impact, says Paloma Raggo, an assistant professor in Carleton University’s master of philanthropy and nonprofit leadership program. Strategic investments could make their efforts more successful than those of Western givers who have poured millions into the continent over the past few decades with extremely mixed results. Indeed, African benefactors have a deep knowledge of the places in which they invest, and, essentially, says Jane Wales, CEO of the World Affairs Council and vice president of the Aspen Institute, “they have the trust of their beneficiaries and can get feedback directly from them, which is extremely important.”
What’s more, they are determined to tend to the root causes of problems, moving away from “Band-Aid” solutions and one-off projects that disappear when the funding dwindles after a few months. Instead of importing ideas from abroad, organizations like the African Women’s Development Fund, which gives grants to entrepreneurial females, are focused on investing in local solutions. Some of them, says Wales, may one day be imported to other developing regions — just as microfinance spread from its origins in Bangladesh to Latin America and even parts of the United States.
Still, some fear African philanthropists may follow too closely on the footsteps of Western donors by looking to them as examples, which would be “anachronistic,” says Raggo. “Africa needs its own solutions.” Some philanthropic funds may also come through corporations accused of exploiting the environment or dispossessing people.
But while international philanthropists are unlikely to leave Africa anytime soon, more of them are expected to partner with locals to invest their money in better places. The Mara Foundation, for one, works with Ernst & Young and President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, while the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced a combined partnership of $100 million with the Dangote Foundation — named after Africa’s richest man — to help end undernutrition in Nigeria.
All of this may be a symptom of a deeper shift in the discourse of giving aid. As African economies grow, foreign direct investment increases and remittances continue to increase — while the role of foreign philanthropists arguably becomes less important. Nwuneli hopes one day it will be altogether obsolete. “Africa’s future is now in the hands of Africa,” she says.