Xi Jinping, President of China, speaks at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 26, 2015.
Timothy Clary—AFP/Getty Images
By Tony O. Elumelu
September 29, 2015
IDEAS
Tony O. Elumelu is chairman of Heirs Holdings and founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation

The U.N. adopted its Sustainable Development Goals on Friday, building on the Millennium Development Goals, launched in 2000. This offers a moment to reflect on the successes of that 2000 agenda, but also to look forward, learning lessons and working to ensure that this new agenda has the highest possible chance of success.

As an African, I view these ambitious new targets, which include goals to end poverty and inequality and protect the environment, as a precious opportunity to accelerate the development trajectory of Africa, not least by more effectively leveraging the private sector as an agent to generate and advance economic and social wealth.

I often write about Africa from the perspective of business, having spent my entire career working as a banker, investor and entrepreneur across the continent. But I also write as a father whose children will be among those who inherit our planet. If these goals are achieved, we will leave them a better world than the one we inherited from our parents.

Many of the challenges that the new goals seek to address have a particular relevance to Africa. It is no secret that the continent remains among the least developed regions in the world, and that most African countries fell short in achieving a number of the Millennium Development Goals. Yet we’ve made considerable progress on key issues over these last 15 years. Sub-Saharan Africa reduced the rate of its under-five mortality five times faster since 2000, and the rate of maternal mortality has halved in this same period. The continent has been home to six out of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.

There are many people to thank—the policy makers who set measurable milestones; African leaders like Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Paul Kagame who were bold in their reforms; African philanthropists such as Mo Ibrahim; foreign philanthropists, above all Melinda and Bill Gates; and provocateurs such as Bono who catalyzed world opinion.

Looking forward, Africa’s own entrepreneurs, businessmen and philanthropists must also play their role. The key to Africa successfully achieving the new goals is to effectively utilize Africa’s private sector to transform our natural wealth and human capital into an engine of global growth that is inclusive and sustainable. I call this “Africapitalism.” Governments can create an enabling environment, and the philanthropic and social sectors can offer guidance. But ultimately it is responsible and sustainable business that will create wealth that underpins a just and fair society.

I am pleased to see that the final set of goals include areas of focus that are explicitly dependent on private sector activity, particularly the one that calls for “inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” This goal is critical for Africa, because by 2020, Africa will need 122 million new jobs if we are to maintain our growth trajectory. Based on current trends, Africa is only creating about one-third of the jobs required annually. Africapitalism can help address this looming gap.

In many parts of Africa, the private sector is already providing access to energy, infrastructure and housing, as well as playing an important role in the more socially orientated goals such as improving food security, education and health care. The private sector can also help address the goal of ending poverty: Endemic poverty is most often found in communities lacking adequate access to economic opportunities for their citizens.

There are many opportunities for the private sector to provide solutions that deliver both a financial and social return. For example, in my home country of Nigeria, only 4% of Nigerians have private health insurance. Too few people are accessing preventative care, harming their productivity and overall quality of life. By offering market-driven private health insurance, companies like our subsidiary Avon HMO are helping to provide higher-quality access to middle-income Nigerians, freeing up government-provided healthcare for the less fortunate, as well as creating a more robust health system and opening up additional opportunities for private investment in the sector.

Tapping into Africans’ entrepreneurial genius to address economic and social challenges is also critical to the achievement of these goals. Earlier this year, I launched a 10-year, $100 million initiative through the Tony Elumelu Foundation to empower 10,000 entrepreneurs across the continent. In the first year of the program, 1,000 African entrepreneurs from 51 different African countries were carefully selected. Showing that African entrepreneurs already see business opportunities in addressing the sustainable development goals, 30% of them are starting businesses in the agriculture sector, 12% in education and 4% in healthcare. Not only will these and entrepreneurs like them create new jobs and generate additional tax revenues, they will also develop products and services that either directly or indirectly address many of the challenges the Sustainable Development Goals are seeking to solve.

The importance of the private sector to the success of these goals in Africa is not merely a matter of perspective, but one of necessity. According to the U.N., over the next 15 years, the cost to achieve the goals will be more than $170 trillion. (For comparison, in 2014, global gross domestic product was only about $78 trillion.) Moreover, for many of the goals, it is actually the private sector that will implement them—building the airports, roads, and power stations, as well as the schools, clinics, and houses that are needed.

The nexus between government and business to address global challenges requires collaboration with the international donor community, philanthropists, and local nongovernmental organizations through shared purpose. It is only by working together that we can achieve the new goals and build a world that is worthy of us and our children.

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