Poised for Liftoff: Optimism about the Future of African Philanthropy

African Philanthropy Forum executive director Mosun Layode is optimistic about the future of African philanthropy.

In my home of Nigeria, we have a proverb: “It is impossible to be wealthy in the midst of poverty.” Philanthropists, the world over, are inspired by such a notion. So too are ordinary Africans, even those without great means.

I am living proof.

When my mother passed away in my early teenage years, I moved from my parents’ home — where I lived with my immediate family and an ever-changing cast of characters from distant cousins to aunts and uncles — to stay with my maternal auntie. My auntie was the embodiment of generosity. When she passed away, many years later, relatives and I tried to count how many people she had taken in during her lifetime. We compiled a list nearly 40 names long.

Philanthropy may be a Western word. But it is based on a philosophy that has long played a central role in African society. We are communally minded by custom and culture.

African Gold

As I write this article, the resources available to express this custom and culture are growing exponentially.

According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, household wealth is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. There are an estimated 177,000 high net worth individuals in Africa. And that number is expected to reach 200,000 by 2023.

Together they have donated more than US$ 100m every year.

But this US$ 100m figure only hints at the true scale of African philanthropy because it does not include the US$ 48 billion in remittances sent to African countries each year, much of that is philanthropy with a small “p” — paying for school fees, medical bills, and new roofs for distant cousins in ancestral villages across the continent.

Nor does this figure include faith-based philanthropy. No one is counting the naira, cedis, rands, and shillings Africans place in collection baskets every Sunday or pay as zakat yearly. Nor does this figure include philanthropy by the middle class. A recent study on giving in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda found that the emerging middle class in those countries donates roughly one-fourth of their earnings each month.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, The Bridgespan Group conducted a survey of African philanthropy, and concluded, “African philanthropy — charitable giving by Africans — seems poised for liftoff.”

Two years later, it looks likely that the pandemic was African philanthropy’s moment of liftoff. Both the scale and nature of African philanthropy is shifting in important ways.

The Changing Shape of Africa’s Philanthropy

When COVID-19 struck, governments and civil society leaders across the continent pleaded for help, and African social investors responded by nearly tripling their usual level of philanthropic giving to more than US$ 269m in 2020 (again this number is incomplete for the reasons stated above).

The pandemic has also shifted how Africans give. Many of Africa’s leading ultrahigh net worth individuals had
previously established operating foundations. These foundations serve as hands-on problem-solvers, often focusing on meeting basic needs in a single country. They generally did not partner widely, did not aim for systemic change, and did not utilize the expertise of organizations more proximate to the challenge. The pandemic demonstrated the limitations of such an approach.

To effectively counter COVID-19, African philanthropists are engaging in partnerships with government and bilateral and multilateral organizations. Just as the Ebola epidemic prompted African philanthropists and leaders to establish and support the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, this pandemic has the continent’s leaders supporting and strengthening African institutions.

For example, Zimbabweans Tsitsi and Strive Masiyiwa partnered with the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to develop an online platform to manage the global procurement of medical equipment and personal protective equipment for African countries. And their partnership with Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Skoll helped African countries establish the capacity to build the medical equipment, such as ventilators, needed to respond to the pandemic.

This is in addition to donations made to the relief funds established to support governments across the continent. These included Nigeria’s Coalition Against COVID-19, launched with support from philanthropists in the private sector and funding from the Central Bank of Nigeria and hundreds of Nigerians with the goal of raising 30 billion naira (US$ 73m in August 2021) to finance more than 2,100 intensive care beds, 600,000 COVID-19 test kits and food relief. And South Africa’s Solidarity Fund, which raised 3.3 billion rand (US$ 230m in August 2021) to respond to COVID-19.

Just as the Ebola epidemic prompted African philanthropists and leaders to establish and support the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, this pandemic has the continent’s leaders supporting and strengthening African institutions. Mosun Layode

The Future of African Philanthropy

Today, African philanthropy is at a crossroads. Post-pandemic, will philanthropists return to giving more modestly and retreating to their siloed approach to giving? Or will their experience during the pandemic give them the contacts, trust, and confidence to continue to partner and engage more strategically?

Governments can help ensure the traction gained in African philanthropy isn’t a temporary blip. Today, only a handful of African countries offer incentives to encourage individuals to engage in philanthropy (they should). A change in that policy in just a few key countries could help philanthropy stay at current levels or climb even higher. There is much room for growth; estimates on the potential giving of wealthy Africans range between US$ 2.8 billion to US$ 7 billion per year.

There are reasons for optimism.

A few African foundations have recently announced more ambitious and collaborative initiatives. In April 2021, the Motsepe Foundation announced a new initiative to support technological innovations across agriculture, energy, health, and education to help African countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. And in March 2021, the Abdul Samad Rabiu Initiative Africa launched a new annual US$ 100m fund for education, health, and social development initiatives. In announcing this new initiative, Abdul Samad Rabiu said: “The same pandemic that forced us humans to slow down, now forces our humaneness to square up.”

African Philanthropy Forum, which I lead, is working to spread their learnings and support strategic systems change social investing across the continent. We are seeing growing interest, especially among Africa’s young philanthropists. Africa is the youngest continent — 60% of Africa’s population is under 25. Research in South Africa indicates, and my own experience across other African countries reaffirms this finding, that young people are volunteering more, giving more, and giving more frequently than their elders.

Which brings to mind another African proverb: “It is the young trees that will make up the forest.”

Mosun Layode currently serves as the executive director of African Philanthropy Forum where she works extensively across Africa with established and emerging philanthropists who are committed to the sustainable and inclusive development of Africa.

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