By Femi Aribisala
Alot is reported about Nigeria in the news every day. However, much of this is bad. Nigerians are people the world seems to love to hate. When you read about Nigeria, corruption is often the preferred topic. Then there are the kidnappings and the Boko Haram terrorism.
But alongside all the bad press, there is a quiet revolution going on in Nigeria. Indeed, it could be argued that all the turmoil currently going on represent the birth-pangs of a nascent Nigeria. A new Nigeria that is vibrant, progressive and industrious. A new Nigeria that President Barack Obama of the United States proclaimed is a strategic centre of gravity in Africa and perhaps the world’s next economic giant.
Indeed, within the last three years, Nigeria has emerged as the preferred destination for foreign investments in Africa, driven by successful government policies to attract foreign investors. For the second year running, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD, has ranked Nigeria as the number one destination for investments in Africa, and as having the fourth highest returns in the world.
There is a face to this new emergent Nigeria. That face belongs to Aliko Dangote, a 56- year-old man from the mercantilist state of Kano in Northern Nigeria. Dangote has become without a doubt Africa’s leading industrialist and entrepreneur. His success proclaims the new Nigeria of today and tomorrow. It shows that behind all the brouhaha, Nigerians are beginning to take their rightful place as Africa’s leading entrepreneurs; thereby proclaiming Nigeria itself as a major frontier market in international relations.
The rise in Dangote’s fortunes has been meteoric. In his own words: “About 10 years ago, I bought a company for $4 million. It is worth $21 billion today.” Dangote made his first showing on Forbes list of the world’s billionaires in 2008, with a fortune estimated at $3.3 billion. By 2011, this had jumped by 400% to $13.8 billion. By November 2013, his fortune had jumped again to $20.8 billion. By March 2014, his fortune had jumped again, this time to $25 billion, making him by far the richest man in Africa according to Forbes Magazine; and the 23rd richest man in the world.
This is an amazing feat for an African and a Nigerian. It is necessary to put Dangote’s wealth within a framework whereby one can fully appreciate how far he has come in so short a time. Dangote is now far richer than Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia. He is also richer than Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. Furthermore, Dangote, who has long overtaken Oprah Winfrey on the world’s list of Black billionaires, is now nearly as rich as Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
Dangote did not make his fortune the classical Nigerian way. Nigerians become rich largely by stealing public funds while in public office; by flipping over-inflated government contracts; and by securing preferential concessions in the country’s lucrative oil industry. Neither did he merely buy abroad to sell at home. Dangote is remarkable because he chose a route far less travelled by his compatriots: the hard, difficult grind of manufacturing. Said Dangote: “Manufacture, don’t just trade. There is money in manufacturing even though it is capital intensive. To achieve a big breakthrough, I had to start manufacturing the same product I was trading on; which is commodities.”
Indeed, Dangote started his business by mere trading in commodities and building materials in the 1970s, with a loan from a well-heeled uncle, Sanusi Dantata; a Nigerian tycoon. It soon grew into export, import, manufacturing and real estate. Says Dangote: “It took me 30 years to get to where I am today. Youths of today aspire to be like me but they want to achieve it overnight. It’s not going to work. To build a successful business, you must start small and dream big. In the journey of entrepreneurship, tenacity of purpose is supreme.”
Today, his Dangote Group mills flour, processes salt, and produces pasta and fertilizer. Its sugar refinery is the second-largest in the world, producing 800,000 tons annually. It is the main supplier of sugar to Nigeria’s soft drinks companies, breweries and confectioners. The Group exports cotton, cashew-nuts, cocoa, sesame seed and ginger to several countries. It also has major investments in real estate, banking, transport, textiles and oil and gas.
But the jewel in the crown of Dangote’s business conglomerate is his cement factories. Thanks mainly to Dangote, Nigeria no longer imports cement, but is a major world producer. In 2007, Dangote commissioned a one-billion dollar cement factory in Obajana, Nigeria; the largest in Africa. Dangote Cement now employs 26,000 workers in Nigeria alone. Dangote Cement is now valued at $20.5 billion, the first Nigerian company to surpass $20 billion in market capitalisation. Indeed, Dangote Cement alone currently accounts for more than one-quarter of the total market capitalisation of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
Since his wealth is created and not stolen, Dangote has not been constrained to stash it abroad in secret bank accounts. Instead, much of it is re-invested right here in Nigeria. Indeed, one of the things that make Dangote unusual is his patriotism; a rare commodity among Nigeria’s wealthy class. Says Dangote: “Nothing is going to help Nigeria like Nigerians bringing back their money. If you give me $5 billion today, I will invest everything here in Nigeria. I have not seen any country where you can make money like in Nigeria and I say it to anyone who cares to listen. The opportunities here are so tremendous.”
Through the construction and operation of large-scale manufacturing facilities in Nigeria and across Africa, the Dangote Group has been instrumental in building local manufacturing capacity and in generating employment for thousands. As a result, he was honoured in 2009 as the leading provider of employment in the Nigerian construction industry. In his own words: “Our business strategy has been to look at the country’s imports and invest in critical areas of need. By so doing, we have helped to make Nigeria self-sufficient in some commodities such as cement, and also a net exporter of these products, specifically within the Economic Community of West African States.”
After Nigeria, Dangote is especially committed to Africa. His interest in Africa makes perfect business sense. Says Dangote: “There are quite a lot of opportunities in terms of doing business in Africa. Anyone serious about business should not miss out on Africa. There are a billion people living in Africa today compared with China’s 1.3 billion and India’s 1.2 billion. Africa is a huge market. Furthermore, when we look at the projection of the world’s population in the next few years, the only place that has enough arable land to feed the world is Africa.”
Dangote’s focus on Africa has been highly profitable, especially for his growing cement business. Africa is the continent with the highest growth-rate of urbanisation in the world. This means there is high demand for housing in the cities. There is also a construction boom on the continent as it has experienced some of the highest growth-rates in the world over the last few years. This also means the demand for building infrastructure, such as rails, roads and ports has skyrocketed in recent times.
Some have insisted that Dangote’s success is the result of government favouritism. There is no doubt that the Nigerian government has been very supportive of Dangote over the years. At one time or the other, Dangote was given exclusive rights to import sugar, cement, and rice. This enabled him to do volume business and to undercut his local competitors. Preferential tariffs also favoured Dangote in many areas of his business concerns.
However, the reason behind this is that Dangote is always careful to ensure that his business complements government policies. He makes a point of partnering with governments and their policies, rather than seeing them as adversaries and obstacles. Because of this, Nigerian governments that have been inclined to promote local business have been highly supportive of Dangote, seeing his business as a locomotive for encouraging the investment of Nigerian wealth in Nigeria.
Government support for local business has not been limited to Dangote. However, Dangote is one man who has been able to translate such incentives into self-sufficiency. His pioneering role as a serious Nigerian industrialist enabled him to win bids in the privatisation of state-owned production facilities such as the Benue Cement Company and the Savannah Sugar Company. His Midas touch has also led to his being given the permission to construct his own berth at the Apapa port in Lagos where ships with production inputs offload directly at the Dangote Group factory.
Says Dangote: “I am a friend with any government in power. I am an entrepreneur, and as a businessman you should have friends from all the places, we don’t take sides. The success of my business is affected by the stability of government.”
Accordingly, Dangote reportedly contributed a lot of money to Obasanjo’s election as president of Nigeria in 1999 and again in 2003. He also gave N200 million to Obasanjo’s presidential library. In 2008, Dangote promised to donate cement to the value of N3 billion for the construction of the national secretariat of the PDP in Abuja. He is unabashed about such close affiliation with the governing party.
Within the framework of the Nigerian economy, Aliko Dangote is the man of the moment. Here is a man who not only makes money; he creates wealth. Without a doubt, Dangote has been a major economic asset to Nigeria. With a few more entrepreneurs like him, Nigeria would be dragged kicking and screaming into the industrial age. We would no longer be a nation of buyers and sellers of foreign goods and services, but would begin to take our rightful place as the epicenter of renascent African economic Prometheus.
This makes Dangote the new prototype of the homegrown Nigerian and African industrialist; young, brash, bold, dashing and resourceful. It makes him without a doubt, the quintessential Nigerian entrepreneur.