By WANGUI MUCHIRI
“Despite his immense wealth and vast business interests, Aliko Dangote comes across as a simple and humble man but he is equally alert and focused.
He graduated with a business degree at the Al Azhar University in Cairo. SHARE THIS STORY”
While he’s been called Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, certainly gives money the respect it deserves. He does not take any amount of money for granted.
If you owe Dangote Ksh10 (11 US cents) you will pay him back, and if you owe him Ksh1,000,000 ($11,765), well, you will pay him back, too. He never abuses money for he believes that money treats you the way you treat it. This has been at the core of his phenomenal success. Passion, hard work and generosity form the other pillars of his success.
But, make no mistake, he has a panoramic lifestyle, one becoming of a man of his wealth and stature: You will find him aboard his $43 million Mariya yacht (named after his mother) over the weekends or on his Bombardier Global Jet Express XRS that he bought himself as a birthday gift for a reported $45 million.
He is a busy man, so when I get an opportunity to interview him at the presidential suite of the prestigious Saxon Hotel, it is a privilege I jump at. I’m intrigued and want to know how he made his money, and what makes this man tick.
Before we begin, I look for some tell-tale signs that come with the trappings of wealth and power. Quite surprisingly, there is little on display. When he walked into the room, the first thing that strikes me was his simplicity and humility, yet he remained alert and focused. There were no butlers, bodyguards, drivers, or assistants.
Wearing a navy blue suit and light blue shirt, Dangote is ready for our 8am appointment on a Sunday. He has already had an earlier meeting with the chief executive of Sepakhu Holdings, his cement business in South Africa. Never mind that he had only slept at around 2am. That’s another thing: Dangote doesn’t abuse time.
He is a man who values time even more than money. Reason? To Dangote, time lost is gone forever but money lost can be made again. In the book Dangote’s Ten Commandments on Money, he explains, “Whoever wastes your time is your enemy and whoever does not respect your time, does not respect you. Try to make the best of your time because any time lost cannot be regained. To every good business man, every second counts… do not waste it. You waste your time when you engage in frivolities or unproductive things.”
So I don’t waste his time. I begin by asking him how it feels being the richest black man in Africa, and indeed, the world. Dangote will be the first to tell you that being rich is a daunting task and comes with its own “distractions.”
He gives an example of the day before, when he had to balance between an invitation from US President Barack Obama for breakfast and attending to his over half-a-billion-dollar cement manufacturing business in South Africa, and meeting one of South Africa’s richest men, Patrice Moetsepe.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure and demand on your time. I get invited to many events, especially by African presidents, who would like me to invest in their country. There are also requests from philanthropic causes, opportunities to speak all over the world… I have to maintain a balance between all these and running my businesses.”
Dangote is rated by Forbes as the 25th richest man in the world, worth about $21 billion at last count — almost double what he was worth a year ago. According to Forbes rankings, Dangote is wealthier than Russia’s richest man, Alisher Usmanov, and India’s steel making guru, Lakshmi Mittal. He is at par with India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. He has long overtaken Oprah Winfrey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The story of his rise began about 30 years ago and is embedded in a rich history that spans at least four generations. Dangote’s maternal great grandfather, Alhassan Abdullahi Dantata, controlled the kola nut trade in West Africa from 1913. When he died, Dangote’s grandfather, Alhaji Sanusi Dantata, took the helm of the family business. In the mid-1950s, Dangote’s father, Mohammed Dangote, met and married his business associate’s daughter, Mariya Dantata. Mariya was Sanusi’s daughter.
Dangote was born on April 10, 1957, in Nigeria’s Kano state. His grandfather, Sanusi Dantata, named him Aliko, meaning, “The victorious one who defends humanity.” Sadly, his father passed away in 1965, when Dangote was only nine years old. Dangote was thus raised by his grandfather and maternal uncle, Usman Amaka Dantata.
Dangote’s entrepreneurial spirit began to show at the age of only eight, when he started his first business: Selling sweets to his fellow primary school pupils. He would have to wait to complete his education first, before he could pursue the passion he had for business. He graduated with a business degree at the Al Azhar University in Cairo.
In 1977, at the age of 20, Dangote got his first mega break during the FESTAC ’77 — the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos. Dangote received a N500,000 loan from his maternal grandfather for the construction opportunity FESTAC had brought to the city. This opportunity gave birth to his cement business, and laid a foundation for what we know today as the Dangote Group. The business flourished and he was able to pay his grandfather back in six months.
In a separate interview with a Nigerian publication, Dangote explains that while working with his uncle in Lagos, “squatting in his office,” he learnt a lot.
He said of those times: “I started with the business of cement, which was giving us a lot of money because at that time, Nigeria was making so much money and we were doing a lot of construction. On a vehicle which I normally got from my uncle, I was making about N1,350 to N1,400 per day including Saturdays and Sundays, and I had an allocation of about three to four trucks. Later, I realised I was making a lot of money though I didn’t have a lot of ideas of what to do. It was only the cement business that I knew and I stuck to it till 1980, when I started knowing Lagos, becoming a Lagosian, understanding where to go and finding people to buy import licences from. Within six months, I paid my grandfather back because I had no further need of his money.”
Later, in the 1980s, he diversified and started trading in commodities like flour and sugar. About 15 years later, Dangote started producing pasta, salt, sugar and flour and in 1997, his gateway to the billionaire club opened.
Those close to him will tell you that Dangote is not only hardworking, but also simple. A typical Dangote day begins at 5am with prayers. He then hits the gym until 6am, before reporting to his headquarters in Lagos. His first hour is spent with his staff. Dangote tries to avoid having external meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays. His day ends between 8pm and 10pm. He reserves the weekend for social activities; that is when he goes to the boat club in Lagos, and entertains friends on his yacht.
“I am what you see, a normal person like you. I value relationships. I have three daughters whom I love dearly, and five grandchildren. My close friends have known me and been with me for over 30 years. I also have a very close relationship with my 76-year-old mother.”
Dangote says that he is driven by hard work and successes. “There is no substitute for hard work, and success breeds success. You have to keep at it.”
Dangote has always been careful about the way he deals with governments, particularly in Nigeria, where most of his investments are based. His mantra as far as politics is concerned is not to take sides. This doesn’t mean lack of interest: “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.”
With such phenomenal growth, one would see nothing wrong if Dangote just retired; if anything, he has made enough money, to last the next 4-5 generations. But not Dangote. He has his eyes on Africa.
“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 in Africa is expanding his cement business. The main incentive for cement demand in Africa is urbanisation, seen as the fastest in the world. As a result, demand for personal housing, commercial buildings and infrastructure, such as rails, road and ports has skyrocketed over the past decade.
Dangote’s interests on the continent are growing fast. The Dangote Group has invested at least $5 billion outside Nigeria in the past two years.
Dangote says he has invested $580 million in Ethiopia, $500 million in Tanzania and $350 million in Zambia. Dangote is also reported to have business interests in Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Kenya, Togo, and Ghana. His goal is to invest at least $15 billion over the next five years in Africa.
In East and Central Africa, Dangote has made significant investments in Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia and Tanzania, where he has set up factories producing 1.5 million metric tonnes of cement per annum.
When asked why he chose Africa, he answered: “It is to lead by example and demonstrate that doing business in Africa is not as terrible as people portray it. The future is great. Africa’s potential is underestimated by many. For example, about 10 years ago, I bought a company for $4 million. It is worth $21 billion today.”
Nigeria’s Minister of Trade Olusegun Aganga will be the first to testify about the impact business magnates such as Dangote have had on the country. Nigeria no longer imports cement, thanks partly to Dangote, who is Nigeria’s leading cement producer. That has saved Nigeria about $1.8 million.
Imagine what a similar move could do for the East African Community, where, according to a report by the Standard Investment Bank, all five anchor economies are import-dependent. Net cement imports into the region nearly doubled between 2005 and 2010 to nearly $14.84 billion.
Further, imports from the Comesa region are duty free. This builds a strong case for building local industries, an opportunity Dangote sees and one he is taking.
World Bank statistics show that over the past decade, the East African region has registered a GDP growth of 5.8 per cent, compared with 5.5 per cent for sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2005, per capita income growth in EAC countries has averaged 3.7 per cent compared with 3.2 per cent for SSA. The IMF estimates that between 2012 and 2017, the EAC region will grow by 6.3 per cent, compared with 5.4 per cent for sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Dangote, Africa is the place to be for business. “Everyone is upbeat about Africa, its growth and potential. There is enough space for different partners to engage.”
As a respected business leader across Africa, and the world, Dangote says that Africans need to begin creating opportunities for themselves. He believes that the key to realising Africa’s potential lies in entrepreneurship. The role of governments should be to create an enabling environment for business to thrive, and establish democratic institutions.
“The private sector is always looking forward to politicians doing what is right, so that we are able to invest in the long term. An entrepreneur also needs to believe in what they are doing, Foreigners are willing to invest but they want a lead from local people. They take their cue from locals. If we as Africans are confident in Africa, then so will they be.”
Wangui Muchiri is a communications consultant specialising in Africa. @WanguiMuchiri