By Francine Lacqua
“Nothing is impossible.” These three words are on a plaque that Aliko Dangote keeps on his office desk in Lagos, Nigeria, constantly reminding Africa’s richest man how to approach the world. Dangote, who was worth $12.3 billion as of mid-August, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is modest in his personal life but bold in business. Presiding over an empire that includes cement, freight, infrastructure, agriculture, and—soon—oil refining, Dangote, 60, possesses a towering ambition that matches the scale of his projects. His Dangote Group has expanded rapidly, spreading into new territory across Africa as well as into new industries. Undaunted by the size and scope of his investments, Dangote, who once lost almost $6 billion in a single year, says he chooses to make daring moves that others would shy away from. Plowing almost $5 billion into sugar, rice, and dairy production and now $11 billion into the construction of an oil refinery just outside Lagos, he says he’s looking to begin investing 60 percent of his business outside Africa starting in 2020. One investment he says he’s keen to add to his portfolio: Arsenal Football Club, a top-tier team in the English Premier League. Not surprisingly, for a man not given to standing still in business, Dangote says that if he played for the club, he wouldn’t be the manager or goalkeeper but rather a striker—someone out there scoring goals.
FRANCINE LACQUA: You’ve made billions in cement—something humans have produced for thousands of years. What did you figure out?
ALIKO DANGOTE: I think actually what I figured out was looking at the entire African continent, especially sub-Saharan, and saying, “What do we actually produce?” What I learned is that the majority of African countries imported cement. The better way, I thought, would be to empower Africa—to meet our own infrastructural needs so that we could be more self-sufficient.
What excited you about the business?
AD: It’s not all about making money. It’s about making impact. For more than 20 years, Dangote was just a trading company. Then we decided we wanted to be an industrial giant—and we had to start somewhere. It wasn’t just about cement. It was about industrialization. If you look at what Dangote Group is doing, it’s about improving people’s lives.
FL: What does it mean to be an industrialist these days? It seems almost like a job description from another era.
AD: I think you need to be very courageous. You have to be bold but also consistent. It’s not very easy to become one, I’ll tell you that much.
FL: How would you describe your business to someone who’s never heard of it?
AD: We’ve done $18 billion of business in the span of about four years, which is almost unheard of in Africa. Most people don’t know what is happening in Africa or that we’re the first African company to attempt these endeavors—cement, agriculture, and now so much more. Sometimes you meet people, and they look at you and say, “How did this guy get here?” Because if you say, “You are in Africa,” they think Africa is a jungle—that’s the issue. So unless you go and see, you will not believe these things are happening.
FL: What opportunities excite you the most right now as a businessman?
AD: Agriculture. When you look at it—not just in Nigeria but in the rest of Africa—the majority of countries here depend on imported food. There is no way you can have a population of 320 million in West Africa and no self-sufficiency. So the first thing to do is food security. We have land, we have water, we have the climate—we shouldn’t be a massive importer of food. With modern farming you can get 8 to 10 tons per hectare. I believe Dangote Group is in the right position to drive this trajectory. I expect another 5 to 10 companies to join our efforts in the next year. By 2019 we might be able to actually create about 290,000 jobs in agriculture. And that’s what you can do to empower people, especially those from rural areas.
FL: Why hasn’t this been done before?
AD: What you have to understand is that in Africa, going back 25 or 30 years, the majority of businesses were actually owned by government. And government has never been good at running any business. That’s the issue we have. Government’s job is not to drive the process. We have entrepreneurship now, and that’s what we are trying to do. We are not as lucky as Asia, where they already had a lot of entrepreneurship dating back generations and caught that wave. In Africa, when you really look at it deep down, we lack the entrepreneurship to match that boom in Asia. And we don’t have the capital markets to help drive the process. But it’s happening, slowly.
FL: You’re making a strategic choice to address food security just as climate change becomes more pronounced. How do you keep your efforts from withering?
AD: We are following that very closely and are trying to determine what to do. We must protect ourselves. Today in Nigeria, if you look at climate change—which I believe is real—we have never seen this kind of rain. So we are following everything very, very closely, especially sugar and rice, two crops we’re focusing on.
FL: And yet you’re in the process of building one of the world’s largest oil refineries. Why oil? Don’t you worry we’ve reached peak oil?
AD: Well, you see, the issue is—let me tell you why we had to go into oil. Our strategy was to be an African company. When you look at the other options, it’s really agriculture—and agriculture doesn’t take that much money. We always invest most of our money back into the business, so when we looked at it in 2015 and projected our revenue for the next few years, we looked at what we had left after investing in fertilizer and realized we still had billions of dollars we could put somewhere else. The only place we could invest that much money was in the oil and gas business. So the refinery takes those dollars and allows us to invest in something we are used to, which is industry.
FL: Why didn’t you get into oil earlier?
AD: The majority of people here made their money through oil. But Dangote has never ever dealt in oil, which is to prove that you don’t have to be in oil. In Nigeria, oil has really damaged our thinking. Everyone is thinking about oil, oil, oil. And we are one company that has made a success without doing that. Also, people always say, “Oh, he’s in oil and gas—there’s a lot of corruption in oil and gas.” We didn’t want to be a part of that. There are a lot of friends of mine in oil, and they are doing the right thing. But I didn’t want to be a suspect, so that’s why we’re not in oil.
FL: So why go so big on oil instead of renewable energy?
AD: In business you need to know before you jump into something. You have to do quite a lot of homework. For instance, Nigeria’s refineries were privatized in 2007. We bought two, but after a few months we had a new government that decided to void the transaction, thinking we got a very good deal. So since 2007 we’ve been actually working on building our own refinery, but we didn’t finally start something until 2015.
FL: Did you always want this large a refinery? Won’t it be one of the largest in the world?
AD: We had already studied doing 300,000 barrels a day back in 2005. At that time I couldn’t even fathom a larger refinery. I had no financial capacity. Then in about 2010 we paid all Dangote Group’s debts, which amounted to $2 billion, and started accumulating cash. When we decided to build the refinery of our dreams, we reviewed our plans again and put the figure at 400,000. Then it jumped up to 650,000. So a refinery had actually been on the drawing table for years, but this is how we were able to finally push it through.
FL: How’s it coming along?
AD: At the moment we are a little bit off track. We didn’t really realize that we were going to need almost 70 million cubic meters of sand. But we are catching up, and I’m sure we’ll be able to deliver it by the last quarter of 2017.
FL: Do you worry about not finishing?
AD: I don’t have that worry. We have the most robust team anyone can put together, and we’ve been doing this sort of work together for years. We have actually never failed in delivering any project. We always deliver our projects on time and at cost. If we hadn’t delivered our projects on time, that would be something. We will definitely deliver, by the grace of God.
FL: Yet it’s quite difficult to be successful at an industry you don’t know very well.
AD: We don’t want to listen to the critics, because their intention is to destroy us. We are using our own money. This is my lifetime project. I have to back it up with my own life to make sure it is delivered. I know that, yes, it’s true, a lot of people have tried to deliver on refineries in the past, mostly governments. They couldn’t.
FL: So this is the most ambitious thing you’ve ever done?
AD: It’s an ambitious project, yes, but we have others at that particular site, too. We have a gas pipeline, for instance. We are trying to bring gas to Nigeria. The total gas that will come out is on par with the likes of Shell and other people. This will transform Nigeria because, as we speak, we have about 6,800 megawatts of power capacity that has been installed but not been put to use, the reason being that we don’t have the infrastructure.
FL: Do you think it’s easier to be a businessman in Western countries?
AD: I think it’s easier, yeah. It’s more defined. You can plan better. You don’t have issues of currency devaluation. There’s more clarity. Yeah, it’s better. The difference is here the profit margins are huge—much larger. And if you are not a big player, you have no way of survival.
FL: Give us a sense of the difficulties you might encounter as a businessman in Africa.
AD: For the refinery, almost every single thing was imported from abroad. One of the difficulties was that most of our ports are not designed to receive heavy equipment; 75 percent of the cargo we need for the refinery cannot be offloaded in the port of Lagos. One piece of equipment weighed 2,870 tons! No port in Nigeria is designed for cargo that heavy. So we built our own jetty, about 1 kilometer in the ocean, which was a major project. We couldn’t get local cranes to hire, either. We had to go and buy 300 cranes. Then there’s manpower, which we also brought from abroad—almost 30,000 people, because we didn’t have a trained workforce for these massive projects. We are building housing for the foreign workers and expect to have between 35,000 and 40,000 workers at the peak of the project, including locals, whom we will house outside the refinery. So, you know, running businesses in Africa is good, but it’s not easy. You have to be on top of what you are doing.
FL: So do you think you’ll ever get into renewables?
AD: We will get into renewables, of course, but we’ll try and partner. Beginning in 2020 our major investment will be in the U.S. and Europe.
FL: And that will be in renewables?
AD: I think renewables is the only way to go forward, and the future.
FL:How much do you intend to invest outside Africa?
AD: Beginning in 2020, 60 percent of our future investments will be outside Africa, so we can have a balance.
FL: Where outside Africa will that investment be concentrated?
AD: Mostly in Europe and the U.S., but we can also invest in Asia, in Mexico.
FL: What businesses other than renewables?
AD: We are looking at petrochemicals but can also invest in other companies. We must believe in the management and what they are doing. But the priorities are here for now. In 2020 the priorities will change, and we’ll diversify because we will have the cash to divest.
FL: By 2020, how much money can you put in the U.S. or Europe?
AD: Let’s say that by 2025, I’m looking at between $20 billion and $50 billion. Mind you, we don’t do small things.
FL: How do you think it will go over with the people in those countries?
AD: The market is already big. It’s a big fight. Big enough for everyone. We will not go alone. We will have partners, too. Having partners there makes a lot of sense.
FL: Before we talk too much more about the future, what was it like for you growing up?
AD: I grew up in Kano, Nigeria. After my school I went to Egypt and finished there. Then I moved on to Lagos to do business. I learned quite a lot from my late grandfather. He was in trading. I actually grew up with him. I didn’t know my parents until I was about 4 or 5 years old, and unfortunately my father died when I was 8.
FL:What’s your earliest memory of your business instincts?
AD: That started maybe at the age of 10 because my family had always been in business. They had been big commodities traders, and my grandfather, may his soul rest in peace, had always been in business.
FL: You later spent some time in Brazil. What was that like?
AD: Brazil was having a lot of currency challenges then, as well as inflation, but they were very industrious. They have a lot of industries that have been built by entrepreneurs, and I got to interview quite a lot of them by going around. I sort of went to Brazil to convince myself to move into industrialization.
FL: What was the most powerful thing you learned there?
AD: I went to a company called Arisco. It was my first time seeing more than 600 people working in a single factory. I went there to visit them and see how they started the business. They had begun very small: salt, then seasoning—adding garlic into the salt. By the time I was there, Arisco was producing 500 different items, even toothpaste. You couldn’t wake up in the morning without using their products.
FL: What was it like, to see that?
AD: When I looked at it, especially with Africa in mind, I thought, This is the right way to go. There isn’t going to be any mistake, I don’t think, going into industry. So we made that first bold move in Lagos and said, “We are going to start.” Our first cement factory had the capacity to produce 5 million tons a year. Nigeria as a whole was producing only 2 million tons back then. And we had never built a cement factory, but that’s how we started. At that time, freight was almost $90 a ton. We were paying through our nose. It’s down to $20 a ton now. The story is totally different in other ways now, too. When you look at areas producing cement in Africa, the price has gone down by at least half, and product is actually much more available. The international players also find it difficult to match our quality or change the dynamics of the market.
FL: How did you decide to make that first move?
AD: Back when we first tried cement in 1978, I was just trading—buying four trucks of cement, selling it, and making my money. Almost every day I was getting an allocation of four trucks. The business grew, but then we decided to dump cement so we could get into sugar, rice, and other commodities. When we went back into cement with that first factory, within the first year, we went from zero market share in Nigeria to about 45 percent. Now the country is producing 42 million tons, of which 29 million tons is ours—and it’s not only Nigeria that we benefit, but we’ve also been able to go to 17 other African countries. By 2019 we’ll have 80 million tons of capacity.
“The only way to move Africa forward is for people like us to take very bold moves”
FL: To become that big industrial company, you’ve capitalized on your first-mover advantage. Is that always your business strategy?
AD: Our business strategy has always been like that, yes. We don’t want to be No. 2 in anything that we do. We want to be No. 1. Worst case, we can be No. 2 but targeted to become No. 1.
FL: What’s the difference between No. 1 and No. 2?
AD: I think it’s boldness. We make a lot of bold moves, which other people find really difficult to take. We always dream very big, and we’re committed to investing in Africa. That’s really what makes the difference. Other people have different priorities, but our dominant priority is here in Africa. We believe that other people have actually done much bigger projects than us in other parts of the world, so the only way to move Africa forward is for people like us to take very bold moves.
FL: Do you ever worry about being too bold?
AD: I never worry about being too bold. In business it’s good to be aggressive, but with a human face.
FL: Who taught you that?
AD: Well, I’ve learned from a couple of things. I thought at first I was really aggressive until I watched this show, The Men Who Built America. I realized that actually they were much bolder than us. Someone like Vanderbilt, he built 50,000 miles of rail! That is a very bold move. That’s why anything we do, we don’t do it small. If there’s any human being who has done this equally, I am equal to the task to do the same. I actually have a sign on my desk that says, “Nothing is impossible.”
FL: Earlier you mentioned paying off your debts around 2010. How significant was that moment, and how did you celebrate?
AD: It was a turning point. It helped us to be more disciplined. We are not trying to hide our heads from the banks. It has also given us a model to be very prudent and also be financially robust. Because normally people go out there and do project financing. We don’t do project financing. We leverage our current businesses and then build another new business. So in the head office here, what we do is only strategy and incubating various businesses.
FL: You talk about business with a purpose, and that might be also one of the reasons you say you’re successful. How many other businesspeople around the world, at your level, would you say are like that?
AD: There are a couple, but in Africa there are very few.
FL: Why so few?
AD: I think discipline. You need to be disciplined at what you are doing.
FL: Would you be interested in going into technology?
AD: When I look at telecom, for instance, I think that would be very tough for us. We are a little late. Some players have been in this market for 17 years already. There’s no way you can go and jump over somebody after 17 years of their hard work. So I think we would pass when it comes to telecom today. There are other businesses that we understand better.
FL: Why not back more tech startups?
AD: We can really do almost anything, but I think technology is not really one of the areas we want to go into right now. If I am going to invest in a tech company, I can buy shares, but it’s not something I want to go in and run. I am very passionate about industrialization—more than going into a tech company. It doesn’t make any sense for us to go direct there.
FL: Because of your portfolio?
AD: Because of our portfolio, yes. If you try to do a little bit here and a little bit there, you get into trouble. We arrive with focus, and we stick to it. Right now, beyond the oil refinery, our focus is on agribusiness. Anything we are doing between now and 2020 has to be agriculture—that’s it. I don’t want to stretch myself too thin, and the best way to do that is we should deliver on things that were promised, especially because people are wondering if we’ll be able to deliver.
FL: Are you ever frustrated that valuations seem to be better in tech companies than in the industries like your own?
AD: Honestly, I do. Look at the U.S., the way the tech companies are getting massive. And it’s still nothing compared to the GEs, yet those don’t get that kind of valuation. I wish that we’d entered tech, but our concentration has always been in Africa.
FL: You’ve mentioned wanting to buy Arsenal Football Club before. Is that still on your wish list?
AD: Yes, but I don’t want to go after Arsenal until I deliver the refinery. Once I deliver, I will go after Arsenal.
FL: There are no other clubs you’d want to buy?
AD: I don’t change clubs. Even when Arsenal isn’t doing well I still stick by them. It’s a great team, well-run. It could be run better, so I will be there. I will wait. Even if things change I will take it and make the difference going forward.
FL: Do you think Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov would sell their stakes?
AD: Well, you know anything is possible in this world. If they get the right offer, I’m sure they would walk away. We’ll be in a position to give them the right offer. They will not hold Arsenal forever. Someone will give them an offer that will make them seriously consider walking away. And when we finish the refinery, I think we will be in a position to do that.
FL: How would you change things?
AD: The first thing I would change is the coach. He has done a good job, but someone else should also try his luck.
FL: If you were playing for Arsenal, would you be a striker, defender, goalkeeper, or the manager?
AD: I would rather be a striker. Naturally, I’m an aggressive person. I don’t want to be part of the support team. I want to be the one scoring the goals.
FL: When did you start loving the club?
AD: In the mid-’80s. I was introduced to a man named David Dein, who was Arsenal’s vice chairman, through a friend of my uncle’s. He was the first person who showed me a cargo of sugar in 1980, when I started importing. I started buying sugar, and he started taking me to the stadium.
FL: Just wondering: Would you ever run for president? You’re still young. Maybe in 10 or 15 years?
AD: I’m old—60.
FL: That’s young!
AD: No, I’m not interested. There’s quite a lot we can do from the business side. I enjoy a lot of what I am doing, and I also love my freedom—and I don’t have too much. The little I have, politics would take away. I am not ready to give that up. There are businessmen who are interested in politics. I’m not one of them.
FL: Where do your best business ideas come from?
AD: I always look at what other people have done and what we should be doing. There are quite a lot of industries which we do need in Africa. We create a lot of raw materials and export finished goods. It is actually easier for us to think about what to do here because, whatever you do, the majority of those decisions will make a positive change. There are a lot of opportunities because of where we are starting from. In the Western world—the U.S., Europe—you have almost everything. In Africa we don’t have much competition, in part because so many people have their money in liquid cash, not assets.
FL: What do you have to do to get things done in Africa? Do you need politicians on your side?
AD: Well, in Africa, yes, I do think you need politicians. But at the same time, we cannot get things right unless there is good cooperation between the politicians and the businessmen. It’s a win-win. When you look at it today, in Nigeria, more than 85 percent of the GDP is from the private sector.
FL: Do you ever feel under pressure to make political donations? Do you worry about being corrupt or being corrupted?
AD: Well, you know the political donation depends on who you are dealing with and who you are donating money to. But the issue is we don’t go and give people in politics money for favors. I’ve told presidents of countries, “I’m a contractor, I’m running a business, I don’t need any favors.” And really when you look at it today, in all our businesses, we don’t need any favors. I’m saying this here and now. I can tell you today, as we speak, that we, Dangote Group, don’t have any agreements on our fertilizer, our refinery, our agriculture. We don’t have any support at all. We’ve done our numbers. We think this business will work, and we don’t need government support.
FL: What is the human flaw that frustrates you the most in business?
AD: In Africa, you normally need to know who you’re dealing with. You have to make sure you’re dealing with very honest people who have integrity—that’s why we have so few partnerships. Dangote itself has plenty of headaches to take care of.
FL: Maybe that’s why there seem to be fewer industrialists in the world?
AD: Yes, the industrialists are now in Africa! Others have matured and are doing something different. I’m still a big believer in industrialization, though. And when you look at, say, Reliance Group, they are doing quite a lot. We have a lot to catch up with them. That’s why for us to grow, we can’t take too much risk. It’s good for us to also go outside Africa to balance the currency fluctuations.
FL: You’ve talked a lot about your business being for something other than business—sometimes it’s for Africa, other times it’s for Nigeria. Which is it?
AD: I think it’s mainly for the continent. I’m a very satisfied person and content with what I have so far. I think one of the legacies to leave is how much of an impact have I had for my own people. Really, when you look at it, we are pushing hard on the business and also on the philanthropic side. I want to make the most impact on the world before I depart. I hope to start from home first and grow from there.
FL: Have you always wanted to do something for the greater good?
AD: I always feel like that, and that’s what we have. Even in our own foundation we are 70 percent Nigeria, 20 percent rest of Africa, and then 10 percent the rest of world. As we progress we will reduce that portion of Nigeria. Because as we grow, also the foundation will keep growing. It is my own dream not only to be a champion of Africa, but also a champion of the world.
FL: Do you care a lot about your own wealth? One year you lost almost $6 billion, for example. Is it something you look at or is it just an inconvenience?
AD: When you think about it, yes, maybe you lost money. But I believe in what we are doing. The businesses are very solid. The only thing that bothers me in Africa is you can gain so much in five years and then you could have two or three years of bad currency valuation. Otherwise, it doesn’t really keep me awake at night.
FL: What kind of advice would you give your 20-year-old self today?
AD: The same thing I tell everyone. If you’re going into business, you have to be very consistent in what you are doing. You have to work hard. Things don’t come that easy. Think big, dream big, and do big things.
FL: You’re known as a very quiet billionaire. Do you prefer making money to spending money?
AD: I’m not a person who just likes to throw away money. I spend more money on charitable things than myself. Luckily, myself and my children, we have been very disciplined. That’s why if you look at it today, because of the way I run my lifestyle, I actually don’t have any home outside Nigeria. I stay in hotels. Quiet. Simple. My life is not very lavish, and I actually get very embarrassed if I try to show that I have money. I don’t. I think I always advise people that it’s better to be very communal. In Lagos, I drive myself around on weekends. I ask my driver to go rest, and then I drive myself around. I still visit my normal friends I grew up with. My house is open 24 hours a day for them. I mingle with everybody. That’s the only way to get to know what’s going on.