‘‘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.
FL 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.
This is part of the interview Dangote had with Bloomberg recently