Nigerian billionaire leaves his imprint in cement

LAGOS, Nigeria —The chaotic color of the megalopolis cascades past the window of his silver Mercedes SUV. A police escort with a flashing blue light clears the road ahead.

Restless and irritated, the billionaire is in his bubble. With a slim, elegant finger, he prods his cellphone screen to redial after the call drops.

He grills a squirming subordinate about a production problem that has persisted all week. The call drops again. A small sigh. He redials.

“The day before yesterday you gave me a different excuse. Let’s see what excuse you will give me today.” His voice is calm, his brow furrowed ever so slightly.

“Go and get your act together, please,” he says. “This matter is a disaster.”

Aliko Dangote is the richest man in Africa. He dwarfs diamond kings, telecom giants and oil magnates, and his estimated $11.2-billion net worth is four times that of Oprah Winfrey’s. His only rival on Forbes’ global list of black billionaires is a Saudi of Yemeni-Ethiopian parentage who recently nudged Dangote from the top spot, thanks to a decline in Nigeria’s stock exchange.

Dangote’s fortune doesn’t come from diamonds or oil, but from the cement that is helping to fuel Africa’s astonishing growth.

With Europe in crisis and America’s recovery sluggish, Africa is an economic bright spot. Nigeria’s economy has grown about 7% a year in recent years, just behind Ethiopia, Angola and Ghana. Although many countries on the continent still struggle, a March 2011 World Bank report says that sub-Saharan Africa “could be on the brink of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago and India 20 years ago.”

A lot of the growth is driven by China’s need for commodities, oil and gas. But there’s another side to it: the cellphone.

Half a billion Africans own them now, enabling a host of day-to-day dealings between businesspeople small and large that a decade earlier would have been difficult or impossible — money transfers, for instance, or instant access to market prices for produce.

Dangote clicks off his phone. But not for long.


A two-mile line of trucks snakes along a red jungle road in western Nigeria’s Ogun state. At its end, Dangote’s newest cement plant looms above the shabby village of Ibese. The trucks wait for their loads as patiently as cattle.

Dangote, 55, built his fortune on Africa’s prodigious hunger for infrastructure — and cement — expanding rapidly since 2000 despite his country’s chronic bad governance. When the government drags its feet in laying a gas pipeline to service a factory, he builds it. When he needs a road, he does it. Faced with hopelessly unreliable state electricity, he constructs his own power plants for his factories.

He clambered to the top not by looting the country’s wealth, like many of Nigeria’s elected officials have, but by snapping up privatized state enterprises, then expanding and building his own cement factories and other plants, whose output includes such products as instant noodles and prayer mats.

In that sense, Dangote resemblesRussia’sbillionaire oligarch class, which got rich when the state sold off assets after the collapse of communist rule. His close links with Nigeria’s political elite gave him an inside line when state assets were privatized — a process that, like Russia’s, has been criticized as opaque and corrupt.

Critics call Dangote ruthless, and accuse him of aggressive price cutting to drive smaller rivals out of business.

Unlike Nigerian businessmen who stripped state companies of their assets and let them collapse, Dangote turned them profitable, politician Junaid Mohammed said. “The question is whether he was entitled to the businesses at the price he got them and on the terms,” he said.

“Let us not be naive: A lot of everything that happens in life depends on connections. Your fortunes depend on who will be able to open the door for you.”


Dangote strides into his living room in the Lagos suburb of Ikeja at 7 a.m. on his way to a business conference in the city, after a meeting that kept him up to midnight.

He had traveled to the Republic of Congo the previous day, met the president, and donated half a million dollars in the aftermath of a munitions depot explosion that killed more than 200 people and flattened an entire neighborhood. (Dangote plans to build a cement plant in the country.)

He’s irritated that he has to attend the conference, where politicians will talk, talk, talk and egos will be on display and probably nothing will get done.

“There are too many conferences in Nigeria. There are just too many,” says Dangote. “If I allowed it, conferences would take up at least half of my time.”

Barreling along the A5 expressway, phone propped in the crook of his neck, he rifles through a 4-inch-thick file. “You can’t even concentrate on your work,” he complains.

Weekends, it’s the same problem: so many weddings and birthdays and other speech-filled celebrations, all demanding time, the one thing he doesn’t have enough of.

But he always makes time for exercise. He plays squash and runs on a treadmill in his own gym, afraid he’ll get hit in Lagos’ manic morning traffic. When in Miami on business, he loves running along the road, where people don’t realize the guy who just jogged by is one of the world’s 100 richest men.

Dangote Cement accounts for 28% of the market capitalization of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, and the tycoon is seeking to list the company on the London Stock Exchange, which would be a milestone for Nigerian business. His empire straddles cement, salt, sugar, polypropylene bags, flour, pasta, beverages, oil investments, power generation, fertilizer production, transport and port terminal management, and he has acquired a license for 3G wireless services.

Dangote Cement, his largest operation, has a market value of more than $11 billion, with an annual profit of nearly $700 million and nearly 3,200 employees, the company says. The work force in other Dangote companies is 12,000, according to parent company Dangote Group. A spokesman estimated the value of the other operations at about $5 billion.

Many Nigerians, proud that a compatriot could become the richest man in Africa, feel Dangote has brought respect to a country known as the home of email scams. In a nation that for years has imported most of what it needs, he is a manufacturing mogul with plans to became a major exporter.

If, as many economists are predicting, Africa’s lions — the buzzword for its fast-growing economies — take off in the next decade, Dangote will soar higher too.

The demand for cement isn’t just for stadiums, bridges, highway overpasses and shopping centers. For a shopkeeper in a ramshackle market, it will make a concrete floor; for the millions of Africans living in shacks, it will build a decent house. Dangote is certain that the squalor that races past his car window will be uprooted and replaced, sooner than people might imagine. And that will take prodigious quantities of cement.


Dangote grew up in Nigeria’s second-biggest city, Kano, a sprawling, low-rise municipality now in the grip of an Islamic rebellion. His father died when Dangote was 8. His mother remarried and left him with her father, Sanusi Dantata, a businessman who traded in construction materials.

“He was a very simple person. Despite his wealth, he used to drive himself in the evening, which really was not normal in Nigeria,” Dangote says. “He taught me always to be straightforward and very honest and that whatever you do has to be right. There’s nothing like your name. That’s what kept ringing in my head.”

When his grandfather made him a generous loan in 1977 to start trading in cement, the grandson paid it back three months later from the fruits of his success. He moved to Lagos, and business took off.

In 2007, Dangote opened a massive cement plant at Obajana, the biggest in Africa, at a time when Nigeria imported 80% of the product. In one swoop, he was transformed from trader to manufacturer.


Dangote bought himself a $45-million Bombardier jet for his birthday. Yet, perhaps because of his grandfather’s influence, he doesn’t flaunt his wealth.

“Before he died, he gave away almost everything he had. Those are the kinds of thing I would like to emulate,” Dangote says softly.

His manner is modest, his dress understated and he wears no flashy rings. His living room furnishings are finely made but not ostentatious: a Persian carpet, a large flat-screen TV, a floral painting, a glass table and two white leather couches.

Married and with three grown children, he’s intensely private about his family life, a pious Muslim whose motto is “You just try your best and leave the rest to God.” He’s part of the first generation of self-made African philanthropists; he funds microloans, disaster relief and a school for technicians and engineers, transforming the poorly trained graduates of Nigerian universities into a future workforce for his companies and other manufacturers.

Asked what makes him different, he pauses.

“It’s sheer hard work. I work hard, I’m very persistent. When you come from a rich home, it’s very difficult because you may take things for granted and when you have a fallback position, you may not work as hard. Right from the very beginning, I wasn’t looking at the family’s wealth as my backup. I just created my own.

“But did I think I’d build an empire this size? The answer is no.”

Later, as he arrives at the conference he’s been dreading, he leaps out of the car, is backslapped by several of the country’s top bankers and politicians, is whisked away for a meeting with the governor, gives a short, direct speech, using no notes, and is rushed into a studio for local radio and TV interviews.

Microphone clipped to his lapel, waiting for someone to sort out a sound malfunction, he looks a little trapped, like he’s flipping through an enormous mental to-do list.

It will probably be another late night.