• World
  • Nigeria

What Africa’s Richest Man Thinks Would Make Africa Rich

10 minute read

With hundreds of multi-hued cranes and stacked shipping containers, the construction site rises from the swamps east of Lagos like a Technicolor hallucination. It is Nigeria’s latest hope for transforming its stagnant economy: a $10.5 billion oil refinery that will be Africa’s biggest, able to produce 650,000 barrels a day. When the pumps roar to life in 2020, they could make Nigeria—a net importer of fuel, despite copious crude-oil reserves—self-sufficient in petroleum products.

That’s only the beginning. Once the refinery is operational, industry analysts say Nigeria could become Africa’s biggest producer of refined petroleum and gas products, ranging from plastics to fertilizer, as well as jet fuel, diesel and gasoline. That would create a variety of new industries, potentially lifting the economy of the entire region for decades to come.

Most of Africa’s biggest infrastructure projects are financed by a combination of state monies, bonds and development loans. But this is no national undertaking: the Dangote Refinery is a privately funded project sprung wholesale from the fevered aspirations of Africa’s richest man, Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote. If his gamble pays off, it could save Nigeria up to $12 billion on the importation of refined fuel, and grow his Dangote Group conglomerate to an energy giant with a projected revenue of $30 billion. It could also make Dangote, who is now worth $14.1 billion, one of the wealthiest industrialists in the world.

Top of the 61-year-old’s shopping list is his favorite soccer team, Arsenal—once his new investment starts generating the cash he needs to buy the North London club. But first Dangote wants to see other African businessmen follow his lead by investing in job-generating industries throughout the continent. Africa’s population, he notes, will double to 2.5 billion by 2050, and more than a billion young people will be looking for jobs. That could present a risk to the continent’s security.

But Dangote believes if more investors shared his view of Africa—as a source of future consumers as well as labor—it could also be a chance to bring lasting prosperity for all.

He’s done his part, he says, by committing an additional $6 billion to $8 billion in Nigerian and African investments over the next two years. But it pains him that when he goes to international events like the World Economic Forum at Davos, Africans are poorly represented, and Africa is still seen as a risky investment. After all, he points out, he made most of his money in Nigeria. “There are enormous amounts of opportunities here when you look at it,” Dangote tells TIME in an interview in his ninth-floor office in downtown Lagos. “But unless we stay and contribute to our own countries, we’re not going to get out of the woods.”

Workers at a construction site for a Dangote Group refinery in Lagos, Nigeria, in July 2018.Tom Saater for TIME

Unassuming in stature, with slightly graying hair cut close to his scalp and a perennially bashful grin, Dangote seems less like a swaggering tycoon than a man who still can’t quite believe his good luck. Though he comes from one of the most important trading families of Kano, in northern Nigeria, it was an early foray into manufacturing that launched him into the top tiers of global wealth. He got his start in the 1970s as an importer of common necessities such as sugar, flour, pasta and packing materials. Having already built up distribution networks, he used a small loan from his maternal grandfather to invest in factories and began producing.

He quickly showed a ferocity when it came to spotting and seizing a business opportunity; from cement to tomato paste, Dangote approached every industry with a “build it and they will buy” idealism. It’s a formula he has extended to building factories in four different countries while exporting locally produced goods to 30 others. The aggressiveness belies his solicitous demeanor; he serves visitors to his office and home himself, and makes a point of taking his landlines off the hook and putting his cell phones on silent before starting a conversation.

In 2012, after the cost of oil skyrocketed, he started thinking about how he could apply his formula to the fuel that ran his factories. Though he knew nothing about the industry, turning Nigeria’s approach to oil on its head was the obvious next step, says Dangote.

“Dangote is setting the pace,” says Ayodele Odusola, the chief economist for the United Nations Development Programme in Africa. “He has already helped Nigeria break the shackles of imported petrol. We need to engage with more African entrepreneurs like that.”

Nigeria, at this point, could certainly use a cheerleader of Dangote’s caliber. The country may be known for its entrepreneurial hustle, but according to a June report from the Vienna-based NGO World Data Lab, Nigeria has the world’s highest number of people living in extreme poverty. That’s a stunning statistic for a country long touted as an African powerhouse.

“We were hearing about Nigeria’s promise in primary school, and here I am, in old age, still hearing about it,” says economist Akpan H. Ekpo, director general of the Lagos-based West African Institute for Financial and Economic Management. “Nigeria could be the economic engine of Africa. The size of the economy, the available manpower and resources, a hardworking population—she has all it takes.” Instead, Nigeria is a country of perpetually unrealized potential—an anchor weighing down the rest of the region as it struggles to overcome the deep-seated conflicts, corruption and bad governance that keep success out of reach.

How Dangote succeeded where others failed involves a President, protectionism and a piece of company apocrypha. When in 1999 Nigeria’s recently elected pro-business President Olusegun Obasanjo asked him why Nigeria imported so much cement when it had all the raw ingredients to produce it at home, Dangote is said to have told him that it would stay that way as long as it was more profitable to import than to produce. So Obasanjo reversed the imbalance by giving preferential treatment to domestic producers. Dangote was one of the first to profit, and today, Dangote Cement is on the verge of being the largest exporter of the construction material in Africa.

That Dangote has built a fortune by securing virtual monopolies on the production of vital goods, like cement, with government assistance in the form of tax exemptions and protection from international competitors is not lost on his detractors. But Dangote has long said that old-fashioned protectionism is the only way to build Africa’s industries. “How many jobs can you create if you are now going to produce 5 million tons of wheat instead of importing it?” he asks. It is up to the government to protect local industries, he adds. “Incentives are what drive an entrepreneur to risk his capital.”

Now that President Donald Trump has adopted a similar stance for American manufacturers, Dangote feels vindicated. He still winces at Trump’s expletive-laced dismissal of African nations as “-sh-thole countries,” but admires the President’s stance on protecting domestic manufacturers. “When foreign competitors come into our market and dump their products, there is no incentive to build our own industry,” Dangote says. “Are we to be captive to foreign companies? No. If America is now rising up to protect her industries, why shouldn’t African countries rise up to protect their own?”

Protectionism has historically been considered a dirty word in Africa, where manufacturing exports protected by free-trade treaties have boosted foreign exchange. Now, governments and investors are beginning to see domestic manufacturing as vital for creating jobs.

To grow, however, African countries still need foreign direct investment. The problem is that Africa is still seen as a risky investment for most outsiders, despite the fact that, according to Odusola, it has the largest rate of return—11.4%—compared to other regions, like Europe or Asia. This is where the Dangote Group’s expanding presence on the continent can generate a halo effect, says Odusola. The more Dangote’s investments thrive, the more likely it is that foreign companies will want to emulate his success by taking similar risks on unknown markets.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) speaks with Aliko Dangote (C), President and CEO, Dangote Group, and Andrew N. Liveris, President, Chairman & CEO, at the end of a panel discussion during US-Africa Business Forum on the sideline of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, on August 5, 2014.Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images

The question is how many Dangotes there are waiting to be discovered. His companies cover a dizzying breath of industries—everything from agriculture to oil, constructional materials, real estate and food products. Dangote Group claims its investments contribute upwards of 10% of Nigeria’s GDP, a figure supported by outside economists. Over decades, Dangote has built up a vast knowledge of arcane subjects ranging from tomato blight (his $13 million tomato-paste factory suffered last year when most of the crop was devastated by insects) to wheat varietals, packaging options and fertilizer production. There are few like him.

Group executive director Devakumar V.G. Edwin, who has worked for Dangote for nearly 27 years, says his best trait—an unflagging attention to detail—can also be a drawback. “He’s very hands-on. Whether it comes to sales, marketing, production, efficiency, energy saving—he is there, asking questions and demanding results.” It’s good for the company, but not always so good for the man.

Dangote acknowledges he is a perfectionist. “I wish I could clone myself,” he says ruefully. If he did, he calculates, 10 of him would do the trick. In the meantime, he gets by on minimal sleep—three hours the night before we meet, interrupted at 5:30 a.m. by his morning prayers. For Dangote, being the richest man in Africa is not enough. “I want to be known as the biggest philanthropist in Africa,” he says, citing Bill Gates-—whom he considers a friend—as a role model. Dangote aims to have a foundation worth $10 billion within the next five to seven years. He has already invested $1.2 billion toward initiatives that focus on education, health and youth empowerment. Eventually he wants it to serve as a beacon for other charitable foundations to also invest in African causes.

To do so, he needs to build his business even further. His next project, he says, will be oil and gas exploration so that he can secure his own feedstock of crude for the refinery. It’s just a ramped-up version of what he did for his tomato-paste processing plant, when he decided to cultivate tomatoes instead of buying them on the market.

Casually, he reveals he is also considering doing the same for dairy. Nigeria, he says, imports 98% of its milk products, even though cattle tending is deeply ingrained in Nigerian culture.

And so the entrepreneur starts sketching out plans to TIME as he sips his morning coffee. To supply the entire Nigerian population would take about 300,000 high-yield dairy cows, but if he started with a modest 50,000, he could still capture much of the existing market. His words tripping over themselves in excitement, Dangote is already visualizing a transformed sector. “Hundreds of jobs, yes, hundreds,” he murmurs, distracted. Thousands, he adds, if you look at the whole value chain of animal feed, tending, packaging and transport.

Of course, that would mean making sure that the foreign companies importing products are prevented from dumping dairy to quash the nascent domestic market. Dangote brushes that concern aside. “With the right kind of support, we could feed the entire West African region. It’s possible. Not today, but in the next 10 years.” Arsenal, it seems, may just have to wait.


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com