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Nigerian billionaire leaves his imprint in cement

Aliko Dangote made his fortune by betting on African growth. Some call him ruthless, but many Nigerians feel he's brought respect to a nation known more for email scams than manufacturing.

April 25, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote in 2007. Africa's richest man, he built his fortune by snapping up privatized state enterprises, then expanding and building his own cement factories and other manufacturing plants.
Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote in 2007. Africa's richest man,… (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP/Getty…)

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.

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