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‘Our next investment is in renewables after addressing Africa’s food insecurity’

Aliko Dangote, Chief Executive Officer of Dangote Group, PHOTO: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Aliko Dangote, whose worth hovers around $12.3 billion as of mid-August, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, presides over an empire that includes cement, freight, infrastructure, agriculture, and—soon—oil refining. In an interview with Bloomberg, he talks about his plans for Africa and hopes to begin investing 60 percent of his business outside Africa from 2020. Excerpts of the interview were obtained by The Guardian.

You’ve made billions in cement—something humans have produced for thousands of years. What did you figure out?
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?
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.

What does it mean to be an industrialist these days? It seems almost like a job description from another era.
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.

How would you describe your business to someone who’s never heard of it?
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.

What opportunities excite you the most right now as a businessman?
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.

Why hasn’t this been done before?
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.

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?
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.

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?
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.

Why didn’t you get into oil earlier?
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.

So why go so big on oil instead of renewable energy?
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.

Did you always want this large a refinery? Won’t it be one of the largest in the world?
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.

How’s it coming along?
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.

Do you worry about not finishing?
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.

Yet it’s quite difficult to be successful at an industry you don’t know very well.
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.

So this is the most ambitious thing you’ve ever done?
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.

Do you think it’s easier to be a businessman in Western countries?
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.

Give us a sense of the difficulties you might encounter as a businessman in Africa.
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.

So do you think you’ll ever get into renewables?
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.

And that will be in renewables?
I think renewables is the only way to go forward, and the future.

How much do you intend to invest outside Africa?
Beginning in 2020, 60 percent of our future investments will be outside Africa, so we can have a balance.

Where outside Africa will that investment be concentrated?
Mostly in Europe and the U.S., but we can also invest in Asia, in Mexico.

What businesses other than renewables?
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.

By 2020, how much money can you put in the U.S. or Europe?
Let’s say that by 2025, I’m looking at between $20 billion and $50 billion. Mind you, we don’t do small things.

How do you think it will go over with the people in those countries?
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.

To become that big industrial company, you’ve capitalized on your first-mover advantage. Is that always your business strategy?
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.

What’s the difference between No. 1 and No. 2?
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.

Do you ever worry about being too bold?
I never worry about being too bold. In business it’s good to be aggressive, but with a human face.



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