Billionaire businessman, Aliko Dangote in this interview with Francine Lacqua of Bloomberg Markets, says he chooses to make daring moves that others would shy away from. He also speaks on future investment plans. Below are excerpts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Would you be interested in going into technology?
When I look at telecom, for instance, I think that would be very tough for us. We are a little late. Some players have been in this market for 17 years already. There’s no way you can go and jump over somebody after 17 years of their hard work. So I think we would pass when it comes to telecom today. There are other businesses that we understand better.
Why not back more tech startups?
We can really do almost anything, but I think technology is not really one of the areas we want to go into right now. If I am going to invest in a tech company, I can buy shares, but it’s not something I want to go in and run. I am very passionate about industrialization-more than going into a tech company. It doesn’t make any sense for us to go direct there.
Because of your portfolio?
Because of our portfolio, yes. If you try to do a little bit here and a little bit there, you get into trouble. We arrive with focus, and we stick to it. Right now, beyond the oil refinery, our focus is on agribusiness. Anything we are doing between now and 2020 has to be agriculture-that’s it. I don’t want to stretch myself too thin, and the best way to do that is we should deliver on things that were promised, especially because people are wondering if we’ll be able to deliver.
You’ve mentioned wanting to buy Arsenal Football Club before. Is that still on your wish list?
Yes, but I don’t want to go after Arsenal until I deliver the refinery. Once I deliver, I will go after Arsenal.
There are no other clubs you’d want to buy?
I don’t change clubs. Even when Arsenal isn’t doing well I still stick by them. It’s a great team, well-run. It could be run better, so I will be there. I will wait. Even if things change I will take it and make the difference going forward.
Do you think Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov would sell their stakes?
Well, you know anything is possible in this world. If they get the right offer, I’m sure they would walk away. We’ll be in a position to give them the right offer. They will not hold Arsenal forever. Someone will give them an offer that will make them seriously consider walking away. And when we finish the refinery, I think we will be in a position to do that.
How would you change things?
The first thing I would change is the coach. He has done a good job, but someone else should also try his luck.
If you were playing for Arsenal, would you be a striker, defender, goalkeeper, or the manager?
I would rather be a striker. Naturally, I’m an aggressive person. I don’t want to be part of the support team. I want to be the one scoring the goals.
When did you start loving the club?
In the mid-’80s. I was introduced to a man named David Dein, who was Arsenal’s vice chairman, through a friend of my uncle’s. He was the first person who showed me a cargo of sugar in 1980, when I started importing. I started buying sugar, and he started taking me to the stadium.
Just wondering: Would you ever run for president? You’re still young. Maybe in 10 or 15 years?
No, I’m not interested. There’s quite a lot we can do from the business side. I enjoy a lot of what I am doing, and I also love my freedom-and I don’t have too much. The little I have, politics would take away. I am not ready to give that up. There are businessmen who are interested in politics. I’m not one of them.
Where do your best business ideas come from?
I always look at what other people have done and what we should be doing. There are quite a lot of industries which we do need in Africa. We create a lot of raw materials and export finished goods. It is actually easier for us to think about what to do here because, whatever you do, the majority of those decisions will make a positive change. There are a lot of opportunities because of where we are starting from. In the Western world-the U.S., Europe-you have almost everything. In Africa we don’t have much competition, in part because so many people have their money in liquid cash, not assets.
What is the human flaw that frustrates you the most in business?
In Africa, you normally need to know who you’re dealing with. You have to make sure you’re dealing with very honest people who have integrity-that’s why we have so few partnerships. Dangote itself has plenty of headaches to take care of.
Have you always wanted to do something for the greater good?
I always feel like that, and that’s what we have. Even in our own foundation we are 70 percent Nigeria, 20 percent rest of Africa, and then 10 percent the rest of world. As we progress we will reduce that portion of Nigeria. Because as we grow, also the foundation will keep growing. It is my own dream not only to be a champion of Africa, but also a champion of the world.
You’re known as a very quiet billionaire. Do you prefer making money to spending money?
I’m not a person who just likes to throw away money. I spend more money on charitable things than myself. Luckily, myself and my children, we have been very disciplined. That’s why if you look at it today, because of the way I run my lifestyle, I actually don’t have any home outside Nigeria. I stay in hotels. Quiet. Simple. My life is not very lavish, and I actually get very embarrassed if I try to show that I have money. I don’t. I think I always advise people that it’s better to be very communal. In Lagos, I drive myself around on weekends. I ask my driver to go rest, and then I drive myself around. I still visit my normal friends I grew up with. My house is open 24 hours a day for them. I mingle with everybody. That’s the only way to get to know what’s going on.
– Lacqua is an anchor on Bloomberg TV in London.