Aliko Dangote’s Bloomberg interview
A number of words jump straight into your face reading Aliko Dangote’s recent interview with Francine Lacqua, an anchor on Bloomberg TV in London.
The first is BOLD. I did not count the number of times that word or its derivatives came up, but it must have been every other second. Here are just a few examples.
“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… the only way to move Africa forward is for people like us to take very bold moves.”
“I never worry about being too bold. In business it’s good to be aggressive, but with a human face.”
“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.”
“I thought at first I was really aggressive until I watched this show, ‘The Men Who Built America’. I realized that actually they were much bolder than us. Someone like Vanderbilt, he built 50,000 miles of rail! That is a very bold move. That’s why anything we do, we don’t do it small. If there’s any human being who has done this equally, I am equal to the task to do the same.” He actually has a sign on his desk that says, “Nothing is impossible”.
The second is FOCUS. And here’s what he says, “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.”
The third is CONSISTENT. He admonishes aspiring businesspeople, “If you’re going into business, you have to be very consistent in what you are doing. You have to work hard. Things don’t come that easy. Think big, dream big, and do big things.”
And speaking of consistency, Dangote’s professed dogged commitment to Arsenal is an eloquent metaphor. “I don’t change clubs,” he says. “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.”
There is DISCIPLINE. And there is COURAGE. These are invaluable assets for anyone desirous of success – not only in business but in all aspects of life.
And you also have to have an eye for opportunities. That’s how Africa’s richest man has made billions in cement, “something humans have produced for thousands of years”, as Lacqua puts it. Looking at the entire African continent, especially sub-Saharan, he figured out that the majority of African countries imported cement, and he took the decision that “the better way” was to empower Africa – “to meet our own infrastructural needs so that we could be more self-sufficient”. The result of that decision is out there in the public glare.
And he didn’t start this big. “Back when we first tried cement in 1978, I was just trading – buying four trucks of cement, selling it, and making my money. Almost every day I was getting an allocation of four trucks. The business grew, but then we decided to dump cement so we could get into sugar, rice, and other commodities. When we went back into cement with that first factory, within the first year, we went from zero market share in Nigeria to about 45 percent. Now the country is producing 42 million tons, of which 29 million tons is ours – and it’s not only Nigeria that we benefit, but we’ve also been able to go to 17 other African countries. By 2019 we’ll have 80 million tons of capacity,” he says.
Of course, making money is at the heart of every business, but when you have made so much money, you ask, what next? And so, for Dangote, the excitement has gone beyond money – “It’s not all about making money. It’s about making impact,” he says.
It’s the same mindset of “improving people’s lives” that informed his investment in agriculture to drive self-sufficiency in a continent where the majority of countries depend on imported food.
“There is no way you can have a population of 320 million in West Africa and no self-sufficiency,” he says. “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.”
It’s what’s also driving his philanthropy – through the Dangote Foundation. He wants to leave legacies, one of which is about how much of an impact he has had for his own people – “I want to make the most impact on the world before I depart. I hope to start from home first and grow from there,” he says.
And oil too – Dangote is in the process of building one of the world’s largest oil refineries. It is instructive that in a country where the majority of people made their money through oil – a commodity, he says, “has really damaged our thinking” – Dangote has proved that you don’t have to be in oil to make money.
He reiterates his dedication to the refinery project thus, “This is my lifetime project. I have to back it up with my own life to make sure it is delivered.”
He never stops learning. Even though he learnt a lot from his late grandfather who was in trading, Dangote had to spend some time in Brazil to learn more from some of the entrepreneurs who built the country’s many industries.
“I went to a company called Arisco. It was my first time seeing more than 600 people working in a single factory. I went there to visit them and see how they started the business. They had begun very small: salt, then seasoning – adding garlic into the salt. By the time I was there, Arisco was producing 500 different items, even toothpaste. You couldn’t wake up in the morning without using their products.”
When I read this, I stopped wondering how Dangote has a finger deep in virtually every pie.
But amid this immense wealth, Dangote is not showy. He doesn’t just like to throw away money. He drives himself around in Lagos on weekends and still visits normal friends he grew up with.
“I spend more money on charitable things than myself,” he says. “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.”
This last part contains serious words that Nigeria’s “overnight big men” should ponder on. And they know themselves.
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