23. Aliko Dangote

Billionaire African entrepreneur

Benjamin Wachenje
"If you don’t have ambition, you shouldn’t be alive."

Chairman and CEO, Dangote Group
Born: April 10, 1957, Kano, Nigeria
Education: Degree in business, Al-Azhar University, Cairo

Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest person, built his fortune in two distinct phases, riding the changes that led to Nigeria's becoming the continent's largest economy. Expanding his empire from his native country to West Africa, and then across sub-Saharan Africa from Ethiopia to South Africa, Dangote showed that it was possible to create wealth in the region by means other than tapping the continent's abundant natural resources.

Bloomberg estimates his fortune to be $24.5 billion.

Dangote comes from an old merchant family in Kano, in northern Nigeria, that made its first money exporting kola and ground nuts. He started with a small food-trading company in 1977 after completing his university studies. Bankrolled with a $3,000 loan from an uncle, the entrepreneur built a soft-commodities import and trading empire in West Africa around flour, sugar and salt during the years of Nigeria's military dictatorships, when the army kept the economy tightly protected.

When civilian rule returned in 1999, Nigeria's economic growth rate doubled as a result of unleashed pent-up demand and more openness. Dangote expanded into manufacturing, and today his industrial concerns comprise everything from cement to processed foods and telecommunications. The Dangote Group's publicly listed companies account for one-third of the Nigerian Stock Exchange's market capitalization.

Dangote Cement is the heart of the billionaire's conglomerate, accounting for 80 percent of its revenue. With a market valuation of $24 billion, Africa's biggest cement producer is the largest company listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Annual sales are fast approaching $2 billion. The company is investing in further expansion beyond Nigeria as the continent builds the infrastructure it so woefully lacks.

Dangote's model was straightforward from the get-go: to dominate sectors protected from new entrants, and to use scale and his trucking and distribution system to drive prices down to levels that let him crush domestic rivals. He has pursued success with single-minded focus, and has many critics.

As a U.S. diplomat concerned about American companies being shut out of Nigerian markets put it in a 2007 cable to Washington that was uncovered by WikiLeaks, Dangote worked a "corrupt political economy to tilt the business playing field in his favor and sideline potential competition."

Supporters say he is straightforward, honest and unsparingly competitive. Like many of his ilk, Dangote is a workaholic who rarely takes vacations. But there is little doubt that he has taken advantage of the system as he found it.

He has proved adept at aligning his own and national interests. Dangote was a close advisor after former General Olusegun Obasanjo came out of retirement to win the first civilian elections in 1999. He also financially backed Obasanjo's second election campaign, in 2003, and is an advisor to current President Goodluck Jonathan.

Until recently, when Dangote proposed building a giant oil refinery that would mean Nigeria could refine all its own crude for the first time, he had largely avoided the country's notoriously corrupt oil industry. But the project is typical of his vision. It will allow him to move into producing fertilizer and polypropylene, a feedstock for plastics.

Nigeria will get cheaper petroleum products than those it now has to import, which will boost Dangote's Nigerian businesses and the economy overall. The government should need to spend less on subsidies. As Africa's largest economy a more vigorous Nigerian economy will help lift growth across the continent, which is where Dangote's ambitions also now more broadly lie.

Aliko Dangote: Lifelong highlights

  • Ranked by Bloomberg as the 30th richest person in world
  • Got business start with $3,000 loan from an uncle
  • Owns world's third-largest sugar refinery
  • Plans London listing for Dangote Cement

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