RENAISSANCE OF AFRICAN LONG-DISTANCE BUSINESS AND THE ALIKO DANGOTE STORY.

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By: Godknows Igali, PhD

TRACKING >>Aliko Dangote, Africa’s celebrated industrialist and philanthropist turned 62 years of age just few days ago on 10th April, 2019. But Dangote is not alone in this generation of top African entrepreneurs. Nigerians such as Mike Adenuga (63) Tony Elumelu (56), Femi Otedola (57) or South Africans as Johann Rupert (69), Egypt’s Nassef Sawiris, owner of ORASCOM, (58) Ms. Isabel Dos Santos (46) of Angola, and many others are found all around the continent, bringing new meaning, new zest to intra-regional commerce and industry.

Interestingly, Dangote, whose story we shall look more deeply and all these contemporary merchants, industrialists and financial wizards are simply acting out a story that shows the ingrained versatility, intrepidness and drive of the African entrepreneur in a historic sense.

True,
we can only understand the unquenchable appetite and stamina of Aliko Dangote for pioneering and breaking into new frontiers in an almost ravenousness manner when we consider the antecedents of his forebears. A genesis founded in a restless lifestyle of quest for prominence and impact in wealth creation for self and society.

Dangote himself comes from a bloodline and dynasty of economic merchants. Down the line of history, their hunger for making things happen has carved for his family its own impressum in matters of international trade.

So Aliko and peers are simply, living symbols of countless generations of African entrepreneurs and economic activists. Contrary to the onetime “Hamitic Hypothesis” which argued that every positive value in Africa came from outside, indigenous economic activism was fully homegrown. As a matter of fact, the structure and content of ancient intra Africa trade, was perhaps the most ingenious in global economic history. Crisscrossing the entire continent, bulk movement and exchange of goods was developed amongst the various indigenous people of Africa in what became known as Long Distance Trade. For example, in the people of the forest regions of West Africa and their coastal neighbours for centuries engaged in very well organised trade amongst themselves, most in African products and domestic consumables. The 4,180 kilometres long River Niger which meanders across West Africa – from Futa Jallon draining into the Niger Delta, provided a route for such commercial interactions. Even more organised was internal commerce in East and Central Africa. Africans as well as Arabs and the Swahili conducted their trade in caravans in a manner that covered from the coastal towns such as Mombasa, Djibouti and Alexandria to the entire hinterland. But of greatest impact and significance was the long distance trade conducted across the Sahara desert to North Africa with such major town as Timbuktu, Agadez and most notably Kano as the main route of activities. African business moguls of their time from such great statal structures as Ghana empire, the Mali empire, Songhai empire and the Hausa city states, developed trading routes and moved their merchandise across this awesome 9.4 million square kilometres Sahara desert. The gargantuan sand dunes of the Sahara Desert cover a third of the African continent and is about the size of the United States. Oftentimes under its abominable high temperatures and sandstorms, these incipient African businessmen ingressed and egressed, undaunting for centuries!

Contemporary studies have shown that Trans-Saharan goes back to prehistoric times but came to its height in the 8th century. They traded, sadly, in slaves but also in gold, which was produced in abundance in several places as West Africa, especially Ghana, they also sold their ivories produced and went with salt, kolanuts and handmade textiles from all over what is present day West Africa. These were traded for such goods as books, swords, Arabian confectionaries and spices, silk, clothes, jewellery, household items, etc. In the case of the Trans Sahara trade, the means of accessing the desert and its saturating sand was by camels. Although West Africa appears to have been at the forefront of the Trans Sahara trade, the truth is that they represented all of Sub-Saharan Africa. This rugged journey across the desert often took as much as two to three months and brought enormous wealth to the African merchants, most of whom by the way were merchant princes, such as Mansa Musa of Mali who ruled from 1280 to 1337 and Askiya Mohammed of Songhai during the 15th century.

The Trans Saharan trade opened up West Africa to the world and left a legacy of entrepreneurship development. The Hausa, which is the largest ethnic group in Africa from time immemorial, became the champions of long distance trade and commercial development in Africa. The Hausa are the largest ethnic nationality in Africa and second only to Arabic in terms of linguistic coverage. Though the Hausa people are diverse and found in several countries, they make up a significant part of the population in at least 17 African countries. However, their main center of dispersal from the Hausa city-states is Nigeria. From Prof. Abubakar Mahdi’s writings particularly in his book “The Hausa Factor in West Africa” – what threw the Hausa on this wide continental spread is their acumen for commerce and enterprise. Till today, we see it around us. There is virtually no city in Nigeria and perhaps all of West Africa where there is no Hausa businessman or Hausa trader. Kano, the centre of Hausa civilization became by far one of the most important centres of commerce in all of African history. The advantage, which Kano had over other trading posts, was the fact that it also became a centre of production of varieties of produce such as hides and skin, textiles and kolanuts. The city also became one of the most notable centres of Islamic scholarship, particularly after the fall of Timbuktu. Commerce and industry and the urge to spread the Islamic faith therefore became a fundamental part of life in Kano. Even when the Sokoto caliphate came into being in the 19th century, Kano remained its most prosperous province and this continued until colonial rule and the present modern Nigerian state.

In African economic history, Kano boasted some of its most prosperous merchants and business enterprises. For example, its most outstanding and by far successful businessman was Alhaji Alhassan Dantata, who lived from 1877 to 1955. By 1922, he already had the monopoly of groundnut trade in all of West Africa. From Kano, he extended his business tentacles and dominated such places as Ghana where he had one of his biggest presence. When the time of his resting occured in 1955, five years before Nigeria’s independence, he was Africa’s undisputed wealthiest man. The truth is that the patriach, Alhassan Dantata himself was born into a family of very wealthy merchants who were among the most notable long distance traders of Hausa origin. His father, Abdullahi, who died in 1885, was himself one of the wealthiest traders in Kano. Alhaji Alhassan Dantata lost his father at a young age of eight. But despite his inheritance from his father, had to go through quoranic training and almajiri life. According to existing accounts, an interesting twist is that the family name which became known as Dantata was as a result of the fact that they grew up under the foster care of a mother figure – Tata – and eventually this became permanent part of their life. In perpetuating the bloodline of entrepreneurship, all of Alhassan Dantata’s children went into various business ventures and became very successful, each in their own right. However, a new dimension to the family story came with Aminu Dantata who though not the heir apparent in terms of age, became the most notable Dantata of his time.

From pure trading the Dantata group also veered off into manufacturing, telecommunications, oil and gas, public procurement and banking (Jaiz Bank) under him. He established what is known today as Dantata Group. He introduced wealth along with philanthropy, including donation of the main dialysis unit at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, Kano and became one of the most generous givers in Nigeria. It is against this backdrop that the young Aliko Dangote was born three years before Nigeria’s independence into this family of merchants; the connecting link being the fact that his mother Mariya Dantata was the daughter of Sanusi Dantata, the elder brother of Aminu. Sanusi Dantata was actually also a prominent businessman and was indeed, at a time, a Director in British Petroleum and also invested heavily in agriculture. It was his own branch of the Dantata Group, through his eldest son, Abdulkadir Sanusi Dantata that the construction giant, Dantata and Sawoe was formed. However, when the young Aliko decided to go into business in 1977, it was not his grandfather, Sanusi Dantata whom he turned to, but his grand uncle Aminu that gave him his first $5,000.00 equivalent to nudge off.

From selling sweets as a child to selling cement and human consumables, Aliko learnt in this family of merchants to cut his teeth and focus on areas that matter most. One main secret, which appears to be his forte, is to focus on things on which he had the capacity to remain affluent and dominant. It is for that reason that at a time he is said to have left the textile business and banking as well, after entering into them. Even when he veered into manufacturing, he started with cement, which was a product he was familiar with. First, he started by bagging cement from an hitherto abandoned terminal which he leased from the NPA in Lagos. There onward, he deflected to other areas which were close to what his family was dealing with, that is food related; hence the focus on whatever was edible: tomatoes, sugar, salt, indomie, vegetable oil, fish. Step by step, Dangote expanded into new frontiers within Africa just like his great grandfather, Alhassan Dantata. He moved into Cameroon, then Ghana and today, he is in 17 African counties not just trading but manufacturing.

Another interesting aspect of his story is the fact that he focuses on niche areas. This was what his great grandfather, grandfather and great grand uncle all did. They saw opportunities where society had gaps and plunged in, rather than waste time to combat competitors in already crowded spaces. Today, hardly do Nigerians bother about cement from outside its shores or tomato puree, noddles, beverages or sugar. Aliko would not leave any stone unturned to get a problem solved. Many recall at a time, Dangote entered into negotiations with the Ministry of Water Resources to enable him lease huge swathe of land belonging to River Basins, which were lying fallow and to put them into use in the production of sugar cane or as rice farms. Similarly, one by one, Aliko started to approach state governments too to acquire land in order to boost agricultural production all over Nigeria, just to solve the needs of society and in so doing, make money.

The most altruistic of his adventurous acumen is the building of a mega refinery to stop the shame of Nigeria importing petrol products such as diesel, fuel and kerosene. The Dangote refinery on completion about 2020-2022 is expected to supply all of Nigeria’s petroleum needs through the production of 650,000 barrels per day and employ multiple thousands of Nigerians. The same can be said of the construction industry where the country still has great challenge and Aliko Dangote did not wait for the Federal government to build the infrastructure when he took up the gauntlet and built the Obajana Air Strip and tarred the Kabbs-Obajana Road. In the same way, Dangote is the largest producer of electric power outside the existing Gencos. His power production is at present as much as 135 megawatts. At a time, Dangote had offered to share with the Ministry of Power, the excess power generated to enable the electricity to be on the grid and available to Nigerians. Also, the catchment communities in the areas he operates receive free electricity.

Like his forebears, Aliko has maintained a principle of sharing his fortunes with those in genuine need. He is therefore today one of the biggest philanthropists in the world. His charitable activities goes beyond the Dangote Foundation and touches everything that happens in the society, in Nigeria and around Africa. Some of his activities include his acceptance to Chair the Presidential Flood Relief Committee, in the aftermath of Flood 2012 and his outstanding donation for the relief of victims of that natural disaster. In the same vein, Dangote has been the biggest donor for the relief of persons who have been affected by insurgency in the North East. Also, along with such co-rich men as Bill Gates, he has also continued to come to the aid of other Nigerians in combating various endemic medical challenges such as river blindness, malnutrition, etc. In May 2018 when he donated a whooping 150 fully kitted vehicles to the Nigerian Police, it was disclosed that every year, he spends about 10 billion Naira on social and economic intervention efforts across Nigeria!

Having grown up in a family with deep religious bent as the great grandfather Alhassan Dangote, his other forebears and the fact that his own mother Mariya Dantata are persons of deep spirituality, Aliko grew up under strong religious values. This explains his humility and relatively conservative lifestyle in the midst of such stupendous wealth.

Although Forbes 2018 insists that Aliko’s personal net worth is as much as $13.8 billion, yet he is perhaps one of the most conservative spenders. During the 2012 Presidential Flood Committee work, it was of great curiosity to many that Chairman Aliko Dangote was most reluctant to spend until the last kobo is justified. This same frugality he also brought to the effort to bring relief to the people of the North East.

Despite his birth into wealth and acculturation into business, Aliko had to cut his teeth and grow like any other person. He typifies the analogy espoused by Mohammed bin Al Maktoun, the exponent of the transformation of the United Arab Emirates that “we may not live for a hundred years, but the product of our creativity can leave a legacy long after we are gone”. Many senior civil servants from Lagos to Abuja would recount the days when Aliko would wait in their waiting room like other Nigerians to be attended to.

Aliko Dangote also showcased his tremendous staying power when the naira was devalued in 2016. His business empire suffered severe down turn in fortune but he recovered using his deft entrepreneurial skills. His beginning days as a businessman saw him go from bank to bank in search of capital. Although he was from a wealthy family, everyone was expected to go out there and sort it out. So Aliko had to go from bank to bank borrowing at very high rates and is still borrowing to build, to grow and to go forward.

In a world of over 7.8 billion people, the fact that some of our own are amongst the wealthiest in the world is quite salutary and should give every Nigerian and indeed Africans sense of pride. But more than that, is the fact that Dangote’s drive, for one, and tenacity to succeed will always remain an inspiration to all Nigerians. It shows that the sky will not be a limit to any committed entrepreneurial, even at the start up levels. Mohammed Al Maktoun also wrote that the future is for those who dare to dream and find the courage to pursue their dreams. This is clearly what Dangote and his entrepreneurial colleagues have done so far. Nigerians and Africans from all corners from Cape to Coast wish many more successful years of creating new frontiers. The common prayer and wish, and expectedly so, is that their collective midas touch for wealth creation will percolate to the emerging generations of Nigerian and African business elite who are, daily dreaming even bigger dreams than them. Some like Elumelu have initiated programmes for the regeneration of entrepreneurship amongst young Africans in addition to robust empowerment components. The results so far in virtually all the countries of the region attest to the latent potentials which are being unlocked. For Dangote and the like, at the prime of life, many, many years for growing and mpacting society for good seem to lie ahead.

Ambassador Igali a diplomat, is a fellow of Historical Society of Nigeria .You can reach him on> +234(0)7063620770