Renaissance Of Africa’s Long-distance Business And The Aliko Dangote Story

Aliko Dangote, Africa’s celebrated industrialist and philanthropist turned 62 on April 10, 2019. But he is not alone in this generation of top African entrepreneurs. Other Nigerians such as Mike Adenuga (63) Tony Elumelu (56), Femi Otedola (57) and South Africans like Johann Rupert (69), Egypt’s Nassef Sawiris, owner of ORASCOM, (58) Isabel Dos Santos (46) of Angola and many others from around the continent are breathing new meaning and zest into intra-regional commerce and industry.

Interestingly, Dangote, whose story we shall look at 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 African entrepreneurs 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, the hunger for making things happen carved for his family, its own impresses in matters of international trade.

So Dangote and his 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, our indigenous economic activism is 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. In West Africa and its coastal neighbours, for example, people engaged in very well organised trade mostly in African products and domestic consumables for centuries. The 4,180km 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 Swahilis, conducted their trade in caravans in a manner that covered from coastal towns such as Mombasa, Djibouti and Alexandria to the entire hinterland. But of great impact and significance was the long distance trade conducted across the Sahara desert to North Africa with such major towns as Timbuktu, Agadez and most notably, Kano, as the main route of activities.

African business moguls of that time from Ghana, Mali and Songhai empires and the Hausa city states, developed trading routes and moved their merchandise across this awesome 9.4 million square kilometres Sahara desert. Under the abominable high temperatures and sandstorms of the deserts, these incipient African businessmen egressed for centuries!

Contemporary studies have shown that Trans-Saharan trade 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 in West Africa, especially Ghana. They also sold their ivories produced and went with salt, kola-nuts 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 Saharan 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 Saharan 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, who ruled during the 15th century.

The Trans Saharan trade opened up West Africa to the world and left a legacy of entrepreneurship development. The Hausas, the largest ethnic group in Africa from time immemorial, became the champions of long distance trade and commercial development in Africa. Kano, the centre of Hausa civilisation 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 kola-nuts. 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 boasts of having some of the continent’s most prosperous merchants and business enterprises. For example, it’s 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 came in 1955, five years before Nigeria’s independence, he was Africa’s undisputed wealthiest man.

The truth is that the patriarch, 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. Alhassan Dantata lost his father at a young age of eight. But despite his inheritance from his father, had to go through Quranic 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 a permanent part of their lives.

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 and introduced wealth along with philanthropy, including donating 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, who 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.  One main secret, which appears to be his forte, is focusing on things.

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. Then he branched to other areas which were close to what his family was dealing in, food related stuff, hence, the focus on whatever was edible.  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, noodles, 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 to use cultivating sugar cane or rice.   Similarly, one by one, he began approaching state governments to acquire land in order to boost agricultural production all over Nigeria.

The most altruistic of his adventurous acumen is the building of a mega refinery to stop the shame of importing petrol products into Nigeria. The Dangote refinery once completed, is expected to supply all of Nigeria’s petroleum needs and employ thousands of Nigerians.

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 go beyond the Dangote Foundation and touches everything that happens in Nigeria and around Africa. In May 2018 when he donated a whopping 150 fully kitted vehicles to the Nigerian Police, it was disclosed that every year, he spends about N10 billion on social and economic intervention efforts across Nigeria!

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 being born 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 100 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.

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.

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, a 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.

Ambassador Igali, a diplomat, is a fellow of Historical Society of Nigeria .

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