IN A grey building on a busy roundabout in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, Aliko Dangote deals in everything from cement and sugar to pasta and prayer mats. His ascent did not follow the usual path of the Nigerian mega-rich who feed at the oil trough. A decade ago he took over several failing state enterprises and made them profitable. His critics say he is too cosy with politicians, and that his dominance of certain sectors harms the economy. But his record of building factories and reducing Africa’s dependence on imports is undeniable. “I want to be the most successful businessman in the world,” he says.
At 55, he is ranked 76th on the latest Forbes list of billionaires as Africa’s richest man. He was born into a well-to-do Muslim family in the northern city of Kano. A forebear traded in kola nuts, paid for young Aliko’s business studies in Cairo, and in 1977 funded his first firm, a commodities-trading company that became a continental conglomerate.
Mr Dangote is best known today for supplying cement, which apparently boosted his fortune more than fivefold in 2011 alone. Already sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest cement producer, he plans to float 20% of his $11 billion concrete business on the London Stock Exchange next year. Several Wall Street banks—Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs—are on board. Mr Dangote is confident of meeting rigorous corporate-governance standards. If so, he may help to polish Nigeria’s international reputation, tarnished by internet scams and oil graft.
In 2011 his empire generated revenues of $2.6 billion in 14 African countries. Dangote Group accounts for around 30% of the Nigerian stock exchange and dominates the local capital market. It has debts of $565m and plans to invest $7 billion over the next four years in petrochemicals, mining and infrastructure. Mr Dangote is an avid philanthropist, financing education and health-care projects. But the sheer scale of his business interests, some say, allows him to dominate markets, choking off competition.
Backing the ruling People’s Democratic Party, he gave generously to the campaign of Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president. Mr Dangote then took part in a rapid privatisation programme, greatly increasing his wealth during Mr Obasanjo’s presidency. Today he serves on government panels, including President Goodluck Jonathan’s economic team. “If you want to do business,” he says, “you have to foster a good relationship with the government of the day. If you don’t, how do you expect the government to listen to your complaints?”