I joined the Dangote Group of companies 23 years back, when it was focused on international trade – primarily in import, distribution and sales of sugar, rice, vegetable oil, steel rods, pasta, salt, cement, etc., export of agro-based commodities such as cocoa, gum arabic, sesame seeds, cotton, etc. The volume of sugar trading was, in fact, in global scale. But, the Group was planning to enter into manufacturing. The President (Alhaji Aliko Dangote) recruited me and we started with 2 textile mills. By the time I joined the group, we had taken over one textile mill in Kano and we were in the process of taking over the Nigerian Textile Mills in Lagos. The plant in Kano was a small weaving mills. The Group wanted to expand it to a full-fledged integrated textile mills complex and, it was executed within a year. The Nigerian Textile Mills was completely refurbished and expanded.
Our President, after a trip to Brazil in 1997, made up his mind to enter into the manufacturing activity in a large way since he had seen huge manufacturing complexes, providing massive levels of employment, which encouraged him to decide on the type of legacy he should leave behind in Nigeria. He felt that, as much as it would help him to build up his own business, it would also contribute to the development of the country and its economy.
We started with a strategy of backward integration, investing in manufacturing of the products that were being imported and traded by us. We were the largest importers of Spaghetti and Macaroni (Pasta) from Italy, where a company was manufacturing two brands exclusively for us and hence, we decided to manufacture pasta and, since the raw material for pasta was wheat flour and, since the biggest flour milling company in the country was also manufacturing pasta, we realised that it was not an ideal approach to source our raw materials from a company with whom we were going to compete with in selling our finished products and we decided to go into flour milling too.
We were the largest importers of sugar and hence, we decided to build a sugar refinery. We were importing cement and so, we decided to set up a cement terminal. As importers, we had the customers, the warehouses, the trucks for haulage (i.e.), the entire sales, distribution and logistics network which made it easy for us to enter into manufacturing. In any business, the key is to have a good sales and distribution network.
Hence, we are fortunate to have a well established sales and distribution networks in the businesses we invested in. However, we decided to go step by step. That is why we started with the Sugar refinery before going full-fledged sugar milling. We started with the cement terminal and moved later to put up a fully integrated cement manufacturing company.
Prior to putting up these manufacturing companies, we also realised that the businesses of sugar, flour, salt and cement need polypropylene bags for packaging and, the largest manufacturer of bags were also into the business of cement terminals and flour milling and, depending upon the major potential competitor for a key input such as packaging materials would not be an ideal way of beginning a business. Hence, in 1998, prior to the start-up of these businesses, we invested in large polypropylene bag manufacturing complex and, by the year 2000, we had the flour mills, the sugar refinery, the salt refinery, the pasta plant and the packaging materials plant. We consolidated the business for sometime and I managed these production centres after completing the projects and, at that stage, we decided to massively expand our capacities of all these businesses. We ended up having the largest flour milling capacity in the world, the second largest sugar refinery in the world and the second largest pasta plant in Africa.
Now, we realised that the next stage was to go for the backward integration of the cement business as well as sugar business and new products. We took over the Savannah sugar company and refurbished the plant as the first step in backward integration in Sugar. Nigeria being the second largest importer of cement in the world, with huge deposits of limestone and availability of local fuel, we realised the potential for backward integration in the cement business was huge. Primarily, these potentials were highlighted during President Obasanjo’s regime and he advised all the cement terminal operators, stating that since the country has the raw materials and the fuel, why don’t you invest in manufacturing instead of importing. He also gave an assurance to all the cement terminal operators that, when the country has adequate local manufacturing capacity, the Government would protect the industry through anti-dumping duty, to prevent cement from countries where the production is subsidised, being dumped into Nigeria. This made all the cement terminal operators and the existing manufacturers to invest in Cement manufacturing. We invested in Obajana Cement Plant, Bua took over and refurbished Sokoto Cement, Flour Mills of Nigeria invested in Unicem and WAPCO (now Lafarge) invested in Lakatabu.
However, we always develop our business model, taking into consideration all the potential risks. Essentially, our business models never depend on any government protection. Risk analysis is a major focus in our company prior to any investment. In fact, we never depend upon any government patronage or any government contracts in any of our business activities. This focus on risk analysis and a business model independent of government protection proved to be good since, when Yar'adua government came, it totally opened up the importation of cement. Earlier, importation of only bulk cement was allowed but, the Yar'adua government permitted the importation of both bagged and bulk cement and, in fact, issued Import Licenses for almost 18million tonnes of cement, which was more than double the entire cement consumption of the country at that time. It happened just as we had commissioned the Obajana Cement Plant. If our business model had been based on the assurance of government protection in the form of import restriction or anti-dumping duty, we would have been wiped out and, probably, we would have been out of the cement business!
We studied the cement business in detail and found that, not only Nigeria but also the entire Sub-saharan Africa was a dumping ground for cement and clinker by the multi-nationals who had made major investments in the Asia and Far East, and who were looking at the Sub-saharan Africa as an investment risk area. Hence, they had invested in cement terminals and cement grinding plants which need very little investment, instead of investing in integrated cement plants. In countries where they had integrated cement plants, they were all about 30 years old or even older, with out-dated technology and lacked pollution control equipment. Realising the demand-supply gap which was being bridged by imported cement and clinker, we started venturing into other Sub-saharan African countries, apart from investing massively in cement plants within Nigeria. The per capita consumption of cement in Nigeria is extremely low compared to even Ghana and Senegal, which made us to invest more within Nigeria too. Today, we are the largest cement manufacturer in Africa. Similarly, having acquired Savannah sugar, since its capacity were quite small, we decided to massively expand the sugar business by acquiring 200,000 hectares of land to produce 22million tonnes of sugar cane and 2.4million tonnes of Sugar.
While starting the farming business, we also realised that the Sub-saharan Africa, apart from Brazil, has the largest quantum arable land but, was also blessed with huge quantity of water for irrigation and would become the bread basket of the world in the next 20 years. The world will be running short of water and would have inadequate arable land unlike Sub-saharan Africa. However, there is very limited fertiliser manufacturing capacity. Hence, we decided to invest in the fertiliser business and we are setting up a fertiliser plant of capacity 3 million tonnes per annum, with two trains each of capacity 1.5 million tonnes per annum, each being the largest such train in the world. The feedstock being natural gas, we had entered into the Oil & Gas downstream business in Nigeria.
Hence, we decided to go ahead and invest in the Petroleum Refinery and, since there are lots of synergy, we also decided to invest in a huge Petro-Chemical complex. The Petroleum Refinery would have a capacity of 650,000 barrels per day in a single train and there is no Refinery with a single train of capacity exceeding 400,000 barrels per day existing in the world today. As such, this would be the largest Petroleum Refinery in the world. Currently, Africa uses fuel of Afri III grade. Europe has moved to EuroV grade last year from Euro IV grade, being conscious of the huge impact in environmental pollution created by automobiles (in Nigeria, we have pollution caused by the emission from diesel generators too). Our Refinery is designed to produce all the products meeting Euro V grade and hence, we would be able to export the fuel to Europe, apart from meeting the entire needs of the country. We also have the potential to export the surplus to the West African countries. We would be producing Petrol (PMS), diesel (AGO), kerosine and aviation jet fuel.
Some of the products coming out of the Refinery would be used as feedstock for the Petro-chemical complex, which would produce 2 million tonnes of Polypropylene and 1.6million tonnes of Polyethylene per annum. In the entire history of the Petro-chemical industry, nobody had ever started the business with a capacity of 3.6 million tonnes, anywhere in the world. The consumption of the Petro-chemical products are limited within Africa but, in the future, there would be growth. However, there is a huge potential for export.
The exports from the Fertiliser plant, the Petroleum Refinery and the Petro-chemical complex would lead to huge generation of foreign exchange due to exports, apart from the enormous savings in foreign exchange since the entire petroleum products would be locally produced instead of being imported. If the cement industry had not developed and if we were still living with the old capacity of 3.4 million tonnes, we would be importing about 17 million tonnes of cement and the cost to the country would be a drain of US Dollars 2 billion of foreign exchange every year. You can imagine how many billions of dollars the country is spending on importing petroleum products and the enormous conservation foreign exchange the Petroleum refinery would yield. Infact, we are so happy and relieved that the investments we have made outside Nigeria in the cement industry would all yield returns this year and bring back foreign exchange from the earnings of these plants – when the country is unable to meet the demand for the foreign exchange. We can see that the Central Bank of Nigeria is not allocating foreign exchange any more for new projects and they are struggling to meet the volume of exchange demand for raw materials – for which alone they are allocating foreign exchange at present. Infact, for investment in new projects, one has to go and source for foreign exchange in the interbank market but, obviously, there is a limit to what one can source. I am also the President of the Chemical and Non Metallic Products Employers Federation, which is the largest Federation among the various federations representing manufacturers and our Federation members are facing major problems, not being able to expand and new business projects being held up because of lack of foreign exchange. Hence, our new businesses are going to help the country in a very large way.
In the Oil & Gas business, apart from our commitment in the Fertiliser, Petroleum Refinery and Petro-chemical complex, we are also making a major investment in the gas pipeline infrastructure. The country is acutely in shortage of gas and the power plants are getting starved of gas. As you may be aware, we are converting all our cement plants to use coal due to the non-availability of gas. But, there is a huge amount of gas being flared or being re-injected back, mostly off-shore, since, they are unable to evacuate the gas. For example, Exon Mobil had completed a gas pipeline to Qua Iboe terminal where they have 100 million standard cubic feet of gas per day. They invested in a sub-sea pipeline and brought the gas to on-shore but they cannot sell the gas as the nearest gas pipeline to which can connect is about 200 kilometres away. They have to just seal the pipeline since they cannot evacuate it. This is the reason nobody in the off-shore business is willing to bring the gas to on-shore, resulting in the gas either being flared up or re-injected. Companies are also highly reluctant to invest in on-shore gas pipelines infrastructure since everybody is aware of the risks. Apart from the highly swampy area making it a major challenge for the construction of pipelines, we all know the high level of the damage done to the gas pipelines since people try to drill into them looking for condensate. In the last month alone, the gas pipelines infrastructure was sabotaged twice. Hence, we are investing a duel sub-sea gas pipeline, each of length 500 kilometres, to bring the off-shore gas. This could provide easily 2 billion standard cubic feet of gas per day, which could reshape the entire power generator sector and the manufacturing sector in the country.
The biggest challenge we faced was in the lack of construction facilities. Nigeria has plenty of skilled and educated people and so human capacity was not a problem. If you see all of our cement plants, we started them by employing all fresh graduates and diploma / certificate holders from the universities, the polytechnics and the schools. When we started Obajana Cement Plant, less than 10 indigenous staff had ever entered inside a cement plant in their life. Our power plant is built with aero-derivative gas turbines – exactly like the aircraft engines used in Boeing 747 aircraft and, none of the staff in the power plant had ever even seen such a power plant. Yet, we took totally new staff and invested in training them. We sent some of the mining staff to South Africa, power plant staff to US and cement plant staff to Denmark and India for training. Further, we invited training companies from UK, US and India to continue to re-train them through classroom training, apart from organising on-line training process. We invested in simulators for training. You can imagine managing, operating and maintaining gas turbines having delicate aircraft engines all being operated and managed by our trained staff today. Hence, getting skilled staff was never a problem. Fortunately for us, capital was also not a problem since the Group has been re-investing every kobo it has been earning from its various businesses and it has been able to raise any additional capital required from the banks. Raw material has not been a problem since we mine our own raw material and, where raw materials are not available, we import them. Investing in machineries has also not been a challenge since we always go for the best machineries in the world and the latest technology. For example, all our cement plants are equipped with robots which manage our laboratories. But constructing the plants has been the challenge. I can tell you from a personal experience how, to minimise the construction cost and time as well as to assure ourselves of the equipment quality, we brought a large equipment without bringing them in pieces. Normally, we can bring it in 2 or 3 pieces, take it to the site and weld it but, being a critical equipment and the special welding being a complex procedure, we did not want to take the risk of taking it at the site in pieces instead of having a shop assembled equipment. When the equipment landed, first of all, it was impossible to take it out of Apapa port due to the several overhead bridges (pedestrian walkways) we have in Lagos and the equipment could not go underneath. Hence, we used barges to take it to a Julius Berger Jetty out of Lagos and, we needed a large low-loader trailer to carry it to Gboko. We found that there was only one low-loader capable of carrying this equipment in the whole of West Africa and, as at that time, it was at Ghana, from where it had already booked to go to Cote d’ Ivoire. Thus the low-loader was not available for the next 7 months. After that incidence, we decided to invest in material handling equipment including cranes up to 450 tonnes capacity.
In the Petroleum Refinery project, we will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on construction machinery alone including low-loaders, barges, tugboats and up to 4,000 tonne capacity cranes. This lack of construction equipment has been the biggest challenge faced by us. In most other countries, such construction equipment and contractors are easily available but, in Nigeria, you have to depend upon importing everything including special grades bolts and nuts. Unfortunately, small and medium scale industries which could have provided such support, are unable to develop or survive because of the challenges faced by them, including huge financial costs, lack of power and expensive fuel. This was the biggest challenge faced by us when building up this huge industrial conglomerate.
Fall of Naira and Investment Inflow
The Naira is depreciating fast and this would have a major impact on all the costs of products and services. This, in turn, would lead to a high level of inflation and, coupled with the currency depreciation, lead to higher interest rates. This would result to higher borrowing costs. The increase in the costs of manufactured products as well as services would diminish the consumer surplus and result in reduced buying capacity of the consumer, which, in turn, would affect the manufacturers in terms of utilising their capacities. I envisage a major impact on companies who are focused on fast moving consumer goods but, fortunately for us, our biggest business are cement and sugar, which would not face a major impact. While the construction business is driven in most of the countries by the Government’s investment on infrastructure, the Government’s spending on infrastructure in Nigeria is very low. Hence, since the construction industry in Nigeria is driven by private investments and, since major investments such as investments in housing is not decided by short term variation in consumer surplus, the construction industry, and, as a consequence, the cement industry, will not face any major impact. Similarly, consumers are not going to reduce their intake of sugar due to a reduction in the consumer surplus. But, the impact of the country in general would be quite heavy.
The manufacturers would not be able to pass on to their customers the entire increase in the cost of production and, this would certainly affect their return on investment. The currency value depreciation, coupled with the lack of availability of foreign exchange, would seriously affect new investments in the country. But it is not just the Nigerian economy but the global economy is facing a major impact. Schlumberger has laid off about 9,000 staff, Shell has cancelled more than US Dollars 15 billion worth of projects.
This also has a positive side in the sense that the commodity prices including that of steel, copper, coal has gone down; fuel price has gone down; the construction companies are idle; hence we would be able to negotiate and get best prices and short delivery duration for equipment, in our new projects.
Impact of Politics on Business
There are ups and downs in business. Since the time I came in 1992, I have seen the June 12 election cancellation, I have seen military regimes and subsequently Democracy but none of these had any major impact on our businesses. As I had highlighted about the government policy changes in the cement industry, there could be policy changes – both with a new government as well as a re-elected government. Since our investments are based on a detailed risk analysis, without any linkage to the government policies, irrespective of how the election results would be, it would not have an impact on our business. When I came to the country, the Naira was N10.50 to a dollar. We have seen the Naira crashing down and other upheavals but with all these, we have not only been able to survive, but withstand, go forward and grow more. One of the reasons why we make a rigorous risk analysis before we make any investment is because most of the funds come out of the President’s pocket. We do not invest either by taking public funds through equity capital or by borrowing funds from the banks in the form of huge loans but mostly by equity from the principal investor. Obviously, he would not like his investments to be wiped out because of a mistake we make in investment planning. As such, we do not invest in a business unless we are really sure of the survival of the business irrespective of all the potential problems which we are likely to face.
Size of the Business
If we combine our investment in sugar, cement and the other smaller businesses, it would be around US Dollars 6 billion but, the current investment in the Oil & Gas sector would be more than double that of this amount.
If you take Savannah Sugar factory today, apart from the direct employment of about 4,000 staff, during the period of plantation and harvesting we engaged almost 20,000 people. But, this is a small farm where we have 16,500 acres of land under cultivation whereas, we are planning for plantation in half a million acres of land (500,000 acres) to produce 22million tonnes of sugar cane and 2.4million tonnes of sugar. You can imagine the amount of employment we are going to create in the agricultural sector! Most of the investments we had made in the past are either close to the consumption centres or close to the mines. In the case of sugar refinery, flour mills, pasta plant, packaging materials plant and salt refinery, our investments were made in Lagos, Ilorin, Kano and Calabar whereas, in the case of cement, our investments were close to major cities such as Obajana near Lokoja, Gboko near Makurdi and Ibese near Lagos. But, in the case of Sugarcane plantation, we are going deep into the rural areas. This would bring down the unemployment in the rural areas. This would prevent the migration of people to the cities which is creating enormous pressure in the cities for resources and facilities such as potable water, sewage evacuation and treatment, garbage evacuation and treatment, urban transportation and housing. With the large scale farming being undertaken in the rural areas, the availability of employment will reduce migration to the cities. Creation of employment at such massive levels would also bring down crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping, apart from preventing the youths to subscribe to radical philosophies such as Boko Haram. Hence, this investment would truly have a major positive impact on the country. While the Petroleum Refinery, the Petrochemical Complex and the Fertiliser plant would also create large amount of employment, the employment generation in the agricultural sector would be phenomenal apart from the fact that such employment would be created in the rural areas. Even in the cement business, we employ nearly 6,000 staff in the cement plants alone and we employ more 15,000 staff in the transport sector under the cement plants. As such, we provide massive level of employment and, we are the largest employer of personnel in Nigeria apart from the government. Here, I have highlighted the direct employment. If you take into consideration the indirect employment and the trickle down benefits including the various contractors, suppliers, workshops, customers, down to service providers including vulcanisers, filling stations, banks and the various service providers around our factories, the economic benefits and the employment generated by our investments in the industries is huge. When we complete our projects in the agricultural sector, we would be going almost neck to neck with the government in terms of employment.
Petrochemical Business and its Chance of Survival
We have built up 29 million tonnes capacity in cement manufacturing within Nigeria and 39 million tonnes capacity in the sub-Saharan Africa and, by the end of the next month, we would have 42 million tonnes capacity. In the entire history of the global cement industry, no company has ever built up such massive capacities within such a short space of time – less than 10 years. When we enter into the manufacturing sector, we started in the textiles sector, moved into food and packaging materials sector, (sugar refinery, flour milling, spaghetti, macaroni and noodles manufacturing and sack plant) and now we are in cement. Every single manufacturing activity has been totally new to us. We always try to learn and succeed in every business we enter into.
For any business to succeed, we need a team of dedicated, sincere, hardworking, honest, intelligent and skilled personnel and good leadership. This is the reason we massively invest in people – both in continually recruiting competent personnel and in continuous training. We have built up substantial strength, knowledge and skills in project planning, project monitoring & control and project procurement i.e. the entire spectrum of project management. This is one of the things that have been helping us to succeed. We have also been successful in generating resources / funds internally and we have been prudently re-investing the entire funds generated. While most of the successful business men move their funds out of the country or spend lavishly on things that are not necessary, we keep ploughing back every kobo which we make. Hence, we are very sure that we can succeed in the Oil & Gas sector too. While the feedstock is available locally, both the natural gas from the gas pipeline infrastructure and the petroleum products have a ready captive market in the country. Hence, the success ultimately boils down to successful project execution – at the lowest cost, within the shortest period of time.
Nigeria as Home
A: When I was being interviewed in India, my President asked me how long I would stay in Nigeria. When I answered that normally companies recruit such personnel on 3 year contract, he said yes but he would like me to stay for a much longer period – probably 10 years. The fact that I have stayed for 23 years shows that I love the place.
A couple of years back, I was informing my President that, since we are growing older, we should plan to see how we can have a successful transition of business to the next generation. He just lifted up his face and, as if he had not heard what I said, he started talking about how we should start planning our activities for the next 15 years and how we should be driving the company to that level. Obviously, he is not planning to retire and he is not expecting the team around him to retire too. By the grace of God, if he gives us life, we would be here for a much longer period.
Tips for Entrepreneurs
The potential for growth is phenomenal in Nigeria. We have a huge population to consume the goods and services and we have a large pool of educated and skilled young people to operate and maintain the manufacturing industries and service industries. The country is blessed with mineral resources, arable land and water. There is a huge suppressed demand due to the non-availability of goods and services. Take for example, the telecommunication industry. Nitel was unable to provide the required phone connections and a reliable service and, obviously, very few people were availing the service. There was a demand but it was suppressed due to lack of availability. When the mobile operators came in with immediate connections, flexibility and cheaper services, we have seen the unimaginable growth due to the release of the suppressed demand. We initially designed our first Flour Mills for 250 tonnes per day and, by the time we complete our production, we moved it up to 500 tonnes per day. Finally, within a few years, we ended up with more than 7,000 tonnes of milling capacity per day and, all our competitors expanded there capacities too, all within a very short period of time. Yet, everybody could produce and sell. The demand was there but it was suppressed due to non-availability. 10 years back, how many people were aware of noodles? Today, you can see many companies producing large volume of noodles. 15 years back, the country was importing 7million tonnes of cement. Now, we have installed 29 million tonnes capacity in Nigeria; Lafarge has installed Ewekoro and Lakatabu plants; Unicem installed their plant and we are all producing and selling the cement. It is the same story in the case of fruit juices, when, probably, only imported “Five Alive” was available and, in the case of table water only a small volume of “Swan” and “Yankari” were available. Pure water was unheard of! You can see the huge market today for these products. If we are able to produce at a reasonable cost and make the products available to the consumers across the country through a good distribution network, the sky would be the limit.
The other day, I was talking with someone who has identified the huge demand overseas for Cassava starch and the potential for starch production and export from Nigeria. We have been having Cassava farming all along but small scale farming for food. Hence, to repeat what I have said, the potential for business is unbelievably vast and, as my President always says, that we have just scratched the surface. We have grown so large, creating huge employment, paying a huge amount of taxes, conserving large amounts of foreign exchange and, the same opportunities are available for everybody.
We have never secured any special concessions from the government. I believe, once when President Obasanjo was having a meeting with business leaders, during the course of the meeting, he mentioned that “see Aliko, he was willing to invest and the government provided him concessions, he was able to grow and the country was able to benefit”. I believe, he repeated it for a second time and my President was so perturbed that he could not keep quiet. He raised his hand and said, “I am sorry Sir, but we never got any special concession from the government; we have always been availing only the concessions available under the law to all the industries; we have never sought for or received any exclusive concessions and, we do not want any exclusive concessions for our company”. We do believe that the government must provide support in an import based economy like ours, to develop a substantial manufacturing base but, any concessions provided should be across the board, available to all the manufacturers in that sector. Infact, if you seek special concession from the government, whenever there is a change in government, you will be exposing yourself to a danger as the succeeding government will look upon you as a friend of the previous government. This can hurt your business. This is the business model we have followed, not only in Nigeria but also in other countries where we have invested in. We never do any business with any government; we never get any special or any exclusive concessions from any government; we never took any special import licenses from any government even when the company was purely in international trade. Hence, we always keep ourselves aloof as far as the business is concerned. One can be friendly with those who are in power, to prevent them from harassing you for no reason but, never try to use that relationship to avail business concessions.
To be fair, under the prevailing laws, the government has already provided so many concessions, to the manufacturing sector. We hear many times business men complaining about lack of infrastructure but, the law provides pioneer status tax concession and capital allowance. Take for example our Obajana Cement Plant; we had no gas available nearby and we invested in a 90 kilometres long, 18 inches diameter gas pipeline; there was no ground water available and we constructed a dam; there was no housing infrastructure available and we constructed 700 houses; when we started, there was no telecommunication facility available and we bought Satellite telephones and installed Satellite connections for data communication; we had to construct a 3 kilometres by-pass road; there was no power available and we have installed a 225 megawatts capacity gas turbines based power plant. Yes, we had to massively invest in infrastructure but the law permits to capitalise these investments and claim capital allowance. Hence, instead of moaning, groaning and complaining that the government is not providing infrastructure, the investors should avail the tax benefits and concessions provided under the law and invest in the required infrastructure. This helps both the investor and the country. If you need superb infrastructure readily available, you should go and invest in Europe or US but, you would get 3 per cent to 5 per cent returns whereas, here you will get better returns. As such, you have the option either to invest in countries where everything is available but gives you minimum returns or invest here where you have to make a provision in your project cost for infrastructure but get better tax benefits and better returns.
The potentials are enormous whether it is a cottage industry, small scale industry, medium scale industry or a large scale industry; whether it is a manufacturing industry, mining industry, agro-based industry, pure agriculture or service industry. Those in Nigeria who are either keeping their money abroad or still focused purely on trading, are making a big mistake.
Originally published on thisdaylive.com