It took weeks of hard work to verify Rabiu as Africa’s newest billionaire. It took research and calculations by the wealth unit of FORBES, in the United States, and FORBES AFRICA journalists in London, Lagos and Johannesburg.
It is certain that Rabiu will move up the FORBES list of Africa’s richest, which will be expanded from 40 to 50 this year. He was ranked 21st last year. This year’s list will be published in the December-January issue of FORBES AFRICA.
According to Kerry Dolan, the senior editor at FORBES in charge of the wealth unit in San Francisco, the list only adds a few billionaires from Africa to the rankings each year.
“It is too early to say what we are finding. We know that Abdulsamad Rabiu will be on the list as a new billionaire from Nigeria, thanks to reporting by FORBES AFRICA,” says Dolan.
Rabiu, unlike many billionaires on the continent, opened up his books and bank accounts to prove his wealth. The 53-year-old heads the BUA Group, with headquarters on Victoria Island, Lagos. An investigation by FORBES AFRICA turned up a string of assets.
The BUA Group has interests in key sectors similar to those of countryman, Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man. They include cement, sugar and flour. Through the group’s subsidiaries it does business in real estate, steel, port concessions, manufacturing, oil, gas and shipping.
The group also owns the ship BUA Cement 1, a 200-meter long vessel designed for heavy loads. It is Nigeria’s first floating terminal.
In addition to his assets in the BUA Group, Rabiu owns property in Britain, worth $62 million, and in South Africa, worth $19 million. Among his properties is a house in Gloucester Square in London worth nearly $16 million and a penthouse at The One & Only Hotel, in Cape Town, worth $12.6 million. Rabiu’s taste for good living is plain to see; he has bought homes from Eaton Square to Avenue Road, also known as Millionaires’ Row.
Rabiu jets around the world on an eight-seater Gulfstream G550 worth $44.9 million, powered by a Rolls-Royce BR710 turbofan engine, as well as an $18-million Legacy 600 aircraft.
Meet Africa’s Newest Billionaire
On a chilly autumn night in London, a chauffeured Bentley glides into the courtyard of a quiet and affluent home. Seconds later, at the entrance of the grand two-storey house, the doors swing open and out walks one of Africa’s richest men in a T-shirt, jeans and black overcoat. Hardly how one imagines the publicity-shy chairman and CEO of BUA Group, a privately-owned conglomerate with annual revenues estimated at $2 billion.
The look may be modest; his ambitions are anything but, as revealed by his plans to invest more than $500 million in Nigeria’s economy over the next few years. This is Abdulsamad Rabiu, the unassuming Nigerian business tycoon, full of life, with a keen ear and a great business story.
Born in Nigeria’s northern state of Kano, Rabiu is the son of renowned businessman, Isyaku Rabiu, who made a fortune in trade and industry in the decades after Nigeria’s independence. By the 1970s, Isyaku’s wealth and influence had grown considerably. He emerged as a key sponsor of the National Party of Nigeria, which became the ruling political party after the country returned to civilian rule, following the elections of 1979. A military coup, in 1983, toppled the government and led to the arrest of the president Shehu Shagari and many of his close associates, including Isyaku.
Around this time, the younger Rabiu earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States. He returned home to find his father’s business in a precarious state following the incarceration. Barely 24 years old, with little business experience, Rabiu had to lead his father’s business empire during dark days.
“It was very difficult. When we started, our dad was not there. There was this huge vacuum, because of his personality. He grew the business, he did everything, everybody reported to him, and then he wasn’t there anymore. So at a very tender age, I was saddled with so many things; I had to make a lot of important decisions, and don’t forget that this happened suddenly,” says Rabiu.
“At the time, there were three ships being discharged, rice and sugar ships. The government agencies tried to seize the goods; so we were discharging, they were taking, we were taking back. It was a big, big issue. Those kinds of things were really challenging.”
“The biggest challenge was that there were restrictions on confirming letters of credit because of the coup. Then there was the issue of the planes; there were two private jets and we didn’t know what to do with them. We couldn’t fly them. They actually grounded the jets. We were able to get the big one out and we decided we didn’t need it. I just got rid of it.”
“[My father] was in detention, so who was going to be flying a private jet at that time with the major-general Muhammadu Buhari around. They grounded the small plane for two years but it was released after [my father] was released from detention.”
In 1988, Rabiu set up his own business, BUA International, with the blessing of his father. He imported rice, sugar and edible oils, as well as iron and steel rods. His big break came in 1990 when a friend informed him of an opportunity to do a deal with a government-owned steel company.
Production at the Delta Steel Company had been beggared by the Nigerian government’s decision to reduce grants. The company was considering approaching private business to finance the procurement of raw materials and Rabiu saw the opportunity. The deal needed approval from the government. After approaching the minister of steel, who hailed from Rabiu’s home state, he was asked to finance the project.
“They only wanted three serious companies to participate because they did not want to shut down Delta Steel. He went to the president and managed to get a special allocation to Delta Steel, but it wasn’t enough. So, he asked if we would be able to get counter funding, and I said ‘of course’. We approached First Bank and we showed them the proposal at the time and they said they would need us to put in our equity.”
“We were able to get the business which was worth almost $20 million at the time, but the idea was that we were importing their raw materials to the tune of 25,000 to 30,000 tons per month, and instead of them paying us back in cash, they gave us the processed products. We didn’t want to collect money because at the time you would sometimes never get it.”
The payment method was favorable for Rabiu and his company because the price of the products was government controlled.
“I think it was around $6.3 from the company, but around $90 in the open market. So it was quite a good opportunity for us and we made quite a bit of money.”
By 1992, a regime change came and the honeymoon was over. With the substantial profits he had made from the steel venture, Rabiu invested in Tropic Commercial Bank, which operated in Nigeria. He became the chairman of the bank after buying a majority shareholding.
In 1995, BUA acquired Nigeria Oil Mills, which was a peanut processing company in Kano, for more than $20 million. The previous owners had offered BUA the business based on their status as a player in the edible oils business. Two years later, BUA Flour Mills’ first factory was established in Lagos. The Kano flour factory was launched in 1998. Thereafter, BUA set up its sugar refinery in Lagos. The 2,000 metric ton (MT) per day capacity plant is the second largest refinery in West Africa, after the Dangote Sugar refinery, which produces an estimated 2,400MT per day.
It’s a hot morning in Port Harcourt, on the coast of Nigeria when FORBES AFRICA visits one of Rabiu’s biggest projects, the BUA Mixed Development, which includes: a sugar refinery with a production capacity of 2,000 tons per day and a 65,000MT storage; a flour mill; a pasta, semolina and rice mill. In the capital, Abuja, Rabiu’s BUA Group has a huge housing project of 200 homes to be completed by early next year.
“He is very analytical, balanced and always calm under stressful situations. In spite of being experienced, he is always willing to learn more,” says Engr Olumo, BUA Group’s project co-ordinator in the eastern region.
“It has been wonderful seeing the company grow and prosper. Mr Rabiu is very approachable and reasonable. We have a team of 14 people working in the London office and we all feel as if we are a family. We are treated with the utmost respect. All employees approach Mr Rabiu on a first name basis,” says Rajan Sharma, the trade finance manager at Rabiu’s equipment and material procurement company, NOM UK.
Rabiu has often been compared to Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, due to the fact that most of their businesses operate in the same sectors. He dismisses talk of any competition between himself and Dangote, pointing out that their mutual interests in certain sectors derives from the inclinations of the patriarchs of their families.
“We are both from Kano and our parents were doing more or less the same kind of business, so we grew up in the trading environment. My dad had been doing rice, sugar and edible oil for a very long time. Aliko’s granduncle, Sanusi Dantata, at one time was the biggest trader in terms of imports in Kano State,” he says.
“We’ve known each other since childhood. Although people seem to think that we are doing the sort of business that Aliko is doing, I keep telling them that this is a business that my family has been involved in before Aliko even started.”
BUA’s sugar venture was a cash cow. The company was able to reap huge margins due to the difference in duties for imports of raw sugar, which was 5%, and that of finished, or white, sugar, which is 50%. With the money he made from this business, the amount of which he declines to reveal, Rabiu cast his eye further.
His research revealed that the cement business would offer good returns on investment. The first step was to secure a license to import cement. The market for cement in the country was characterized by high price through scarcity, which was due to the fact that few companies held licences to import. Conditions for obtaining the license included that the interested company must have a terminal where the raw cement would be processed and bagged, as well as have a plant in Nigeria where production is taking place, or be in the process of building one.
BUA set out to meet the requirements, starting with the acquisition of the Cement Company of Northern Nigeria (CCNN) for nearly $100 million from Scancem International in 2007. The next goal was to procure the terminal. Since it would have taken over a year to build one, Rabiu made the smart move to acquire a floating terminal. He approached the then president, Umaru Musa Yar’adua, to secure the approval. The terminal secured the import license.
Production on this platform was carried out until last year when the government restricted imports following the launch of Dangote’s $1 billion cement plant in Ibese, Nigeria. Although Rabiu disagrees with the government’s decision, he says he was prepared for it.
“When the Ibese plant was commissioned, the government decided that that there was enough production capacity in Nigeria and there will be no need for imports. I still do not agree with that.”
“We knew it was coming, so we decided to put up our own plant. Part of what we acquired from Scancem was a small grinding plant in Edo State, which is called Edo Cement, but then with a large limestone deposit. The plant is being built as we speak and will be delivered next year. It is a 3-million ton plant and costs a little over $500 million. At the same time, we are also looking at Ilaro, west Nigeria; in fact I am going to China next week for a meeting with CDMI, a Chinese cement plant manufacturer, to put up another plant in Ilaro. We want to capture part of the south western market, because that is the biggest market in Nigeria today.”
Rabiu believes that Nigerian demand is greater than estimated. He points out that when the additional supply is added and the price is adjusted further, latent demand will be unlocked.
“Nigeria has around 170 million people and the production capacity that the country has is about 20 million, maybe 22 million tons. So that gives us about 117 kilograms per head. Nigeria is so low in relation to other African countries, in terms of consumption per head. It has to go up and I am looking at a minimum of 250 kilograms per head in the next three to four years. I think it will happen and we are looking at least at a minimum of 35 to 40 million tons capacity,” he says.
“The price of cement in Nigeria is probably the highest anywhere in the world, apart from possibly Zambia, at $8.80 per bag, which is $173 per ton. It’s around $40 anywhere else in the world; why should it be $170? It doesn’t make sense at all.”
“Everybody says we have issues with infrastructure and power; it’s nonsense. Power is cheap in Nigeria. Gas is cheap. We had to put up a power plant at Edo Cement, which is about $60 to $70 million. Capital expenditure is there, and it’s quite a bit of money. But, it costs you no more than $20 million a year for gas and it is your biggest cost in a cement plant,” he says.
Rabiu wants to see the price of products decrease so that demand will increase.
“The moment we have a price that is more affordable, demand is going to shoot up. Today cement is around $8 per bag. If we are able to sell it at $6.20, you will see demand shooting up by at least 20% every year. In five years, production will more than double.”
While cement has been a key focus of the group’s activities in recent years, Rabiu also has his eyes on the steel industry.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria is the largest importer of steel and steel products, especially pipes, flat sheets and reinforcements, yet we do not have an integrated steel plant in the country.”
Plans are also being made to invest more in expanding the sugar business to exploit opportunities that have been created by the federal government’s implementation of a national sugar master plan.
“We want to ensure that we have at least 30,000 hectares cultivated for sugar plantation in the next three years. We have the Lafiaji sugar plantation, which we bought from the government around four years ago, but it is only around 15,000 hectares, so we are trying to develop another 30,000 hectares.”
“We believe the demand for sugar will go up simply because of the price. Sugar is still around $400. The cost of production, if you have a plantation, is probably around $150 per ton to produce locally. Imagine the demand if that happens. We should be able to supply the entire region with sugar, we will look to take the West African market,” he says.
For a man who can easily afford the best in life—he has a Bentley and Aston Martin parked in his courtyard—Rabiu’s simplicity is remarkable. He speaks excitedly about going to see American jazz singer Stacey Kent play whenever she performs in London. The man is also a movie buff and is always on the lookout for blockbuster releases. With a whiff of triumph, he declares that he just saw the new biographical drama Diana, which captures the last two years of the life of the late Princess of Wales.
Rabiu exudes an aura of a fulfilment. He gives the impression of one who values his achievements and success, but does not wear it on his sleeve. From being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Rabiu—Africa’s newest billionaire—has carved out his own place in the continent’s business history.