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“I Knew That We Were Really In Trouble”

A torrid time when Aliko Dangote started his business taught the richest man in Africa not to be frightened of anything.

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Aliko Dangote is a man revered for his remarkable achievements in business and his passion for his country. As I wait patiently in his office at Union Marble House, in the plush Lagos suburb of Ikoyi, an inscribed plaque catches my eye. Before I can read it, I hear a man’s voice.

“Nothing is impossible. That is my mantra in life. No matter what you go through, just remember, nothing is impossible for you to achieve and you will overcome it.”

Dangote, Africa’s richest man and the founder of Dangote Group, is dressed in a blue suit and purple tie. His demeanor is warm and welcoming, his gaze attentive. It is hard to believe this soft-spoken man is worth an estimated $14.4 billion, according to FORBES. Despite this wealth, the plaque in his office serves as a reminder of a day he almost lost everything. It all began with a wrong soil test.

“We were importing cement and we had an import terminal in Lagos and Port Harcourt. The government gave incentives to people who will make Nigeria self-sufficient in cement and so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and build a cement plant. At the time, the entire production of Nigeria was less than two million tons but we decided that we were going to go ahead and build a [plant with] five million tons capacity,” says Dangote.

Founder and Chief Executive of the Dangote Group Aliko Dangote gestures during an interview with Reuters in his office in Lagos, June 13, 2012. Picture taken June 13, 2012 REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye (NIGERIA – Tags: BUSINESS) – RTR37GOU

“So we brought in a contractor and we asked them to do the soil test and also the foundation test. Then they gave us the wrong soil test. Normally the northern part of Nigeria has very hard ground. But they came back and said we just needed a shallow foundation with a maximum of two meters. So the drawing and everything was done based on a two-meter foundation. As soon as we were three months into the job we realized it was more than this.”

This marked the beginning of a long battle to salvage the multi-million-dollar project. The group had hedged everything on the cement factory. In order to stay ahead of the competition, Dangote decided not to do a proper feasibility study so as to avoid attention to the new project. That decision came at a high cost.

“So now we had to go and do piling. We had to stop and change all the drawings and all of a sudden we were faced with 1,000 piles to be built and there were not enough rigs in Nigeria. So we had to order new rigs and even buy rigs for some of the contractors,” says Dangote.

To make matters worse, Dangote needed to finance the project.

“We needed to raise $480 million but the problem was 90 percent of the banks at the time had a market capital of only $20 million. In addition, there were no long-term loans, only short-term loans for about 90 days, so you could tell the challenge we faced. The project stopped, we had to change the drawings and we could not borrow too much money in the system. Borrowing short term and investing in a long-term business was so difficult.”

Another problem was infrastructure.

“We realized that we had to build a gas pipeline because the government who promised to build the pipeline in 1978 had actually not done anything, so we had to construct 92 kilometers of a gas pipeline. The water table was very bad in the area so we had to build a dam and over 100 houses because there was nothing there, so the challenges were coming one by one.”

For Dangote, failure was not an option.

“In my office, I had the project drawings on my wall but I knew that once this project fails the group is gone and that is what really kept me going. It was a major project for us because our size, compared to a project of half a billion then, was big money for us.”

Eventually, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The group received a much-needed lifeline in the form of a $479-million loan from a consortium of banks, led by the International Finance Corporation (IFC). But the storm hadn’t abated yet.

“The most challenging was when we had the cost overrun. Now we had finished the cement factory and the factory was not working and that was really when I went from black to red. I knew that we were really in trouble. But we were very adamant and we persevered. We had challenges for over a year or so and the factory was working on and off,” he says.

That was in 2003. Since then, the Dangote Group has expanded into 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as Nepal. This year, Dangote plans to take on a new challenge, the volatile oil market.

“We have been pushed into oil because we realized that we had too much cash for the type of business that we are running today, so we need to diversify. On the diversification strategy, we look at what the areas are that can actually take Nigerians to the next level and that is where we map out all the issues and the problems that we are facing as a country for lack of diversifying the economy.”

The group is building one of the largest oil refineries in the country with the potential to meet Nigeria’s requirement of 445,000 to 550,000 barrels of fuel, with spare capacity to export, according to Dangote. The project has an estimated completion date of 2018.

As we wrap up the interview, Dangote’s gaze goes back to the plaque on his table.

“It was a challenging experience and that is why I have the plaque on the table saying nothing is impossible. You need tenacity and focus in business. I have learned a lot and since that time I don’t really get scared of anything.”

Entrepreneurs

What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?

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If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders. 

There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.

Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.

It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”

Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.

“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”

Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.

It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.

“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”

Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”

This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing. 

“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong. 

“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.

Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.

“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”

Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.

“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”

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Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent

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The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.


The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.

Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.

“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.

The continent has a special place in his heart.

The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.

“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.

Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.

He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.

The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.

Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.

Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.

This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.

Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.

Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.

“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri. 

Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.

Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.

“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.

“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.

Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.

It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.

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Entrepreneurs

Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron

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Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.


cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.

Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.

He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.

Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”

He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.

In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.

Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.

But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.

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