Africa’s richest man sat barefoot on his new yacht in a lagoon here after another night of about three hours sleep.
The day was filled with meetings about his cement company and preparations for a polio-fighting trip with fellow billionaire Bill Gates. His BlackBerry buzzed every few minutes with messages from the president of Benin, and a former U.S. ambassador wanted some face time.
“You don’t see any sign of stress on me,” Aliko Dangote said with a tight smile. The 56-year-old businessman said he was getting an energy boost from a weeklong fast that limits him to six glasses of watermelon juice a day.
For two decades, Mr. Dangote (pronounced DAHN-go-tay) has turned his relentlessness, connections and entrepreneurial bets on the rise of Africa into a fortune estimated at about $22 billion.
Most of it comes from his controlling stake in a conglomerate of cement, sugar, salt and noodle factories sprawled across 16 countries. Profits in three publicly traded companies he controls hit $1 billion in the first nine months of 2013, up 43% from a year earlier.
Mr. Dangote now has a plan to quintuple his wealth—and become one of the five richest people in the world. He will spend $9 billion to build the largest privately owned refinery in Nigeria, which produces more oil than any other African country but must import most of the motor fuel and diesel it uses because existing refineries are dilapidated and inefficient.
Within about two years, the new refinery in a stretch of swampy shoreline outside Lagos could start piping in crude from roughly seven miles offshore, bypassing a traffic jam of tankers often stuck for weeks. Competing against four government-managed refineries that run at barely 20% of their capacity, Mr. Dangote would double the country’s maximum refinery output.
The refinery project is a bet that Africa’s economy will keep growing much faster than the rest of the world, especially as a wave of consumerism sweeps the continent.
New airlines are taking off so quickly that some jet-fuel sellers, hurt by a shortage, have been caught trying to fill airplane tanks with kerosene instead. Car imports through Nigeria’s main port have risen to about 300 cars a day.
As a result, Africa now is the world’s fastest-growing oil user, and the International Energy Agency expects oil consumption in Africa to surge about 30% to 4.5 million barrels a day by 2018. The jump represents 15% of the world’s projected rise in oil demand.
Mr. Dangote and his supporters, including Nigeria’s president, see more than money in the new refinery. To them, it also defies centuries of Africa exporting its most precious resources—including gold, diamonds and humans—rather than putting them to work at home.
Nigeria’s government has collected about $1.3 trillion in oil revenue since 1980, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Yet about 60% of the country’s 170 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to the government. It says as much as 400,000 barrels of oil per day—or one-sixth of total output—are pilfered from pipelines by bandits. Most of the stolen crude is loaded onto barges at night and shipped abroad.
The refinery planned by Mr. Dangote will “change the economic and industrial landscape of Nigeria,” said Doyin Okupe, senior special assistant to Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan. The president thanked the billionaire and his bankers by inviting them to Mr. Jonathan’s villa on a day usually reserved for government planning sessions.
The project faces daunting challenges. Competition will be fierce from U.S., Asian and European companies that also want to satisfy Africa’s thirst for gasoline and other fuel products. Some energy firms are expanding operations in Africa, and American refineries are gaining an edge around the world as the U.S. shale-oil boom lowers their production costs.
Nigeria also subsidizes imported oil, keeping prices at the gas pump about one-third lower than they are in the U.S.
“I don’t know how he’s going to do it, but I do know it’s going to be very, very tough,” said Bismarck Rewane, managing director of Financial Derivatives Co., a research firm in Lagos. He has known Mr. Dangote since they lived near each other in the 1980s and attended middle-of-the-night house parties together.
Despite all his connections, Mr. Dangote hasn’t won government approval for a license needed to build the refinery. That is not unusual. From 2000 to 2010, more than 100 refinery construction projects were announced in Africa. Only one was built, according to consulting firm Citac Africa Ltd. Others often fell victim to political interference or high borrowing costs.
“We will get it,” Mr. Dangote said about the license. The ministry reviewing the license application declined to comment. Nigeria’s next presidential election is scheduled for 2015.
In an interview on his yacht, named Mariya after his mother, the billionaire said his refinery will have no trouble competing because it will avoid Nigeria’s costly and congested ports. He hasn’t said if it will sell gasoline to retailers for less than they pay now.
He also expects Nigeria to eventually abolish foreign-oil subsidies, which cost the government $6.5 billion last year.
In the past decade, Africa’s economy has grown by an average of 5.6% a year, compared with the world-wide growth rate of 3.6% per year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The surge has helped turn some of the richest businessmen in Africa into tycoons.
Africa now has 27 billionaires, up from 16 in 2012 and just two a decade ago, according to Forbes magazine. Those two were white South Africans.
Mr. Dangote was born into wealth. Near the dawn of British colonialism in the early 1900s, his great-grandfather, Alhassan Dantata, cornered the peanut market in drought-prone northern Nigeria. While other Nigerians chafed at colonial rule, Mr. Dantata exported tons of peanuts to feed Europe’s growing appetite.
During the oil boom of the 1970s, an uncle of Mr. Dangote gave him a government-issued license to import cement. But few Nigerians had ever heard of him. Mr. Dangote spent much of his time and earnings in Brazil, usually enjoying the Carnival festival before Lent. In the 1990s, a friend talked him into flying to Atlanta, where he bought a house and then swung through every other month for jaunts at nightclubs.
He felt comfortable amid Atlanta’s historically black colleges and restaurants, far away from a succession of military coups and botched elections in Nigeria. Startled by a snake in his basement one day, Mr. Dangote sold the house and bought a larger one.
But he started to feel the tug of his homeland, the most populous country in Africa. On trips to Brazil for Carnival, he saw signs of the economic progress the country had made: Desperate hustlers, touts and money changers didn’t swarm him at the airport any more. And cement factories were popping up in the mountains.
“‘If there is anything higher than the national honor that the president gave me two years ago…then he obviously needs to give me another national honor for building a refinery that we never, ever dreamt about.’”
That gave him an idea to do something big, he said. He flew back to Nigeria, contributed to the upstart People’s Democratic Party and made a promise after its presidential candidate won election in 1999. Mr. Dangote vowed to build one of the world’s largest cement plants if the government restricted the flow of cement through the country’s ports.
The businessman got what he wanted. The limits on imports of cement—the most common building material in Africa—lifted prices to twice the world-wide average. His business empire mushroomed. Dangote Group now makes a two-thirds markup on every bag of cement it sells.
In return, Mr. Dangote spent $1 billion on the cement factory and an adjoining, 1.7 mile-long airstrip, borrowing some of the money at an interest rate of 42%. They opened in 2008, and he vaulted onto the billionaires’ list for the first time.
Dangote Group now employs about 25,000 people in Nigeria, is building cement factories in 14 countries in Africa and is buying mining licenses from Kenya to Zambia.
A pop song in Nigeria called “Aliko Dangote Special” includes the line “Cover of Forbes, he no be joke.” The motivational book “Dangote’s Ten Commandments on Money” cites the billionaire’s advice “to make the best of your time because any time lost cannot be regained.” No. 8: “Believe in Nigeria.”
“It’s something he said to me years ago: ‘Only Africans will build Africa,’ “ said Kola Karim, chief executive of oil-exploration company Shoreline Natural Resources Ltd. Mr. Karim sells most of the oil from Shoreline’s fields in the Niger River delta to India but would rather do business with Mr. Dangote.
The two men, who are friends, recently talked over the details on a dock next to the billionaire’s yacht but haven’t announced an agreement. “This is where my future lies,” Mr. Karim said. “The market is in Africa.”
Mr. Dangote will soon borrow $1.5 billion to lease about 740,000 acres, an area 50 times bigger than Manhattan. He wants to grow sugar and rice for Dangote Group’s processing plants.
The area in northeastern Nigeria is swarming with fighters from Islamic insurgency Boko Haram, but the fields will put so many people to work that the insurgents will “leave us alone,” Mr. Dangote predicted. Once the farm is thriving, “Boko Haram will not have guys to recruit.”
The industrialist nudged Nigerian bankers for more than a year about his refinery plans. Then he started telling them how much they should lend—and at what interest rate.
“When he wants something, he gets it,” said Edmund Boyo, a partner at law firm Clifford Chance LLP who worked on the deal.
In September, Dangote Group announced a $3.3 billion syndicated loan from banks led by Standard Chartered of the U.K. and Nigeria’s Guaranty
– This Day