Aliko Dangote made his fortune by betting on African growth. Some call him ruthless, but many Nigerians feel he's brought respect to a nation known more for email scams than manufacturing.
LAGOS, Nigeria —The chaotic color of the megalopolis cascades past the window of his silver Mercedes SUV. A police escort with a flashing blue light clears the road ahead.
Restless and irritated, the billionaire is in his bubble. With a slim, elegant finger, he prods his cellphone screen to redial after the call drops.
He grills a squirming subordinate about a production problem that has persisted all week. The call drops again. A small sigh. He redials.
"The day before yesterday you gave me a different excuse. Let's see what excuse you will give me today." His voice is calm, his brow furrowed ever so slightly.
"Go and get your act together, please," he says. "This matter is a disaster."
Aliko Dangote is the richest man in Africa. He dwarfs diamond kings, telecom giants and oil magnates, and his estimated $11.2-billion net worth is four times that of Oprah Winfrey's. His only rival on Forbes' global list of black billionaires is a Saudi of Yemeni-Ethiopian parentage who recently nudged Dangote from the top spot, thanks to a decline in Nigeria's stock exchange.
Dangote's fortune doesn't come from diamonds or oil, but from the cement that is helping to fuel Africa's astonishing growth.
With Europe in crisis and America's recovery sluggish, Africa is an economic bright spot. Nigeria's economy has grown about 7% a year in recent years, just behind Ethiopia, Angola and Ghana. Although many countries on the continent still struggle, a March 2011 World Bank report says that sub-Saharan Africa "could be on the brink of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago and India 20 years ago."
A lot of the growth is driven by China's need for commodities, oil and gas. But there's another side to it: the cellphone.
Half a billion Africans own them now, enabling a host of day-to-day dealings between businesspeople small and large that a decade earlier would have been difficult or impossible — money transfers, for instance, or instant access to market prices for produce.
Dangote clicks off his phone. But not for long.