Billionaires in Africa? How? Everyone is Poor!
Six years ago, during a hot summer afternoon, I played basketball with a long-time friend from my middle school days. We had only been playing for about half an hour, but the heat was unbearable, so we paused to chat.
We sat on our basketballs within the grass at the edge of the court. Amidst the turmoil of ongoing games and visitors at the park, we exchanged updates on our lives. We haven’t seen each other for nearly two years.
My friend, who was studying to take the Medical College Admission Test at the time, informed me that he had gained interest in the technology field and has even developed a couple of application software that would soon be available in app stores. I found this intriguing, so I probed him to tell me more about his new-found interest.
“But what about you, what have you been up to?” Not much, I answered. I had received a job offer at that time, but I delayed my start date by almost one year to travel and “discover myself.”
My friend found it peculiar that I postponed my start date.
“Haven’t you already discovered yourself before taking the job?”
“No, self-discovery is dynamic. You’d be surprised. If you ponder deeply, you may discover that you actually don’t want to become a medical doctor.”
He smiled and asked scornfully: “so, what have you discovered about yourself that you didn’t already know?”
“I want to explore the business landscape in Africa. It appears there are many more millionaires and billionaires in Africa than reported in foreign media. We’re not getting the full picture here in America you know.”
He quirked his eyebrows: “what do you mean by that?”
I explained to him that Forbes’ list of African billionaires amounted to some 20 people when in reality this number is much higher. I also didn’t fail to mention that Forbes was not the only one getting it wrong. Bloomberg and all the other wealth ranking magazines were missing targets in Africa.
“20 is many though”, observed my friend. “I didn’t realize there are that many billionaires in Africa!”
“What? 20 is not many for a continent of 1.2 billion people. India, a country, has over 90 billionaires. And 20 is certainly not the number of billionaires in Africa.”
He simpered and asked: “you mean the corrupt politicians and oligarchs push it to 100, ya?”
I chuckled and answered no.
“Politicians and their cronies aside, this number is still more than 20. By the way, their reported net worth is also way undervalued. For example, Dangote is probably worth 2 or 4 times what Forbes reported.”
“Who is Dangote”, he asked curiously.
“You don’t know Aliko Dangote? Google him when you get home.”
“Ok, ok. But, you still have yet to tell me why you’re so convinced that there are more than 20 billionaires in Africa.”
I replied: “simple, I’ll give you a small demonstration.”
“I’m all ears dude!”
I gave him the example of a businessman in his home country (we’ll omit the country and the businessman) who became exceedingly wealthy in the poultry and fishing sectors. The entrepreneur is one of the wealthiest people in Africa, living in what is considered one of the poorest countries on the continent.
He challenged me with a smirk on his face: “I don’t know him, but he’s an exception though. How many people are really that wealthy in Africa.”
“If you are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe a billion, you are an exception, no matter where you are in the world.”
It was obvious that my answer felt like poetry to his ears. He rubbed his chin and smiled with bubbling excitement as he fixated the crowd on the basketball court.
But I didn’t wait for his comment before adding: “I mean come on. Even in the United States, if your net worth is 500 million dollars, you’ll be on the face of magazines and everyone would want to become like you. People only dream to become like those who are exceptions, not a small-time millionaire.”
I knew what I was doing. I was selling Africa hard to a fellow African who has completely lost touch with reality on the continent. He asked more questions, pertinent ones. But my answers were ever so sharp. I could sense that he was beginning to see Africa as an El Dorado. His eyes glowed with excitement as he probed further. So severed was his tie with Africa that he was unaware that Africa has a billionaires ranking. He was so out of touch that he was not aware that even in his home country, which seemed so poor to him, millionaires were being created every day.
“Ok. you managed to tell me about a wealthy man in my country. Still, why are you challenging Forbes Africa billionaires list?”
“Fair enough. Let me approach it this way.”
He was expectant.
“Do you think there’s a billionaire in your country?”
He thought for a few seconds. “Yes, I think so.”
“Well then, if there’s a billionaire in your country, which is considered one of the poorest countries in Africa, don’t you think at least 80 percent of the countries in Africa would have at least a billionaire too?”
He smiled hard and said, “ahh, I see where you’re going with this man.”
“Good. So, if your ‘poor’ country has at least a billionaire, can you then imagine how many more billionaires large countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt have?”
“That’s a valid point man, very valid point...” He paused for a few seconds and said, “I think Forbes just doesn’t know how many billionaires there are in Africa.”
“Exactly! And don’t get me started on the millionaires list. It’s abysmal.”
He chuckled and asked seriously, “how could they get it so wrong though?”
“They don’t have the complete data. As you know, they mostly rely on publicly available data from sources such as the stock market. But, the stock market is still not mature in Africa, and most African billionaires have a chunk of their activities outside the boundaries of the stock market. A Nigerian billionaire may be known for telecom operations, but may also have a haulage business with a fleet of 700 trucks and a real estate asset worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“So that Dangote man you talked about earlier, how much is he worth?”
Remember, this was sometime in 2014 when Aliko Dangote’s reported net worth was phenomenally high.
“25 billion dollars”, I replied coolly.
“What!” My friend jumped up on his feet as if he had springs in his legs.
“25 BILLION DOLLARS! Are you kidding me!” He held his head between his palms in awe.
“What the hell, what does this man do to be worth 25 billion dollars in Africa? Is he a politician?”
I knew he wasn’t expecting any answers from me just yet so I let him finish his monologue. He finally cooled down a bit and asked me in dismay: “so, you’re telling me that even his 25 billion dollars is undervalued?”
“You got that right.”
“So you’re telling me this Dangote guy is worth about $50 billion dollars.”
“Well, only he knows how much he’s worth. But, I think it’s fair to say he’s worth at least that.”
He sat back down on his basketball and kept shaking his head in awe.
“Jeff, the value of $50 billion in Africa is like $200 billion in the U.S. dude.”
I laughed and said, “well, there you have it. Look more into his operations. There are many more like him on the continent, but his company is publicly listed, so you’ll obtain more information.”
“$25 billion”, he kept repeating. I was surprised, surprised at the fact that he found my revelations astonishing. “Have you been that disconnected from Africa?”, I wondered.
Nevertheless, at that point, I felt a sense of responsibility. I felt I was inadvertently misleading my friend into thinking that Africa was one of those treasure islands in movies. That anyone with a secret map could just land in Africa and start collecting money off the streets. I needed to ensure he understood that becoming wealthy was a challenge, no matter where you are in the world.
So, I exclaimed, “but…”
I didn’t finish my sentence when he removed his gaze from the grass and looked at me. He gave me that I-knew-it-was-too-good-to-be-true look.
“But…” I continued, “Africa is challenging. Corrupt politicians could come after you, the infrastructure is terrible in most places, weak judiciary system could upend your life overnight…I mean it’s just challenging.”
“Oh that I know”, he quickly commented. Of course, he knew about corrupt politicians, the even more corrupt lawyers, the bad roads, and the 2G networks branded as 4G. He knew these because that’s what he mostly learned via American media.
“Oh, so you know. That’s good. So the opportunities are available, but it requires courage to seize them.”
“Just like anywhere in the world”, he said smiling.
I chuckled and said, “yes, you’re getting it.”
We continued our conservation and somehow managed to also dive into culture and technology’s place in Africa’s development. That part was not as exciting as the first. It felt like the spoils of a good meal.
After a while, the rude sun of summer had disappeared into space and more people arrived to play basketball. We decided to leave, tired by half an hour of basketball, but energized by Africa and its billions. As we walked to the parking lot, my friend told me that he would possibly be traveling to his home country with his family in a few months. That was already in the works. So, if he still had any doubts about making the trip, our conversation removed all those doubts.
“When was the last time you visited?” I asked
“It’s been too many years”. He answered in a way that indicated he wasn’t too proud of it.
I told him it would be great to reconnect with his home country and possibly survey business opportunities.
“Indeed, indeed”, he answered as he looked into the distance.
Just over a year later following our meetup and after a church service, my friend and I crossed paths again. This time, just at the front door after Sunday church service.
In the commotion and while attempting to quickly head to my car, someone hollered my name twice. I turned my head annoyingly, but to my pleasant surprise, it was my friend. He dressed in a vibrant traditional blue attire from his home country and was all smiles. We briefly exchanged hellos and I told him he looked rejuvenated. But in hurry and with a smirk, he stated, “you lied to me”.
“What?”, I replied confused and seeking an immediate answer.
“You told me there are rich people in Africa. How can there be billionaires in Africa? Everyone is poor!”
In the midst of the crowd and people constantly bumping into us, I glanced at his agbada for a few seconds. Suddenly, he no longer looked rejuvenated to me. Instead, he looked amusing, like a British in an agbada.
“Ok, what do you mean by everyone is poor?”. My eyes were circling his now funny looking agbada, looking for clues.
He answered: “I mean, everyone was asking for money…”
I kept staring.
“…there are dirt roads everywhere…I mean everything just looks poor. How can you make money there!?”
With still a smirk on his face, he was expecting an answer from me.
I chuckled and replied, “hmm…what does dirt road have to do with making money?”
Still looking at me with a smirk.
“Well, it’s possible. Maybe you are looking at the opportunities from the wrong angle because even in refugee camps, people make money.”
He laughed sarcastically and stated outright: “Jeff, I don’t think I can become rich in Africa. Everything just appears so different and complicated.”
“Believe me, I understand.”
He nodded his head awkwardly.
We stepped forward, away from the front door of the church.
“But do you think you can become rich in America?”
He tucked his hands in his agbada pockets and said unconvincingly “yea, I think so. If I work hard and run some businesses, I can become a millionaire.”
“You seem so certain you won’t make money in Africa, yet so uncertain you’ll become a millionaire in America.”
“Look, it’s the law of numbers here. Yea, yea Africa has billionaires, but there are far more billionaires in the U.S., a country, than in Africa, a continent. So clearly, it’s more likely I become a billionaire here than in Africa.”
He was stern and not looking to laugh.
“Ok, fair point.” I stroked my beard. “But how many of the billionaires here look like you though?”
He didn’t expect that.
He tilted his head with a really dude look.
“Oh don’t even go there…”
Where I asked. “It’s the law of numbers remember?”
He laughed sarcastically and gave me an awkward pat on my shoulder as we both exited the building.