Book extract: Chris Bishop chats to Pascal Dozie, the wealthy entrepreneur who wants to rebuild Nigeria | Fin24

Book extract: Chris Bishop chats to Pascal Dozie, the wealthy entrepreneur who wants to rebuild Nigeria

Sep 15 2017 11:56
Chris Bishop

Pascal Dozie is just one of the many successful African business people featured in Chris Bishop's book, published by Penguin Random House.

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The sage elder of Africa who studied with Mick Jagger

He is the grand old man of African business: tall, imposing, a gentleman with impeccable manners. One of the big cheeses of Nigeria, he built a bank and catapulted his country into the cellphone era.

Pascal Dozie is one of the sages of West African business. Deeply concerned about the challenges his country faces, he also has strong, salty ideas on how to overcome them.

Dozie made his fortune by backing a couple of bright ideas with strong conviction, but now he fears for the younger generation. In 2016, the oil price dropped through the floor and the Nigerian currency, the naira, struggled.

Then the government placed restrictions on the US dollar, which for so long has been a crutch for Nigeria’s often chaotic, flagging economy.

‘The whole macroeconomic scene is a little harsh,’ Dozie says, ‘but I believe it’s a cycle. It will improve as Nigeria makes use of the opportunity that has been thrust on us by the world economy and [falling] oil prices.

If we succeed in diversifying Nigeria’s economy, then I think we will be in a more stable condition.’

Visiting Dozie on a hot afternoon in Lagos, I am witness to the very problems he is so passionate about solving. It is a nightmare drive across the crowded city.

Horns hoot angrily as battered old cars veer within inches of each other on roads choked with traffic.

Every now and again, a splash of dirty water from a pothole as a car ploughs through it sends a ripple of anger through the pedestrians walking on the side of the road.

To add injury to chaos, a pink-shirted traffic official is slowing down the arthritic progress even more by pulling drivers over for no apparent reason.

When it is our turn, our driver takes exception and he and the traffic cop get into a finger-jabbing argument.

I have spent more than 30 years in newsrooms and heard language that would make even the devil blush, but this was something else.

On this day, sitting in the passenger seat with fingers jabbing inches from my nose, I feel like a monk in Gomorrah.

‘They just want money,’ scowls the driver as we eventually crawl away from the scene in bumper-to-bumper traffic that stretches far over the horizon – well, as far as you can see through the pollution.

The driver sounds resigned.

As we near Dozie’s plush, air-conditioned office, we happen upon a pothole filled with water, wide and deep enough in which to breed fish.

Nigeria’s challenges lead right up to the door of the multimillionaire who so dearly wants to fix them, I think to myself.

‘Lagos is the only place in the world where you can utilise all the faculties God gave to man,’ Dozie chuckles when I later recount my experience on the road.

From this office in Lagos, Dozie oversees his business empire. He is one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Nigeria, but he is soft-spoken, almost paternal – a gentleman who chooses his words carefully.

But he speaks with warmth and a sprinkle of humour when he talks about the absurdities of life.

The refined, polished surfaces of his office contrast vividly with the dog-eat-dog desperation out on the streets. Dozie could be forgiven if he decided to shut the tall gates on the rest of Nigeria after half a century of business, but that’s not who he is.

‘We won’t get anywhere until we, in Nigeria, can say anything can be done in 24 hours,’ he says. ‘Many people see Nigeria as an entrepreneur’s gold mine – opportunities abound.

Every single disadvantage you see – the traffic and the infrastructure – is an opportunity, but you can only effect change once the government is hands-off.’

How likely is that? I counter. A few years back I attended a conference in Kigali, where Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it was to keep government out of business.

‘We have been moving towards this for a long time in Nigeria,’ Dozie claims.

‘If the government was not hands-off, we would not have a number of major cellphones in the country; some of them got their operating licences on the same day.

This hands-off approach has helped us leapfrog communications technology.’

Like the driver who drove me to his office, Dozie’s biggest concern is corruption.

‘This is the only country in the world where people ask what business are you in and you say, “Politics”.’

Dozie believes that the people of Africa, and especially the youth, have had enough. According to him, social media is allowing for more transparency, making it more difficult to cover up corruption.

‘Nigerians are waking up, and the civil society in this country is coming alive. Nigeria is a country that is skewed towards the youth.

Young people are using Twitter and Facebook, and you should see the things they are writing.’

Twitter and Facebook are about as far away as you can get from Dozie’s country roots. He was born on 9 April 1939, the son of a court interpreter, in Owerri, Imo State, in eastern Nigeria, seven hours’ drive from Lagos.

‘We did not have many modern facilities, but we had the village set-up. If you were hungry, someone would feed you. If your neighbour caught you doing something wrong, they would punish you.

When your parents found out, they would talk to the neighbour to make sure they had given you a proper spanking. Modernity has changed all of that.’

To say Dozie is close to his Igbo roots is like saying a tortoise is close to its shell. He made sure that his culture was passed on to his children.

‘We didn’t see my father that often when we were growing up,’ says Uzoma Dozie, one of Dozie’s sons, ‘but when he came home to see us, it was really quality time.

‘We would sit outside for hours while he told us stories and sang the songs of his ancestors. It was beautiful.’

In the early 1960s, newly independent Nigeria was changing apace. In these heady and idealistic early years of independence, many African nations sent their youngest and brightest to study in the former colonial capitals.

Dozie was one of them. He went to study at the London School of Economics (LSE), where one of his fellow students was a long-haired wannabe who was obsessed with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and the blues – Mick Jagger.

‘I knew him,’ says Dozie with a broad smile, about as near to star-struck as he will ever be.

The manner of Jagger’s exit from the LSE in 1963 is still a matter of conjecture. A politician I knew years ago told me that the Rolling Stones frontman had stood up in a lecture one day and cried: ‘Eureka!’ before walking out to a life of stardom.

The reality is not as dramatic and clear-cut. Jagger studied economics and earned average grades. But he kept on studying, just in case the Rolling Stones proved to be a flash in the pan.

When the group cut its first single, in June 1963, he left the LSE.

‘We thought [Mick] was different,’ recalls Dozie. ‘We were very conservative and he had long hair. As an African, coming from Nigeria, I couldn’t believe that he was giving up his studies to go and play music.

It went against the grain for me. In the village where I grew up, you only played music if you had nothing else to do.’

Unlike Jagger, Dozie completed his degree in economics and then obtained a master’s degree in administration from City University in London. He laid the foundations of his career with his first job, at the National Economic Development Office (NEDO) in Croydon, south London.

He was one of many expatriate Africans to work there. NEDO was established to support the National Economic Development Council (NEDC), which was a corporatist economic planning forum set up in 1962 in the United Kingdom to bring together management, trade unions and government in an attempt to address Britain’s relative economic decline.

Although Dozie dearly wanted to go home during his time in London, the war that was tearing his country apart prevented him from doing so. Back home, his two brothers were fighting for the Igbo people in Biafra’s secession from Nigeria.

The Biafran War was bloody and brutal and lasted from 1967 to 1970. Overall, there were 100 000 military casualties, while between 500 000 and two million Biafran civilians died from starvation. Dozie watched in horror from London as the war unfolded.

‘It was a very traumatic period for us. Bombs were going off everywhere and you didn’t know what the truth was. People were being shunted from one place to another, and at times I didn’t even know where my own mother was.’

The pain is still etched on his face nearly half a century on.

Dozie decided to take a job in Uganda, knowing that he was going to be in exile until peace was brokered in his homeland. He finally moved back home in September 1971 to look after his mother, who by then was in poor health.

Back in Lagos, the first thing Dozie did was to set up his own consultancy, which he called the African Development Consulting Group (ADCG). He would never work for anyone else again.

In the early days of the business, ADCG was fortunate enough to be awarded plum consultancy contracts from big players like Nestlé and Pfizer. In his spare time, Dozie wrote articles on economics for heavyweight publication Business International.

Then, in the 1980s, the road to real riches opened up for Dozie, thanks to a simple idea that had occurred on a dusty and often dangerous road that stretched across his country.

For years, Dozie had observed the problems of the traders who had to travel to Lagos from the villages of eastern Nigeria, where he grew up. Many of the traders had to carry huge bundles of cash if they wanted to do business in the big city, and sometimes they would be waylaid by thieves and robbers.

Dozie’s inspired idea was to implement a system whereby the traders could make electronic bank transfers so that they would not have to risk carrying any cash.

As a result of his brainwave, the Diamond Bank was established in 1991.

‘The first customer was my wife,’ Dozie laughs.

Today, Diamond Bank may be one of the biggest names in Nigerian banking, but it had a humble beginning, in a tiny third-floor office in Victoria Island with 20 people and $5 million in cash.

‘The assumption was that we were going to come by money easily – it wasn’t easy,’ Dozie remembers.

In those conservative days, most businesses didn’t want to deal with a bank less than three years old, as new banks were seen as fly-by-night operations. So the tiny staff at Diamond Bank hit the streets to persuade everyone, from traders to car dealers, to make deposits so that the bank could generate cash.

The strategy paid off, and Dozie’s resilience and ingenuity won him many admirers in the banking industry.

Said Akinbamidele Akintola, then of Renaissance Capital in Lagos, ‘In my view, Dozie is brilliant. [He is] driven and a great manager of talent – qualities which helped him in establishing Diamond Bank, especially through the five-year period from 1985 to 1990, when nothing was happening, and the early years from 1990, when he says they really had it tough.'

With Dozie and his staff’s hard work and dedication, the bank blossomed into a $240-million concern. But it proved merely the first step on a difficult path.

In 2005, the bank took a knock when the government passed a new law decreeing that all banks had to retain a minimum of 25 billion naira (around $158 million) in share capital.

Diamond Bank had only 6.4 billion naira (around $40 million), and it was forced to list to raise more. This diluted the family’s stake, but at least the bank survived.

But the deal that would make Dozie’s name was far more daring – a 1998 venture with South African cellphone company MTN, which was staking its claim throughout Africa.

MTN management approached Dozie with the idea of setting up a network in the potentially vast Nigerian market. The South Africans would invest millions of rands in a 60 per cent stake in MTN Nigeria, with Nigerians owning the rest.

With high hopes, Dozie set off for London and the United States to sell the idea to wealthy Nigerian expatriates and the big money men, but he was soon discouraged by their lack of enthusiasm.

It was as if he was trying to sell sand in the desert.

Potential investors pointed out that Nigeria’s state telecoms company, NITEL, with its sparse and unreliable landlines, was struggling. If the state couldn’t set up a cellphone network in Nigeria, no one could, they told Dozie.

‘It was very disappointing,’ Dozie says. ‘You have a good project and you are turned down. You start to question yourself and start to question your [own decision-making].’

Dozie could raise only 20 per cent of the capital needed for the new company. But MTN was not about to give up. They obtained the millions needed to get the project off the ground through debt-funding and, although it was a huge risk at the time, MTN prospered and had nearly 60 million subscribers in Nigeria in 2016.

Says Dozie: ‘Most of the people I asked to invest now regret not investing – I even regret it myself. They would have enjoyed returns of 20 times their money.’

More than a decade older and wiser today, Dozie runs a family investment company, Kunoch, valued at $50 million, which is involved in industries ranging from power generation to gas processing, oil exploration, real estate and banking.

If you have a plan and a feasibility study, Dozie is the man who will hear you out. The company focuses primarily on power projects, particularly on building infrastructure. The Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, which is the international gateway to Nigeria, is a focus point for the company.

Many foreign business people have stood cursing and sweating in the long queues at that airport, vowing never to return to Nigeria if they ever escaped from it. Dozie is only too aware of this.

‘It erodes the image of the country. When you come through our airport, you say, “Is this the Nigeria I have come to see?”’

In 2012, Dozie believed that the government would privatise the airport in a bid to improve it, despite opposition from certain unions and government fears of losing control.

‘I will give it a long shot; it will happen in the next five years.’ It wasn’t too long a shot. In August 2016, newspapers in Nigeria reported that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria was seriously considering privatising the airports in Lagos and Abuja.

What about the bugbear of corruption?

‘It is very solvable. When we start seeing politics as a sacrifice, when it is a self-sacrificing exercise from those who want to serve … We need strong institutions with integrity and political parties with a well-known ideology.’

When I ask Dozie what role the entrepreneurs of Africa can play in advancing the continent and its people, he becomes more animated.

‘I think [entrepreneurs] are counting on the political will of African leaders to smooth logistics, the factors of production and the movement of people. There are a lot of bottlenecks that need to be removed.

People like Aliko Dangote have served us well and created a lot of employment. For me, what is lacking here is that we don’t have the critical mass in the genuine middle class, which is the bulwark of democracy.

Once this happens, we could start absorbing young people into employment and our creative forces will be unleashed,’ he explains. ‘We all worry about food, shelter and health, and, until those things are made accessible to all people, [conditions] will never change … Be patient; don’t expect miracles to happen.’

As 2016 drew to a close, Dozie, who is in his late 70s, was semi-retired but still keeping a finger in a few pies. These included teaming up with the government to look for gold, and investing in hotels and the railroad.

The latter has been one of the abandoned, rusting car wrecks of the Nigerian economy, resuscitated in the last decade with the help of Chinese money.

‘We just found a young man who is enthusiastic about the economic potential of efficient railroads, and we are encouraging him.

He is championing the rail spirit and he is going to change the way goods move in Nigeria,’ Dozie says in the twilight years of his life as an entrepreneur. ‘I have no regrets.

There are certain things one could have done. At my age, you find that there are certain decisions you can take in a very clinical way and considering nothing but the business case. But also, when it touches on the human element, you turn softer, and by the time you look at it, you are more or less a coach trying to give advice.

It takes time, and sometimes you are not looking at the quick ways, you are looking at the longer term and how to make an impact; that’s what matters.’

In his yearning for a new Nigeria, Dozie draws inspiration from one of the entrepreneurs he most admires, the late Steve Jobs.

‘I loved his never-quit spirit. He lost his position in the company, but he did not despair,’ says Dozie.

Jobs built a world-class brand. Had he been handed the task of building a new Nigeria, he may very well have been tempted to despair.

This is a chapter from Chris Bishop’s new book Africa’s Billionaires.

banking  |  mtn  |  development  |  entrepreneur  |  nigeria

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