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The Dantata/Dangote Story: How To Create A Dynasty Of Billionaires (2020)

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How do you go from being an almajiri to spawning a dynasty of billionaires that includes some of the richest people in Africa?

Well, that’s exactly what Al-Hassan Dantata did. By dint of sheer hard work he went from being an Almajiri to being the wealthiest man (of any race ) in West Africa at the time of his death in the 1950s.

Below is the story of the Dantata/Dangote dynasty.

(1877-Aug 17th 1955). The wealthiest man in West Africa.

Alhaji Alhassan Dantata was a Nigerian businessman who was the wealthiest man in West Africa at the time of his death.

Ancestors and Heritage

Dantata’s father was Abdullahi, a man from the village of Danshayi, near Kano. Dantata was born in Bebeji in 1877, one of several children of Abdullahi and his wife, both of whom were traders and caravan leaders.

Bebeji was on the Kano to Gonja (now in northern Ghana) and Kano to Lagos routes. The people of Bebeji, at least those from the Zango (campsite) were great traders. Bebeji was considered a miniature Kano. There was a saying which went “If Kano has 10 kolas, Bebeji has 20 halves” or in Hausa: “Birni tana da goro goma, ke Bebeji kina da bari 20”. The town attracted many people of different backgrounds in the 19th century, such as the Yorubas, Nupes, Agalawas, etc. It was controlled by the Sarki (chief) of Bebeji who was responsible for the protection of Kano from attack from the southwest.

Alhassan was born into an Agalawa trading family. His father was a wealthy trader and caravan leader; Madugu Abdullahi while his mother was also a trader of importance in her own right enjoying the title of Maduga – Amarya. Abdullahi, in his turn, was a son of another prosperous merchant, Baba Talatin. It was he who brought the family from Katsina, probably at the beginning of the nineteenth century, following the death of his father, Ali.

Abdullahi already had a reputation of some wealth from his ventures with his father and therefore inherited his father’s position as a recognised and respected madugu. Like his father, he preferred the Nupe and Gonja routes. He specialised in the exchange of Kano dyed cloth, cattle, slaves and so on for the kola of the Akan forest. Surprisingly, he had added cowries brought to the coast by European traders to the items he carried back to Kano.

Abdullahi continued to operate from Madobi until 1877, one of our few fixed dates when having just set out for a journey to Gonja, his wife delivered in the Zango (campsite) of Bebeji. The child was a boy and after the usual seven days, he was named Alhassan. Abdullahi purchased a house in the town and left his nursing wife and child to await his return from Gonja. On his return, he decided to abandon Madobi and moved to Bebeji. Some say that the house that contains his tomb is still held by the family. The date of his death is unknown, but it was probably about 1885 when Alhassan was between seven and eight years of age. By then he had brothers and sisters – Shuaibu, Malam Jaji, Malam Bala, Malam Sidi and others.

Early life

The children were too young to succeed to their father’s position and to manage his considerable wealth. They all received their portion according to Islamic law. Maduga Amarya, like her mother in law, was a trader of wealth in her own right. Indeed she was known to be such a forceful character that nobody in the Zango would take her to wife. She therefore decided to leave the children in Bebeji, in the care of an old slave woman, while she moved to Accra where she became one of the wealthier Hausa traders.

The slave was known as “Tata” from which circumstance young Alhassan became known as Alhassan Dantata because of her role as his ‘mother’ (” Dantata” means “son of Tata”).

Alhassan was sent to a Qur’anic school (madrasah) in Bebeji and as his share of his father’s wealth (as so often happens), seemed to have vanished, he had to support himself. The life of the almajiri (Qur’anic student) is difficult, as he has to find food and clothing for himself and also for his malam (teacher) and at the same time read. Some simply beg while others seek paid work. Alhassan worked and even succeeded at the insistence of Tata in saving. His asusu, “money box” (a pottery vessel) purchased by Tata and set in the wall of the house can still be seen.

When he was about 15 years of age, Alhassan joined a Gonja bound caravan to see his mother. He purchased some items from Bebeji, sold half of them on the way and the rest in Accra. When he saw his mother, he was very delighted hoping she would allow him to live without doing any work since she was one of the wealthier local traders. After only a rest of one day, she took him to another malam and asked him to stay there until he was ready to return to Kano and he worked harder in Accra than he did in Bebeji. After the usual reading of the Qur’an, Alhassan Dantata had to go and beg for food for his malam, and himself. When he worked for money on Thursdays and Fridays, Alhassan Dantata would not be allowed to spend the money for himself alone, his malam always took the lion’s share (this is normal in Hausa society). After the visit, his mother sent him back to Bebeji where he continued his studies. Even though now a teenager, Tata continued to insist that he must save something everyday.

Upheavals and slavery

When he was still a teenager, great upheavals occurred in the Kano Emirate. This included the Kano Civil War (1893-1894) and the British invasion of the emirate. During the Kano Civil war, Alhassan and his brothers were captured and sold as slaves, but they were able to buy back their freedom and return to Bebeji shortly afterwards.

Business career

Alhassan remained in Bebeji until matters had settled down and the roads were secure, only then did he set out for Accra, by way of Ibadan and Lagos (Ikko) and then by sea to Accra and then to Kumasi, Sekondi and back to Lagos. Alhassan was one of the pioneers of this route. For several years, he carried his kola by sea, using steamers; to Lagos where he usually sold it to Kano bound merchants. By this time, he was relatively wealthy. In 1906, he began broadening his interests by trading in beads, necklaces, European cloth, etc. His mother, who had never remarried, died in Accra around 1908 and he thereafter generally restricted his operations to Lagos and Kano, although he continued to visit Accra.

Thus far in his career, with most of his fellow long distance traders, he continued to live in one of the towns some distance from Kano City, only visiting the Birni for business purposes. Before Alhassan settled in Kano permanently, he visited Kano City only occasionally to either purchase or sell his wares. He did not own a house there, but was satisfied with the accommodation given to him by his patoma (land lord.). It was during the time of the first British appointed Emir of Kano; Abbas (1903-1919) that Alhassan decided to establish a home in Kano. He purchased his first house in the Sarari area (an extension of Koki). At that time there were no houses from the house of Baban Jaki (at the end of Koki) up to Kofar Mazugal. In fact the area was called Sarari because it was empty and nobody wanted that land. Alhassan built his first house on that land and was able thereafter to extend it freely.

In 1912, when the Europeans started to show an interest in the export of groundnut, they contacted the already established Kano merchants through the Emir, Abbas and their chief agent, Adamu Jakada. Some established merchants of Kano like Umaru Sharubutu, Maikano Agogo and others were approached and accepted the offer.

Later in 1918, Alhassan was approached by the Niger Company to help purchase groundnuts for them. He was already familiar with the manner by which people made fortunes by buying cocoa for Europeans in the Gold Coast. He responded and participated in the enterprise with enthusiasm, he had several advantages over other Kano business men: he could speak some English because of his contact with the people on the coast, thus he could negotiate more directly with the European traders for better prices. He also had accumulated a large capital and unlike other established Kano merchants, had only a small family to maintain, as he was still a relatively young man. Alhassan had excellent financial management, was frugal and unostentatious. He knew some accounting and with the help of Alhaji Garba Maisikeli, his financial controller for 38 years, every kobo was accounted for every day. Not only that, Alhassan was hard working and always around to provide personal supervision of his workers. As soon as he entered the groundnut purchasing business, he came to dominate the field. In fact by 1922 he became the wealthiest businessman in Kano. Umaru Sharubutu and Maikano Agogo were relegated to the second and the third positions respectively. When the British Bank of West Africa was opened in Kano in 1929, he became the first Kano businessman to utilize a bank account when he deposited twenty camel loads of silver coins. Shortly before his death, he pointed to sixty “groundnut pyramids” in Kano and said, “These are all mine”.


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