In an age bossed by billion dollar rich tech startup founders, it’s easy to get so swamped by today’s apparently unparalleled success stories that we think our generation is somehow better than past ones. After all, when else in mankind’s history has a barely tangible thing (digital technology) laid the foundation for a single person’s $100 billion+ wealth (wink at Amazon’s Jeff Bezos)?
But the entrepreneurial spirit isn’t a thing us twenty first century tech savvy people should claim monopoly over. For instance, close to home – and not so recently – there was a certain Alhassan Dantata. A perfect contrast to today’s code writing, MBA-jargon-spouting CEOs, Mr. Dantata was a kolanut merchant in an early to mid 20th century Northern Nigeria. While he didn’t make as huge a fortune as Mr. Bezos has, he did achieve enough to get him recognized as West Africa’s richest man in his time.
Alhassan Dantata was born in 1877, in Bebeji, located in what is now Kano State. He did have what we might consider a ‘head start’ over most people in his locality; his parents were members of a wealthy clan of long distance trades with roots deeply entrenched in the Kano area. However, much of this advantage was rolled back when his father died. His mother, also a businesswoman, left for the Gold Coast (now Ghana) for purposes related to business. A violent tussle for the throne of Kano ended with Dantata’s clan being on the losing side, and consequently stripped of land.
He came through this with grit and determination, encouraged by an old female servant of his parents. Tata, as she was known, helped bring him up while his mother was away. She had such a strong influence on him, that he became named after her (“Dantata” means “son of Tata”). When Alhassan returned from a stint in Accra (where his mother had put him under the care of a mallam), he started trading. Tata encouraged him to save small sums from his relatively meagre daily business earnings. This baptism into hard work and frugality was the bedrock of Dantata’s later accomplishments.
Continuing in his family’s long distance trading footsteps, Dantata built his enterprise around the routes linking Kano, Northern Nigeria’s commercial hub, and Ibadan, one of the South West’s major cities. He also transported goods between Lagos and a number of towns in the Gold Coast. His kolanut trade grew so big that he was able to send whole truckloads of them up north from Lagos. He even began mounting groundnut pyramids of his own.
But Dantata wasn’t just a dealer in nuts. He was smart enough to expand his trade to beads, necklaces and European clothing when he saw there was an opportunity to gain from selling these items. Because he had built experience as a merchant and amassed considerable resources in the process, he was able to do business with the British who held Nigeria as their colony at the time. It’s said that by 1922, he was Kano’s richest man.
Apart from his diligence with investments, Dantata also demonstrated his business acumen in many other ways. He had a hands-on approach to running his venture, and was particularly keen on having things done properly. He also employed a financial controller who he then stuck with for almost four decades.
By the time of his death, Dantata was widely recognized as Nigeria’s richest man. He had carved out a sprawling space for himself in the country’s still colonized economy. That space, since taken over by his descendants, has branched out even farther. Perhaps the most illustrious of his heirs is his great-grandson, Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man.