Nigeria’s biggest corporations have such a wide reach, it’s hard to imagine a time in which they didn’t exist. Among this group is Alhassan Dantata and Sons, an institution that’s practically inseparable from the country’s own economic evolution. It has gone from a being a simple kolanut trading venture to a collection of energy, construction and agricultural companies worth billions of dollars.
That transition didn’t happen in a few years. For over a century, generations of the Dantata family have built on the successes of their predecessors, pushing the clan’s business further than before. In the process, they have employed thousands, touched innumerable lives, and played their part in the country’s continuing industrialization.
The First Blocks of a Pyramid
Alhassan Dantata, whose name the family bears, was a simple individual with a keen eye for trade. Accounts from his days describe him as frequently garbed in white, with a similarly coloured turban, always on his feet, inspecting his goods out in the open.
Dantata was born in Bebeji, in what is now Kano State, in 1877. His family had fallen on hard times early in his life, having been on the losing side of a tussle for the throne of Kano. When his mother left to pursue trading in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), he was left in the care of Tata, a female servant of the household. Her influence on Dantata’s life was so strong that he came to be named after her (Dantata is Hausa for ‘son of Tata’).
He started trading at an early age, and learnt to save from the meager sums he made from his business. In a couple of decades, Dantata’s trade in various goods expanded; he graduated to transporting merchandise from Kano to Ibadan, as well as between Lagos and the Gold Coast.
His trade in nuts was particularly successful. The famous groundnut pyramids were actually his idea; laborers would pile the bags of groundnut he sold into huge pyramids that showed just how wealthy he had become.
From Trade Trucks to Corporate Empire
Upon Dantata’s death, his sons inherited his wealth and business, and expanded its operations into other industries.
One of them, Aminu Dantata, took charge of the family business in 1960. Aminu started a construction arm of the business, which executed major building projects for the newly independent Nigerian state. Its most notable engagements were the construction of the Defense Academy in Kaduna and extensions to the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria.
In the next couple of decades, he would add the sale of building materials and fertilizers to his business interests. He currently sits on the board of Jaiz Bank, Nigeria’s first non-interest banking institution.
Another of Dantata’s sons, Sanusi, was handed control of his father’s cattle business while he was still a teenager. He bought cattle from farmers in the north, and sold them to vendors in Lagos. Years after his father’s death, he ventured into groundnut trading and real estate, and built a fortune for himself.
Thriving in a Changing World
At this time, the skies over the local commercial scene were changing. Nigeria was becoming more urban and slightly less agrarian; people were demanding other kinds of goods besides the farm produce that Alhassan Dantata had sold in earlier decades.
The Dantatas flowed with this shift. The next generation of heirs to the family business sank their teeth into more industrial trades, especially in construction, petroleum, and shipping.
When Sanusi Dantata stepped back from the business scene, he let his children build on what he had created. Abdulkadir, the eldest of them, was particularly successful at this. In 1976, he cofounded Dantata and Sawoe, now one of the largest construction firms in Nigeria.
The family’s fourth generation has come on the business scene as well. Sayyu Dantata, a great grandson of Alhassan, started out as a transport director with the Dangote Group, before setting up MRS Holdings, an oil and gas conglomerate, in 1995.
The Next Hundred Years
We can’t be sure what new things this dynasty will tackle in the coming decades. But we do know that it can lead more portions of the local economy into the future. After all, it still plays a big role in many of Nigeria’s key industries.
Its pioneers and leaders have inspired multiple generations across the country to launch their own ventures. These people will always be grateful for the entrepreneurial example set by Alhassan Dantata and his successors.
Featured image source: One Good Head