The wealthiest man in Africa is probably not widely known in the rest of the world, given the region’s long-held image as a bastion of grinding poverty.

But construction tycoon Aliko Dangote, who has just opened up the largest cement factory in Africa, is certainly a household name in his native Nigeria. In late 2011, Forbes magazine crowned Dangote as Africa’s wealthiest individual, estimating his fortune at $10.1 billion, owing to his stake in Dangote Cement and his interests in flour milling, salt processing, sugar refining and dozens of other firms. (By March 2012, Forbes upped its estimate of Dangote’s wealth to $11.2 billion, maintaining his top ranking on the continent.)

The next richest African, Nicky Oppenheimer of South Africa’s famed De Beers diamond mining company, is at a distant second with a “mere” $6.5 billion fortune.

Dangote stands out because Nigeria, despite its vast wealth, is crippled by massive poverty -- the government’s own statistics indicated in February of this year that about 61 percent of the population live in “absolute poverty” (up from 55 percent eight years ago).

Dangote also made his money in “old economy” manufacturing industries, unlike many billionaires in the western world and Asia who gained wealth through such enterprises as finance and high technology.

His new plant, in Nigeria’s central Kogi state, is expected to produce about 10 million tonnes of cement annually -- Dangote’s company has invested about $6.5 billion in the cement manufacturing sector, the second-largest such outlay outside of the country’s dominant crude oil industry.

We will be the powerhouse of cement in Africa, Dangote said at a ceremony that was also attended by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Jonathan himself explained that Nigeria needs to diversity its economy away from crude oil.
No country has achieved development by relying solely on the export of raw materials. ... We need manufacturing, Jonathan said in at the Kogi ceremony.

The 55-year-old Dangote is a self-made man -- Forbes stated that his capacity in the cement industry is so great that he has urged the Nigerian government to “increase infrastructure investment in time to absorb what they're calling a cement surplus.’”

Indeed, Dangote Cement is so huge that it alone accounts for one-third of the value of Nigeria’s stock exchange. (The company plans to list on the London Stock Exchange next year.)

Dangote also dominates Nigeria’s sugar industry and is the major supplier of the condiment to the country’s breweries and soft drink companies (his company is the world’s third-largest sugar refiner).

In recent years, he has entered into more high-tech fields such as telecommunications and fiber-optic cables. There were even rumors a few years back that Dangote wanted to buy a stake in the Arsenal soccer club of Britain.

Dangote is also expanding his empire across Africa, having invested in construction projects in the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Zambia, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa.

Like an African Bill Gates, Dangote has also made philanthropic donations in the areas of education health care and social causes.