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Is This Billionaire the "Warren Buffett of Africa"?

By Taylor Muckerman - Feb 23, 2014 at 1:45PM

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In an attempt to breach the top five rankings for richest person in the world, Aliko Dangote is turning to oil refining.

Betting on developing nations has long been a way for entrepreneurial individuals to accumulate staggering wealth. Mexico's Carlos Slim, Spain's Amancio Ortega, and -- at one point -- Brazil's Eike Batista are just a few of our era's emerging-market success stories. All three reached the summit of financial achievement, with only Eike Batista faltering in the past year. 

Source: fotopedia.com (Dangote on right).

The latest luminary hoping to join their ranks is Africa's Aliko Dangote. Already worth more than $20 billion, he is hoping to turn that into $100 billion with his bet that Africa's prosperity will continue to grow and that demand refined petroleum products will surge right alongside. This bet seems to be rather safe at the moment, as Africa is currently "the world's fastest growing oil user," according to the International Energy Agency. The continent already uses around 3.5 million barrels of oil per day. One thing's for sure: He must be confident.

Diversification at its finest
On his way to accumulating his monumental wealth, Warren Buffett was no stranger to diversification. Mention that Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway grew from the seed of a struggling textile business, and most people might look at you with the lost gaze of a puppy. Now, quite well known for his insurance holdings, Buffett has begun to seriously diversify into natural resources.

A major part of the company's portfolio is wrapped up in stocks such as ExxonMobilSuncor Energy, and, most recently, a large purchase of assets from Phillips 66, using 19 million shares that Buffett already owned. Taking a page from the Buffett playbook, Dangote has amassed his wealth by way of cement, sugar, salt, noodle factories, and, if he has his way, oil and gas -- just as energy investments began emerging later into Buffett's career.

A risky proposition based on recent history?
For the past couple of years, the oil business has been rife with theft and disruption in Africa, and Nigeria in particular. The nation has seen some of the largest oil companies in the world, including Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) and Chevron (CVX 2.81%), selling assets because the potential reward wasn't enticing enough to endure the headache. If you lump in Total (TTE 2.94%) to the mix, the three oil majors have already sold off $6.5 billion in Nigerian assets this year.

This is not to say that all foreign oil companies are heading for the hills. Tullow Oil, for example, has continued a recent string of success in the country with a fifth consecutive Nigerian oil discovery last November. The fact that actually finding oil hasn't been the prime culprit in the departure of several companies provides some insight as to why Dangote recently announced that his firm, Dangote Group, could be interested in purchasing some upstream assets. These would likely be used to supply his planned refinery with valuable oil and natural gas feedstock.

Source: Wikipedia.

So why refining?
If you look back at the history of Nigerian refining operations, it has been rather difficult to secure necessary approvals. As a result, only one refinery was built in the country between 2000 and 2010. The situation is shaping up quite similarly to how he first truly began to construct his empire in 2008. You see, five years ago, the 2014 World Economic Forum co-chairman convinced the Nigerian government to allow him to corner the country's cement market by stemming imports as he constructed the country's largest plant.

This deal will likely not come together nearly as easily, because of international interest in surging African growth. However, homegrown petroleum products would certainly be welcomed if demand projects prove prescient. To truly make this work, though, Dangote will need to avoid the Achilles' heel of his country's oil industry: theft. 

Estimates state that up to 400,000 barrels of oil go "missing" each day. To counter this action, Dangote has initial plans to bury his pipes carrying oil from offshore production. Not only should this help curb the siphoning of his oil, but it will also provide some logistical advantages not enjoyed by incumbent refineries. 

Elephant hunting
Buffett has placed a lot of big bets in his day, with most of them working out. Based on his track record, Dangote is no stranger to similar ventures, but none compares with his most recent scheme. Should things work out, Buffett will likely have some company among the richest of the rich, but a few missteps, and Dangote might just join the ranks of Eike Batista and his vanished wealth.

Taylor Muckerman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway, Chevron, and Total and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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