From Oil Trading to Human Capital Transformation and Innovation



Sometime in 1996, some young Nigerian entrepreneurs established the Sahara Group to take advantage of opportunities in oil and gas trading. Following 25 years of disruptive and brilliant masterstrokes of knowledge, humility, business integrity, diverse human capital, sustainable corporate citizenship and robust stakeholder network, Sahara Group has grown into a leading energy conglomerate with footprints in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The inspirational Sahara story has the potential of transforming the unfolding global energy sector. Kunle Aderinokun writes

History is rife with enthralling stories of notable men and women who made a name for themselves through the brazen belief that out of Africa could emerge giants in industry and trade. Think of the Lion of Mali, whose empire grew to span West Africa and the Sahara Desert with equally vast trading activities spreading into North Africa. The image of a man from the middle ages holding an imperial golden globe readily comes to mind. As his territory and fame grew to legendary proportions, so did the economic status of his people. Mansa Musa was his name, and he once held the commercial strings of sub-Saharan Africa in his hand. His vast wealth rivalled probably only by Marvel Comic’s first black superhero known as King T’Challa of the fabled country of Wakanda.

The year was 1994, and somewhere in the United Kingdom, a young African who had been motivated by the story of Mansa Musa’s entrepreneurial prowess had recently bagged an MBA (Master’s in Business Administration). He was on the way to obtaining his RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) certification; eager to chart his course to greatness, the sky seemed to be the limit, or was it? So, the job hunt began. It had to be an oil company or a bank, the perfect springboard at the time for rapid career growth, as he was playing “catch up” with his classmates.

But as an economic refugee in the UK, the opportunities were limited. The once puffed-up shoulders of a young professional who believed the world was his oyster threatened to droop from the weight of numerous rejected applications. One of the most notable incidents was when the head of Africa Trade for a top international trading house (whom he had stalked for months) walked him out of his office when he showed up for an appointment secured via desperate means. This experience left him in enough confusion to walk the distance from Knightsbridge to Kilburn, tail appropriately tucked between his legs. But a never say die spirit was in there somewhere, and since the opportunity seemed not to be in the offing, he decided to build the doors himself.

His entrepreneurial skills were honed from the age of nine, in his role as CEO and Publisher of a Primary School magazine. An idea that was turned into a money-making venture by creating paid features for his classmates. From that age on, this young man, obsessed with value creation, ventured into many more businesses that eventually culminated into what is known today as the Sahara Group. His name is Temitope Shonubi.

Understanding that collaboration makes us better, Temitope sought like-minded individuals with similar dreams and diverse strengths to build the business. Some of such persons who built the business with him are his long-time friend and business partner, Ade Odunsi, and former classmate, Tonye Cole, who has since left the Group to pursue a career in public service. These two brought their unique skills and personalities to the table, ensuring that every transaction is considered from a risk perspective with appropriate mitigants and the right governance structure in place. Since then, the partnership has grown with the addition of Wale Ajibade, Kola Adesina, and Olumoroti Adedoyin-Adeyinka, with combined years of experience close to a century. The partnership continues to develop as a community of like minds bound by the same vision, as plans are underway to appoint additional leaders, a reward for past and continuous dedication and commitment to attaining the vision.

Fast forward! Years after Sahara came into existence, the same man who threw the young Shonubi out of his office that fateful day in London paid him a visit in pursuit of a business opportunity. He did not remember his encounter with him three years earlier and was not to be informed of this until 10 years after that second meeting! In that 10-year period, Sahara had hired a couple of staff from the same international trading firm that rejected him, including that senior executive’s former boss, to head its Geneva office. Sahara had also rejected offers of permanent partnership with the same firm. Alas! Failure bred success, and grace followed mercy. The Sahara Group had come of age.

“To earn the respect of others, we must first believe in our potential,” reads a line from the Sahara Creed, an anthology of poignant statements that set out the organisation’s philosophy. This statement underscores the tenacity and fierce determination with which the Group has grown in less than 25 years, from a trading company to an energy conglomerate with a global footprint. The mindset that kept Temitope Shonubi going in the early days is still the same mindset that remains evident when you meet any Sahara Group member, even today.

There was a time the world would not have imagined looking to Africa to implement global energy solutions. Today, the narrative is rapidly changing, and the Sahara Group is at the vanguard of the transformational story from Africa to the world. Founded in 1996 with an initial focus on oil trading, Sahara Group is widely regarded as a leading energy conglomerate renowned for championing capacity building and promoting the “best in Africa for Africa to the world” narrative globally. Since its inception, the Group has deployed “transformational energy initiatives” to become a conglomerate with a proud African heritage and vast operations in Far and Middle East Asia, Europe, and Africa.

As it celebrates 25 years of leadership across Africa’s energy value chain, the energy conglomerate is consistently increasing its investment in technology, artificial intelligence, and human capital transformation as critical drivers of its next expansion phase. Innovation will define Sahara’s brand positioning and offering in the coming years, as the group actively pursues its agenda of transforming conventional business borders and barriers to opportunities for diversification. It is already making good progress in this direction, starting with aligning its human capital resources and processes to support agile, smart, and innovative responses to the quest for value creation.

Creating a sustainable economic, social, and governance impact has remained central to Sahara’s corporate strategy. The conglomerate has taken bold steps in growing its business operations and financial performance to achieve annual revenues in excess of $10 billion, with over 4,000 employees and operations in over 40 countries. Sahara’s focus is on continuous improvement, additional value, operational efficiency, and sustainability. This is a scalable model it plans to replicate for its operations worldwide. From a best-in-class Terminal Automation System (TAS) for efficient terminal operations in the oil & gas sector to Plant Data Visualization System (PDVS) for enhanced remote monitoring of plant operations, Customer Energy Management (CEM), and GIS-based Network Monitoring System (GNMS) for customer-centric power distribution & data management services, to name a few. All available on mobile application platforms towards the objective of promoting operational efficiency.

Speaking on the corporate milestone and plans for the foreseeable future, Executive Director, Sahara Group, Temitope Shonubi, said, “For us at Sahara, it has been 25 years of instituting a stamp of distinction. Like most start-ups, we were chasers then followers, and today are the dream actualized corporation. It is much more expensive and difficult to be a trailblazer, defying the impossible to emerge as an enterprise that creates value innovatively, responsibly, and sustainably. Still, at Sahara, we are focused on remarkable growth and grateful for the opportunity to serve and bring energy to life across global markets.”

He added: “At Sahara, Knowledge has been the empowering tool, business integrity our greatest asset, humility our greatest ethos, diverse people and network our greatest value, as we believe there is no US without U”.

The activities of the Sahara Foundation stand out as one of the Group’s most cherished accomplishments. Starting in partnership with the Carter Centre in the eradication of guinea worm disease all over Nigeria, Sahara Foundation has over the years, emerged as a global promoter of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with over 2,000,000 (two million) beneficiaries across its locations through interventions in Health, Education, Capacity Building, and lately, Extrapreneurship – a concept that promotes opportunities for social innovators and entrepreneurs.

In 2015, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), through the Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG-F), established the Private Sector Advisory Group (PSAG) as a pivotal platform for business leaders to contribute to extraordinary social impact and cultivate partnerships of tremendous transformative capacity. From an initial list of 100 shortlisted global multinational companies, the United Nations SDG-F selected 13 companies and inaugurated them in Madrid. Within the African continent, Sahara Group was one of the only two companies that made the final selection.

Following the establishment of the PSAG, Sahara Group has played a leading role advisory group. Sahara has demonstrated that to navigate and stay calibrated amidst this landscape, a company-wide commitment to social responsibility must exist. The company has been an ambassador to the global private sector, serving as a role model to companies across industries and geographic locations for how corporate governance can enable development objectives. Following success at the global level, Sahara was tasked to replicate the PSAG in Nigeria in 2017. Since then, other sustainable partnerships have been created among major private sector organizations to promote sustainable development.

The Sahara Group is not oblivious to the fact that there is a growing global demand for safe and clean energy and the shift towards a lower carbon footprint. Riding on the success of previous partnerships, Sahara and the UNDP in 2019 entered into another partnership to promote access to clean and affordable energy in Africa with a commitment to provide access to clean and affordable energy to over 650 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is hinged on sub-Saharan Africa having the lowest energy access rates and the highest percentage of untapped hydropower potential globally, with only 11per cent utilisation capacity. The overall objective is to build a roadmap and provide catalytic support for public-private alliances in delivering large-scale solutions towards achieving the SDGs, focusing on SDG 7-access to energy.

The group remains passionate about green energy and environmental conservation. Its “green life” project, aimed at driving energy and ecological conservation initiatives across its business operations and partnerships, saw the group pioneer the commencement of an electronic billing system (e-billing) by Ikeja Electric Plc, the Group’s power distribution arm, as a catalyst to force a re-think on environmental conservation in the energy sector. To reinforce Sahara’s commitment to clean energy initiatives, the Sahara Group also initiated the use of electric buggies and bicycles at its Egbin Power, Africa’s largest privately-owned Power Plant, with plans to replicate same at other operational facilities across the Group. But Sahara did not stop there.

The group’s zero-waste approach to promoting operational efficiency and its zeal in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has seen Egbin Power Plc invest in an oxygen bottling facility on the plant to harness the oxygen generated as a by-product of the plant cooling mechanism.

The organisation supplies oxygen, a key ingredient in the fight for life in the ICU, freely to medical facilities in Lagos State and the FCT, Abuja Nigeria, through Fortitude Children’s home, the largest orphanage in Nigeria.

The Sahara Group has made significant contributions to the fight against COVID-19 along different social strata. At a minimum, donating personal protective equipment (PPE) and driving COVID-19 awareness and education in sub-Saharan Africa through educational literature in indigenous languages across various countries. Further, Sahara led the delivery of the 300-bed THISDAY Dome Isolation and Treatment Centre and donation of medical equipment, including fully equipped world-class Intensive Care Units, to the centre and other medical facilities across Nigeria.

Once nurtured in the hearts of dreamers, an organisation now soars on the unbridled wings of sheer grit and passion. Born of the tenacity and a mindset of endless possibilities, the Sahara Group is a potent force that still draws from near and far, all land and clime, folk united in their resolve.

A resolve to tread where others feared to; a determination to go where others said, not possible. Tenacity is the hammer, opportunity the wood, fastened by nails of the vision, to be the provider of choice wherever energy is consumed.

Buoyed by an unwavering desire to redefine value, there’s a shared passion of being constantly ‘MAD’ at Sahara, always committed to “making a difference”. “We believe that when you need to achieve 10, you must prepare for 20 and put in the effort for 30, which allows you with the grace of God to always surpass targets,” Shonubi explained.

As the energy conglomerate turns 25, it promises to continue to demonstrate the leadership and disruptive innovation that will drive its investment returns and sustainability. It must be ambidextrous and maximise the present to the max while preparing for the future and maintaining the security of its global citizenship. In commemoration of this milestone, the 25th anniversary will be replete with several events and activities all through 2021 with the theme, “Harnessing Safe Energy Today.” Emphasis will be on promoting the “capacity to do and achieve positive and sustainable transformation” in the energy sector.

From every indication, it is apparent that considering the huge successes of Sahara at 25 and the future being influenced now – the energy conglomerate’s amazing story continues.