Tope Shonubi: Nigeria’s Poster Boy for Successful Entrepreneurship, Indefatigable Spirit
THE TRIALS AND TRIUMPHS OF BUSINESS WUNDERKINDS with LANRE ALFRED
Nigeria is blessed with successful entrepreneurs, men and women alike, who rose from crass poverty to prosperity; the unrelenting few who fell off a cliff and built a plane on their way down. They are energetic and enthusiastic, uncompromising, yet realistic; impossibility has no space in their lexicon. With the tenacity of purpose and devotion to their dreams, they bestride the gap between creativity and commerce successfully. Welcome to the world of a peerless member of that class, Tope Shonubi, one-third of the Sahara Energy triumvirate, including Tonye Cole and Ade Odunsi, who has had his fair share of trials but is now an avatar of successful entrepreneurship
GRIND BENEATH THE GLITTER
Undaunted aptly captures the story of Tope Shonubi. Despite the odds of yesteryears, Tope Shonubi emerged as a stronger and more successful entrepreneur. The global business terrain is like a wilderness riddled with storms. Despite its inherent dangers, a few daring entrepreneurs navigate its perilous paths with stubborn resolve and unyielding spirit. That relentless spirit often pays off, guiding them through the perils and quagmires of global commerce till they emerge victorious in spirit and resolve, like the champions they set out to become. The most successful businesspeople are always prepared to immerse and withstand the transformations of the business world.
These are the visionary few that are always eager to learn and unlearn; ever ready to pitch their flags in the chaotic terrains and slugfests characteristic of global commerce. In pursuing an enduring vision, they recruit a network of like-minded individuals as co-travellers, driven by the passion and courage to achieve difficult goals and gain matchless credibility. They have an outstanding reputation for offering lifelines and redefining the frontiers of greatness. Thus, like 21st-century huntsmen, they explore the world and seek to exploit its numerous endowments within local and global contexts of decency and fair play.
This aptly captures the trajectory of Shonubi, one of the founders of the Sahara Group. He is one of the few great men who refused to be daunted by the limits of their struggling days or the lure of get-rich-quick means. Armed with a Master of Business Administration, MBA, from a British university, Shonubi did not give when it appeared his initial efforts at starting a great professional were patchy.
Shonubi is a brilliant young man with a clinical business vision and unfussy moral rigours. He was introduced to the oil business and started selling to several companies, including Wale Tinubu’s OANDO. Business was good; before long, he became a looming fixture among the jet set and bourgeoisie, the powerful and popular. Shonubi’s story cannot be told without Sahara Group, and vice versa. In 1996, alongside Tonye and Ade, they started Sahara Group, which incubates companies like the Sahara Energy Field, Sahara Gas, Sahara Farms, Sahara Trade, and Sahara Bulk Storage Facilities, among others, all of which have their core fields of endeavour centred within the oil and gas industry and its associated sub-sectors.
The group’s trading subsidiary, Sahara Energy Resources, based in the British Crown dependency of the Isle of Man, made its first delivery of Libyan oil to the United States a few years after they began operations. The 461,000 barrels of crude oil from Mellitah went to the Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, Pennsylvania. The young men exerted energy and fervour amenable to a personal culture of success peculiar to them, a process by which they laid their primal impulses to rest and let unsullied enterprise and ethics guide their actions through consummate humaneness and balancing acts. The company soon established itself as a credible trading house.
Today, Sahara Energy, which started as an oil and gas company trading in excess fuel oil from the Port Harcourt and Warri refineries as its core business then, is a multi-billion-dollar business and a major employer of labour with a portfolio that includes an upstream business and strong physical presence in Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Senegal; and representative offices in Cameroun, France, and Brazil. They also diversified into vessel ownership – with a fleet of vessels moving products across West Africa – and storage depot, building depots in Lagos, Onne, and Abuja.
Sahara Power Group has also made huge investment interventions in the power sector. Today, SPG is the largest privately owned vertically integrated power company in Sub-Saharan Africa, with plans to expand its generation capacity to exceed 5,000MW by 2023. With a portfolio that includes Egbin Power Plc. (the largest thermal power plant in Sub Saharan Africa ex. South Africa), Afam, Eleme, Trans Amadi and Omoku Plants, SPG successfully acquired majority shareholding stakes in two of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) assets under the privatisation initiative of the Nigerian Government, namely Egbin Power Plc and Ikeja Electric Plc (one of the largest power distribution companies in Sub-Saharan Africa). In addition, SPG also acquired a 70 per cent stake in First Independent Power Limited (FIPL). This acquisition reinforced the quest of SPG to enhance its competitive advantage in the sector whilst looking to deliver world-class power solutions through investments across Africa.
“Sahara’s focus is on continuous improvement, operational efficiency, and sustainability. We plan to deploy a best-in-class Terminal Automation System (TAS) for efficient terminal operations in the oil and gas sector, Plant Data Visualisation 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,” said Shonubi.
Sahara’s operational model has shown that creating a sustainable economic, social, and governance impact has remained central to its corporate strategy. No wonder it has grown its operations to achieve annual revenues in excess of $10 billion, with over 4000 employees and operations in over 40 countries.
CELEBRATING 26 YEARS OF IMPACTFUL CONGLOMERATE
In the din of interminable acclaim and deafening applause that welcomed their entrepreneurial exploits and arrival into Nigeria’s elite business class, they did not rest on their laurels. Their unfaltering spirit continually spurred them to seek and attain landmark feats in business and politics.
Media-shy and unobtrusive, Shonubi has sustained his unwavering resolve in business excellence and empowering the African population long plagued by a dearth of infrastructure and, indirectly, poverty. To boost the human capital profile ahead of the projected future growth in the petroleum sector, he once counselled that oil and gas traders in Africa needed to address the dearth of experienced traders.
“Africa needs to invest more in capacity building in line with global standards. We are spearheading this narrative on the continent through various mentorship and specialised training programmes for our people at Sahara and other beneficiaries at our trading hubs in Geneva and Singapore,” he said.
The world stood still for the group when Sahara marked its silver jubilee of existence and landmarks that have reshaped Africa’s economic landscape. While reflecting on the journey of over two and half decades last year, Shonubi went down memory lane as he shared their journey from dreaming to actualising.
“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,” Shonubi further stated. “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.”
It did not come as a surprise to many when President Buhari felicitated the group on its silver jubilee anniversary. The president extolled the diligence and hard work of the founders for growing a modest enterprise, which began as a trader in petroleum products, into a conglomerate at its silver jubilee, adding that such a feat was inspirational to the nation’s teeming youth.
“With operations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, Nigeria is proud that Sahara Group came from its loins and has in the period of operations, deployed transformational energy initiatives to become a business with proud African heritage,” said Buhari. “I am particularly enthused that you provide 21 per cent of power to Nigerians and distribute 15 per cent, and going forward, Sahara Group has a vision of investing in gas development for energy, data tech, and monetisation, infrastructural development, and in bringing energy to life in a responsible and smart way wherever energy is consumed.”
In the same vein, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo praised the group for being “a great ambassador for the Nigerian entrepreneurial brand.” Speaking at a virtual event to commemorate Sahara Group’s 25th anniversary, Osinbajo said Sahara embodied the enterprising and transformative spirit that makes Nigeria a remarkable nation.
“Sahara Group has demonstrated bold, innovative, knowledge-driven business models that are designed to seize opportunities in other countries and have done so with remarkable success in many African countries,” Osinbajo said.
PRESIDENTIAL ACCLAIM FOR STERLING PERSONALITY
Shonubi’s unassuming personality and his standing in the corporate sector have not evaded the presidential eyes nor the international community. He has had the honour of being on Buhari’s economic delegation to the United States of America, alongside Africa’s richest man and President of Dangote Group, Alhaji Aliko Dangote. This is a testament to Shonubi’s status as an unassailable economic player with a global impact.
Shonubi was one of the youngest members of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, appointed as special assistant on international affairs in 1999. This was a telling experience he would live to cherish. He has had to rub shoulders with world leaders, many of whom he has cross-fertilised ideas with. This was accentuated in many of his public speaking sessions.
MASTER OF HIS UNIVERSE
His reticent nature has not shielded the discerning public from having an insight into Shonubi’s mindset. He is not the type who celebrates success when the work is halfway done. He believes in the paradigm that his job is not done until the job is done, believing that nothing successful is perfect; it is a continuously developing process. Shonubi readily agrees that he is well attuned to directing people because he takes time to study the issues and problems and then looks for people who can deliver the right messages.
He is unapologetically ambidextrous, which is why he has been able to record much at his relatively young age. With ambidexterity, not only has he packed so much into his years in the business world. He also strongly recommends that purposeful leadership entails the capacity to solve current problems and plan for the future at the same time.
A peripatetic human who has travelled the length and breadth of the globe, the 2020 lockdown occasioned by the novel COVID-19 confined him to a place for more than three months, thereby breaking a personal record that he had not broken in the last 20 years. A mentor to not a few youths with burgeoning interests in entrepreneurship, Shonubi is a recurring figure at conferences and seminars impacting the new generation. A keynote speaker at different forums, Shonubi, has spoken on numerous topics, including youth empowerment, entrepreneurship, energy, international trade, and other fields. An ardent patriot with a firm belief in Nigerian youths and their entrepreneurship skills, he once opined that they needed to be disciplined to accomplish greatness. He urged the youths to be consistent and humble and embrace entrepreneurship to add value to human lives.
Despite Shonubi’s apathy to the limelight, he finds time to enjoy the accoutrements of his enviable fortune. His mouth-watering penthouse mansion in Banana Island leaves passersby gawking in awe and admiration. He is always dressed to the nines, resplendent in bespoke suits. Because of the demands of his job, Shonubi travels at his own pace and pleasure in his private jet. Though in and around Abuja, he is renowned and respected for his deep pocket and decent lifestyle. He is as powerful and prosperous as they come. His business successes aside, he is a man that loves to live life to the fullest. In his early 50s and with looks that good money and good living have helped to burnish further, you may call him an Adonis for his drop-dead dress sense and expensive taste in designer apparel, especially Saville Row suits.