New beginnings have their pros and cons. Starting from scratch means you can start with a clear purpose and develop a strategy and action plan to achieve your goals and vision. But it also means you may not have all the necessary resources, skills, expertise and above all, experience to ensure smooth implementation and growth.
“Modern economies like Nigeria are in a unique position,” said Prasanna Burri, Group CIO at Dangote, a diversified conglomerate spanning a range of sectors in Africa. “They don’t have the luxury of learning from centuries worth of trial and error or building on a continuous legacy of development. But they do have the chance to leapfrog directly to the latest technologies.”
Nigeria is very rich in agricultural land and minerals and is one of the top 10 oil producers worldwide. It also has a vast potential workforce: 60% of the population is below 25 years of age. Its economy, however, is not well diversified. Until recently, the lack of industry meant that many products needed for daily life including food was imported. Dangote has been working to change that.
Providing basic needs
The company was founded in 1978 by Aliko Dangote, in 1981 as a trading enterprise, importing sugar, cement, rice, and other consumer goods for distribution in the Nigerian market. Thereafter, his main goal became meeting the basic needs of the populace in a self-reliant manner. Dangote moved into manufacturing in the 1990s, starting with textiles, flour milling, salt processing and sugar refining by the end of the decade. The company next moved into cement production, growing steadily in Nigeria and other African countries. A high degree of vertical integration is a hallmark of Dangote Group’s operating strategy.
The conglomerate’s sugar refining, salt processing, packaging, and fertilizer production all contribute to securing the livelihood of thousands of farmers and land workers while improving food security in the region.
In a country where most people and businesses run their own generators for electricity, ensuring a constant supply of energy is among the company’s top priorities. Its energy, petrochemicals, and petroleum refining sectors are amongst the largest in Africa. Dangote’s businesses in fertilizers, mining, logistics and port operations are thriving.
By establishing and growing its impactful businesses and running ventures that serve the interest of all stakeholders, Dangote is a social and economic exemplar. Running these businesses efficiently requires state-of-the-art technology, and running the technology requires highly skilled personnel.
Building a specialized workforce
“When you are dealing with new industries, there is no established talent,” Ramakrishna Potluri, CIO of Dangote Projects explained. “We needed a bold, innovative approach.”
As part of its ambitious strategy for self-reliance, the company is commissioning the world’s largest single train oil refinery. “We had to build our own port next to the refinery to receive all the huge ships bringing in some of the world’s heaviest and largest equipment. We trained thousands of young people in engineering and construction skills,” said Potluri.
The first goal was to bring in the engineering talent and train locals for these specialized construction and operational tasks. Although Nigeria has a number of higher education institutions, there is no industry ecosystem to prepare students for employment. At the same time, the company was in the fortunate position of deploying the best IT systems and software such as SAP S/4HANA and other SAP solutions from the start.
“Other companies first construct their plants and then install the systems to run them,” said Potluri. “We implemented SAP S/4 HANA on SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud to manage the initial phase of construction. We brought in tech experts for the implementation six years ago. We recruited and trained a team of local SAP S/4HANA consultants.”
Potluri is well aware that many young professionals in Nigeria come from challenging economic living conditions and are subject to cultural and familial pressure to move on to better positions, especially abroad. Nevertheless, he has built up a small A-team of experts for the SAP Certified Center of Excellence (CoE) at Dangote.
“Normally, CoEs only provide support. We do everything, including implementations. The team is so good, the last SAP S/4HANA upgrade only took five and a half days,” he proudly recounted.
The majority of Potluri’s team came from the regional SAP Young Professionals Program, a unique enablement plan providing functional and technical knowledge of SAP software. It includes certification on SAP’s latest innovations as well as soft skill trainings. Participants graduate as SAP associate consultants, being immediately employable with SAP customers and partners.
“These SAP Young Professionals helped us immensely. When someone joins from the SAP Young Professionals Program, we put them in a specific SAP area. They are involved in all aspects of implementation, from getting requirements to testing to custom development,” he said. “It’s a tremendous advantage. They learn to do everything.”
When it comes to retaining people who have received such specialized training, Potluri has a unique selling point. His proposition to a candidate is not focused on salaries and benefits; that’s the job of HR.
“When I interview candidates, I ask them to think about their contribution to a better society and how they can help change the face of the Nigerian economy by working for a visionary company like Dangote, while at the same time gaining niche skills,” said Potluri. For people who come from a developing environment, that remains a powerful incentive.
Access this link to learn more about the SAP Young Professional Program, a capacity build initiative by the Digital Skills Center of SAP.
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This article first appeared in Forbes.