It was the early 90s and Nigeria had just fallen under the military regime of General Sani Abacha. The uncertainty and anxiety in the air threw Nigerians into panic as the military started throwing people into jail. In the ensuing confusion, a lot of foreign businesses made their exit from Nigeria, including EMSA where Tonye Cole worked as Director of Operations.
Overnight, Tonye realized that his juicy job was gone. EMSA had signed off all the contracts and instructed Cole to liquidate all its assets. There would be no more comfortable salary with corporate incentives as perks, and he had to face the same uncertainty many others had to deal with. Amid this situation, Cole stayed and slugged it out, building Sahara Group out of these rubbles.
This week’s profile focuses on Tonye Cole, the energy mogul whose name has now become synonymous with Sahara Group.
Tonye was born on January 11, 1967, in Port Harcourt city in present-day Rivers state, to Mr Patrick Dele Cole (former Ambassador of Nigeria to Brazil and one-time Managing Director of the Daily Times Newspaper).
Education and career
He started his early education in Port Harcourt, before moving to Lagos where he attended Corona School, Victoria Island and King’s College, Lagos. He moved to the United Kingdom to continue his education at King’s School, Ely, Cambridgeshire.
He has a bachelor’s degree in Architecture and Engineering from the University of Lagos, a Portuguese Certificate from Universidade de Brasilia, Brazil, and also did the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. Cole further showed his love for education when in 2018, and already in his fifties, he enrolled at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos, for a course in public policy.
The choice to study architecture was not predetermined but Tonye recalls that he settled for it because it was more aligned with most of the subjects he had taken for his O-levels in secondary school. However, when he started it, he discovered that it was perfectly suited for him because it tasked the imagination.
While at the University of Lagos, Tonye already fancied himself an entrepreneur and set up a business where he created architectural drawings and designs for different companies and teachers, as well as perfecting their existing designs. However, his father prevailed on him to travel to Brazil for further studies and so he had to leave it all behind.
Right after his education, Cole joined a Brazilian architectural firm, Grupo Quartro SA, in Goiania Brazil, as an architect, and worked there from 1990 to 1992. There, he oversaw major constructions such as the new Palmas city developments in Tocantins, Brazil.
He returned to Nigeria in 1993 and worked as the Director of Operations at the Nigerian Office of Empressa Sul Americana de Montagens S.A (EMSA), a Brazilian Civil Engineering Company. They needed a Nigerian who could speak Portuguese and someone they could trust to implement a World Bank project and Tonye fit the bill.
“It was an engineering job and it involved travelling around the country meeting government officials and business development. I had a wonderful salary at an expatriate rate, a company car and all the corporate perks. I had no interest at this point to do anything entrepreneurial. I was very comfortable,” Cole recalled.
The step into the Sahara
For Tonye Cole, the lesson he picked from the EMSA exit was never to leave his fate in another person’s hands, no matter how juicy the compensation might be. While enjoying the attractive salary at EMSA, Tope Shonubi and Ade Odunsi had invited him to join their venture in the oil industry but Cole turned it down.
When the offer came again in 1996 after EMSA’s exit, Cole jumped into the ship, ready to get red dirt under his nails if that was what it would take to build the business. According to Cole, the venture of such young men into a field that was then dominated by foreigners could have been perceived as too bold, as most Nigerians in this space at the time only owned petrol stations.
Alongside his friends, Ade Odunsi and Tope Shonubi, Tonye Cole started trading fuel and petroleum products from Warri and Port Harcourt refineries. Later on, they built depots in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja with a combined capacity of 55,000 metric tonnes.
This was the beginnings of a small business that would later blossom into a large group present in over 38 countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe with operations in the upstream, midstream, power and infrastructure sectors and an annual turnover in excess of $11 billion. The company has also diversified into utilities, real estate, farming and infrastructure and also has the $400-million Lekki power project in Lagos among its portfolio.
They did not make a major break until over a year doing the business, as they had to operate without a letter of credit (which was a major tool in oil trade). Access to letter of credit meant having a bank that would guarantee to make payments on behalf of the client, provided certain terms are met. The young Sahara did not have this so they had to trade off their deals and allocations to players who had the letter of credit and survive on commissions from the deals.
“We couldn’t even open a dollar account in the beginning because the banks did not trust Nigerian businesses and this is a dollar-denominated business. So we had to use a lot of innovation to get LCs. We asked our international clients to open an account for us so we could receive the payments, which they did with ease and secondly, we made sure that any LCs our clients opened, was done in our name,” Cole says about how they jumped through this challenge.
Controversial political career
The start of Cole’s public service career dates back to 2009 when he served as Honorary Senior Adviser to Rivers State Government on Energy, but his political interest came to the fore in 2018 when he resigned from all board and executive roles held in Sahara Group and other corporate bodies to contest for the gubernatorial seat in Rivers State.
“I left Sahara and walked away from everything so that I could face this. The political architecture of Nigeria requires fresh blood in it; fresh people and fresh ideas to work there, and that is what we have. So, it was an extremely difficult decision to make but I believe it was the right thing to do,” Cole said about his move.
Although he won the primaries on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the party was removed from the ballot and prevented from contesting in the elections by the courts due to some internal party squabbles.
Other interests and roles
Tonye Cole has chaired the Nigerian Private Sector Advisory Group on SDGs, the Greater Port Harcourt Development Authority, and also served as Vice Chairman on the board of Enactus Nigeria. He has also been a member on several boards including the Egbin Power Plc, Ikeja Distribution Company Ltd, Atlas Mara Co-Nvest Limited, Bloomberg TV Africa, 234 Give Nigeria, Nigerian Chamber Of Shipping, and several NGOs.
He was an advisory member on the United Nations Sustainability Development Fund (SDG-F), the World Bank Group’s Expert Advisory Council on Citizen Engagement, and a host of other groups. He is also the founder of the Nehemiah Youth Empowerment Initiative.
Cole has a long list of awards to his credit in recognition of his roles in the energy sector and other areas. He clinched the 2010 This Day Award as Young Global Champion In Oil And Gas, the Forbes/Ebonylife TV Best of Africa Award in 2013, as well as the 2017 Oil & Gas Council Lifetime Achievement and Executive of The Year Award, and was a finalist in the 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
The Sahara Group has also won its share of awards over the years. The group also has a foundation and contributes 5% of its profit to the foundation. The foundation has worked with international not-for-profit organizations to eradicate Guinea worm disease, cataracts and cleft palates.
He also set up the Behavioural Health Institute (BHI) where behavioural health issues among youths in Nigeria are managed. Cole works with other foundations like The Compassionate Centre, Down Syndrome Foundation, Slum-2-School Foundation among many others.