Part Three in a series on the past, present and future of Black billionaires.
As conversations regarding the rapid concentration of wealth dominate economic and political discourse, it’s worth analyzing the details of wealth within the billionaire class. However, little attention has been paid to billionaires of African descent.
Twenty-four people of African descent have appeared in the Forbes billionaires list. People of African descent have historically been locked out of such radical accumulation of wealth as the billionaire class represents. The story of the 20th century is defined by a global military, political and economic order dominated by white nations. So far, the 21st century presents a different story – one of a slow emergence from overwhelming white economic supremacy.
Since 2001, the number of global billionaires of African descent has risen markedly, reaching a peak of 19 in 2021 according to Forbes. In 2001, Bob Johnson and Michael Lee-Chin were the first persons of African descent to appear in the Forbes billionaires list–both making their fortunes in North America. There are nine American billionaires of African descent. Saudi businessman Mohammed Al Amoudi joined Johnson and Lee-Chin on the list in 2002 through his holdings in construction, energy and agricultural ventures in Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Ethiopia. Oprah Winfrey joined the list in 2003, making her the first woman of African descent to become a billionaire. By 2023 the number of billionaires of African descent according to Forbes had fallen to 17, as the value of Folorunsho Alakija’s oil holdings fell and Mohammed Al Amoudi was removed, along with all other Saudi billionaires, from the prestigious list by Forbes after he was jailed by Saudi Arabia in 2017 for corruption.
By 2005, we saw a marked increase in Black billionaires from Africa. In fact, since the mid-2000s, billionaires from Africa have both more total collective wealth and a higher average wealth compared to those from North America and Europe. The difference may well be attributed to the types of industries in which these billionaires’ assets operate and are invested. However, as illustrated below, the gap in total wealth between African and North American billionaires is closing. This is most likely due to the especially high wealth of the two African American billionaires who come from finance and tech, Robert Smith and David Steward. Smith and Steward alone possess almost two times the wealth of the other 4 Black entertainment billionaires.
Billionaires are disproportionately represented in a few particular industries. A slight majority of those listed built their fortunes through what the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) labels the information and finance sector. This sector includes media production; computer software development, computer hardware production and web development; and private equity finance and hedge fund management.
The Arts, Entertainment and Recreation sector has produced several members of the list. These individuals primarily made their income as performers or athletes. It was not their salaries that put them on the billionaires list. Instead, the power of their brand yielded product endorsement deals which boosted their fortune. Michael Jordan, who joined the list in 2016, is the leading example of this phenomenon. It should also be noted that while two others on the list – Robyn Fenty (Rihanna) and Kanye West – reached billionaire status through their fashion retail ventures, the celebrity that powers those fashion brands comes from their star status as performers and musicians.
This analysis also highlights another interesting fact: many of the billionaires outside of North America – particularly from Africa and Arabia – made their fortunes in extracting natural resources, in construction or in the trade of wholesale goods. The richest individual on the Forbes Black Billionaire list— Aliko Dangote of Nigeria, with an estimated wealth around $11.5 billion – made his fortune in this sector.
Since 2005, Africa has been the continent with the largest number of Black billionaires. With conditions ripe for continued economic development on the continent, Black billionaires in Africa are likely to continue to rise – though there is not yet evidence that this corresponds with better economic conditions for the masses of people on the African continent.
Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is NCRC’s Chief of Policy, Research and Equity.
Eddie Gray was an Organizing, Policy and Equity Graduate Intern at NCRC.