Deconstructing Folorunso Alakija

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Folorunso Alakija, according to Forbes, is one of the richest human beings on planet earth, with a net worth of about $1.7 billion. But how did she rise to such lofty heights? In this exclusive interview with Charles Ajunwa and Solomon Elusoji, the business magnate, who will be 66 tomorrow, tells it all

Early years
My growing up years were fun; fun in the sense that I come from a polygamous family of 52 children, one father and eight wives. I am child number eight. We all lived in one big tall family house. All the children usually had a rapport, but the mothers didn’t really get on well amongst themselves, naturally; there was always competition.

My dad was a businessman and only completed Standard Six. However, he made a lot of money for himself. Both of my parents were extremely hardworking. Initially, he started off with selling shoes. He used to import the shoes and he would wholesale them. Then he went into textile trading; he created his own designs and later wholesaled them to market women who retailed them. He later included stock fish and made a lot of money from that as well. He was a focused visionary and businessman. By the time he died, he had built enough houses in this Lagos to go round his children.

My mum was into textile trading and she was one of those he sold to. Before she started her own business, my dad opened a branch of his business in Ibadan and he sent her there to manage it. Of course, we lived with her in Ibadan and went to school there as well. Each week, she would send all the proceeds from the sales in the store to the head office in Lagos and everything was always intact.

I also remember that in school, in Ibadan, I was involved in a play. I discovered that when I was writing my autobiography and I was asking one of my aunties, who lived with us then, about my life. She told me about how I had taken part in a school play and excelled in it, how I was rated first among the children that took part. The play was about the seven virgins with their lamps.

At a point, my dad decided that he wanted to send two of his children abroad for further studies. Doyin, one of my half-sisters and I were chosen to go. Our ages were close; I was seven, she was six. So, we went abroad to a primary school; having just left Our Lady of Apostles Convent School in Yaba.

When we got to England, one of the first things we noticed was the harsh wintery weather. We started in September 1959 and we were there for almost four years. We had to learn the English Language properly with the white girls as we were the only blacks. They could not even pronounce our names, so we got the nick-names Flo and Doy. Flo stuck with me for many years and I have a lot of friends who still call me Flo. I remember that they liked to ruffle our hair while describing it as ‘fuzzy wuzzy’. We made friends and settled in, school was great.

Four years later, my dad said it was time for us to come back home. When he said that, the principal of the school asked him why he wanted us back, since we had not yet completed our studies. He said he did not want us to lose our culture and, in any case, we had been away for a while. We didn’t go on holidays throughout our stay abroad. The only holiday we had were with my half-sister’s aunt, who lived in Manchester. I did a lot of housework during our holidays and I got used to it. I didn’t mind it, because my mum had taught her children home chores and made each one of us useful to ourselves.

When we were about to leave, the principal suggested to my father that he should leave me behind, that I was a brilliant child and that they were willing to offer me a scholarship. My father said no, that it had nothing to do with funding. So, he rejected the offer and we went back to Nigeria and back to the same house that we left in 1963.

Our parents had to look for schools for us. We went to several schools and they conducted exams for us; I passed everywhere I went. We eventually ended up in a school in Sagamu. They didn’t give us any tests, because the principal was happy to admit ‘awon omo ilu-oyinbo’ (kids from the white man’s land). We were placed in Class One. My sister left after the first year, but I stayed. I got into trouble in Class Four. I was one of the ringleaders in a school riot. I can’t remember what prompted the riot, but I know everybody was running helter-skelter, everything went haywire as we made trouble in the school. I got sent home and had to bring my mother back with me. The principal told her everything that we had done, pardoned me and I returned to school, but not before I was scolded.

I remember that I got involved again in another school riot and ended up in African Church Grammar School, Abeokuta. That was where I did my O-levels. Later, while I was waiting for my new passport, I enrolled at Adeola Odutola Comprehensive High School, Ijebu Ode to start my A-levels.

Returning to England and then back to Nigeria

While I was schooling in Ijebu Ode, I had decided that I wanted to go back to England. I was feeling very nostalgic about those earlier years. As soon as my visa was ready, I went back to England. This was, of course, sponsored by my parents again.
Just before that, my father had asked me what I wanted to be, and I told him that I wanted to be a lawyer. He discouraged me because he did not want to invest heavily in his female children, and insisted I enroll for Secretarial Administration.

He buttressed his argument with what seemed like a joke: that lawyers were not really getting enough clients but solicited from door to door. That was what he felt was best to save his money, since he had so many children to raise. I thank God that he sent over three-quarters of us abroad to study, because he didn’t have much of an education himself. In fact, my mum never even went to school.

I went back to England to study secretarial administration. What was required of secretaries then, in terms of qualification and speed writing, was 120-words-a-minute. I had passed the 130-words-a-minute examination, and I was already trying to put in for my 140-words-a-minute exam. And then I got a job, since I had exceeded the requirements for a secretary. So, I went to Nigeria and started working as a secretary with the former Ooni of Ife, Late Oba Okunade Sijuade. I worked with him for a year and a half.

Within a week or two of arriving in Nigeria, I met the man who was to become my husband at a party which my brother, my sister-in-law and I attended. That was where he spotted me. From that day, in December 1972, a day has not gone by that we would not speak to each other whether at home or abroad, till tomorrow. We courted for three and half years, got married and now have four sons and grand-children to the glory of God. He’s a lawyer by profession.

I was from a polygamous, Muslim home, and had married a Christian. However, when we met, he was not really attending church. Since, we were from different religious backgrounds, we agreed that we would allow our children decide which religion to practice when they grew up. Therefore, on a typical Sunday, he would be gardening, I would go to the market to buy foodstuffs and the children would be watching television.

Some defining moments and turning points

I have had several defining moments and turning points in my life. One of them is the story about my first trip to England, which I have told you about. That was a turning point for me. At the age of seven, a young girl travelled to England, left her parents behind, didn’t know what I was to come across or the challenges I would face. I had gone to a different country with a different culture and climate, I had to make new friends and had to learn new ways of life and behaviour. That was a big turning point, it was a defining moment in my life. While I was there, I was groomed, I discovered my talents in lawn tennis, I became a Brownie. I was a very bubbly and very inquisitive child who wanted to know about everything around me, a child that was never satisfied with just sitting down and twiddling my thumbs; I loved challenges, I wanted to get on to the next thing at every stage in my life and I wanted to excel in everything that I did. So, life was exciting for me; I loved life and I was full of it. Those were the experiences that I had from that defining time of my life.

Another defining moment for me was also when I changed jobs, after the one and half years I spent with Sijuade Enterprises. I started working with a bank that had just come into Nigeria. It was a Merchant Bank, called the First National Bank of Chicago. I was the Secretary to the Managing Director; but titled Executive Secretary to Management. There, I learnt a lot about office policies and procedures, and it helped me, later in life, to be able to run my own organisations, including Famfa Oil.

I moved into different sectors of the bank. I was there for 12 years and even, at some point, became a banker. I did an in-house banking course with bankers,some of whom had MBAs.At the end of the course, I came fifth among our 11-member class. I felt good. I was,and still am, a goal-getter, very focused, and I was always putting my best into whatever I was doing. I was always going the extra milein order to excel, so I always put my heart into whatever it is I am doing; I did everything with passion and I still do.

There was a time when, having worked with the first three Managing Directors of the bank, I was moved to head a new department, which was the Corporate Affairs Department; I did well there, before I was moved into banking proper to the glory of God.It was the Treasury Department. Treasury is basically likened to trading with money; so, I saw it like what I had already been born into, growing your money, growing your business, growing whatever and multiplying it. So, I was making money for the bank.

I remember instances when I was in that bank, I would go abroad on a Friday night, bought jewelries, returned on Monday morning and sold to my friends. I wasn’t touching my salary at all. I would also buy suitcase loads of scarves, and sold them to retailers. I was using my free time to trade. I was born into a family of traders and I didn’t know how to keep still. Even the profits I was making were being ploughed back into my capital and it grew.When the Indigenisation Decree came I started buying shares. And because I was working in a bank, I had the opportunity to take a mortgage loan. I got the loan, added my own savings, built a one-storey house with a bungalow at Ipaja and let it out. I love business. I was born into it and it’s in my blood. I’m always looking for something new to do, to take me to the next level.

After a while, I began to get dissatisfied with my job, not because I was not enjoying the work I was doing as a banker, but because I felt the bank had not been fair to me. There came a time when I realised that new staff were being put in more senior positions including my department, the Treasury Department. I thought that was unfair, because we were doing the same work. I drew the conclusions that it was because they were graduates though they were not doing better than I was.So, I was hurt in my spirit and I felt it was time to move on. I decided to resign; but before I did that, I ensured I remained focused despite my anger. I thought about what I wanted to do next; I said to myself, ‘but Folorunso, you’ve got talent. You’ve got talent with clothing, why not develop your creative abilities?’. It was the time that Nigerians were looking inwards. This was in the 1980s. So, I decided to leave to study Fashion Design. I registered in a fashion school in England, submitted my letter of resignation to the MD but he refused to accept it, though, I told him I had made up my mind. He said he would give me a few more days to think about it. But I had already paid my school fees and nothing would change my decision.At that time, I was already done with child bearing, discussed my dream with my husband and had his blessings. The agreement was that I would go to England with our two youngest children, because our oldest two were already schooling there. I agreed and I went with the last two, enrolled our third child in school with his elder brothers and went with the nanny that looked after the youngest, who was then only two years old. That was how we worked it out; and every six weeks, my husband would come and visit us. For one year, I didn’t come to Nigeria, but he kept coming and I continued my studies; I did very well, came back to Nigeria and set up my fashion business.

Within three weeks of launching my label, I entered a fashion competition and won. It brought me into the limelight. So, Nigeria and Nigerians began to know me. The organisers of the competition were Daily Times, which was the most prestigious newspaper in those days. They would introduce me to different people and take me on many courtesy visits. I met the high and mighty, people from all walks of life, and they would even bring beauty queens on courtesy visits to me. The visits were always publicised in their dailies. This helped to boost my business. It increased my clientele base at home and abroad. People would order for clothes to sell to their friends abroad. Women were lining up with bags full of fabrics, waiting patiently for their turn, some for hours. Meanwhile, there was no time for me to eat anything; I was losing weight and was overwhelmed with work. But I enjoyed what I was doing and was very passionate about the fashion industry.

I became reasonably famous but not a lot of fortune. We were charging ₦130 for an outfit in those days. But it seemed like a fortune and some thought my services were expensive, yet they would come back the following week to place more orders.

Therefore, getting into the fashion competition was another defining moment for me, because I won it. When I was invited to take part, I initially felt like backing off because it was only two days after the launch of my label. However, I reminded myself I was not one to run away from challenges. So, I filled the form and three weeks later, I won the competition. That was a major turning point for me.

Another turning point, of course, was marriage and having my first child. Those were defining moments – when I became a wife, a mother and a grand-mother.

Also, another major turning point was when I got into the oil business.

Transitioning into the Oil and Gas business

My foray into the Oil and Gas business was unplanned. I believe it was part of God’s plan for my life. Sometimes one may discover that if God is leading you along a path, if you don’t do the right thing at the right time, you may miss your destiny.

On one of my visits to our children who were studying in England, I met a family friend of ours aboard the airplane. She informed me about a business transaction she was trying to broker through one of our mutual friends in Nigeria, but she promised to give me the transaction if our friend had not been able to get it moving by the time we returned home from our trip. When we got back home to Lagos, she sent me the documents through her driver. Basically, what she wanted me to do was to help broker crude oil lifts for clients she was representing. I got an appointment with the then Petroleum Minister and stated my mission. He informed me that the business was a low margin transaction and furthermore the government of the day was no longer disposed to selling crude oil to multinationals except those that are willing to invest in Nigeria. I informed my friend of my findings and told her to find out from her principals if they would be willing to invest in our country. To this; they declined. I handed her papers back to her and that was the end of the transaction.

Then I sat down and said to myself,‘I had a foot already in the door of the Petroleum Minister, would it not be foolish of me not to take advantage of this open door?’. So, I spoke to my friend and client,Late Dr. Mrs. Maryam Babangida, to assist me in securing another appointment and she did.Before I went the second time, I had consulted with some relatives who were working in NNPC for enlightenment on possible contracts. They suggested I should consider offering transportation services.

I presented my transportation services proposal to move crude from one location to another. He declined saying that the Government was already connecting pipelines nationwide and soon transportation of crude oil by road would soon become history.

I left and started consulting again on what other services I could render as I did not want the door to completely close in my face. The third time I went back, I offered to provide catering services for those on the high seas. He turned it down again. He now informed me the current government’s drive to empower Nigerians by awarding them oil exploration license thereby keeping the nation’s wealth within its borders rather than letting foreigners cart them away to go and develop their own economies.

I looked at myself and wondered what the man was talking about. I started thinking of the big corporations in my head. This was in 1991. I said to myself, ‘this man cannot be serious, he just doesn’t know how to tell me not to come back again, otherwise how can he tell someone who is completely ignorant about the oil industry to compete with foreign giants. All I wanted was just a small contract but oblivious to me, God had bigger plans.

That day, I left his office with drooped shoulders. When I got home, I cried my eyes out. But my husband consoled me tellingme it wasn’t the end of the world. He reminded me that we were comfortable and could meet our needs conveniently. But I couldn’t be consoled. That is not the way Folorunso Alakija was wired. So, just the same way I took on the fashion competition challenge, I decided to give it a fight. My husband teased me by calling me ‘Iya Elepo’ (oil merchant).

Though I was running a successful fashion business, I felt I could still accomplish more. I decided to give it a try. I thought to myself ‘there’s nothing to lose, but more to gain if I try’. I reminded myself that the big players in the industry also started from somewhere. So, I started making enquiries, crossing my T’s and dotting my I’s. I consulted with a friend of my husband who was an MD of an oil company and he guided me with my application for an oil license.

After about a year, the Petroleum Minister changed hands. I was rattled because my application had not been treated before he left. I tendered a fresh application and listed several onshore and offshore blocks as before. I also got technical partners as this was a requirement to apply.

Almost two years after submitting my second application, I received just a “receiving attention” letter. I cried my eyes out and again my husband tried his best to pacify me. After I was done crying, I again took courage and applied for the third time. When all seemed bleak with nowhere to turn, I developed a hunger to find God and the Lord Jesus Christ and gave my life to Him. And I said to God, ‘if only You will bless me, I will work for you all the days of my life’. I had read a portion of the bible that talked about covenants, that when you enter a covenant with God, He will do His part, but you must also make sure you do your part.

So, I took a leap of faith and entered into a covenant with Him, and I began to have some level of peace because I now had a Father who was my helper. I would embark on praying and fasting sometimes for 40 days at a stretch, growing steadily in my walk with God. I started appreciating everything around me, including flowers, plants and birds. I saw the awesomeness of God in all those things that I used to take for granted.

God began to show me revelations through dreams and I learnt to take matters to God in prayers, especially when I am looking for an answer for a difficult situation and God always comes through, when I ask, seek and knock as He says in Matthew 7:7.

At the end of three years, when the Babangida administration was leaving, the license came. We were holidaying, as a family, in Malaysia and had just arrived in the Philippines. I switched on the television to hear news from Nigeria that night and I received the biggest surprise of my life when I found out that we had been given an oil license.

I wasn’t the only one who applied. There were others that were allocated oil blocs during the Babangida’s administration without oil industry backgrounds but have performed like us. But I wonder why eyebrows have been raised about Famfa’s. Why did I get an oil bloc? I don’t know why they have not been asking why others got oil blocs. Is it because I am a woman?

But, guess what, my own was “supposedly” the worst oil block, looking at it from that angle at that time. Nobody really knew, except God, that there was something inside that bloc. Nobody wanted it. In fact, it had earlier been allocated to a big multinational and they rejected it. When, after receiving the license, my former technical partners said, ‘this is deep offshore, no thank you, we are not interested’. And why were they not interested? For the same reason that that multinational it had been allocated to years before returned it. The first reason was that the bloc was 5,000 feet deep in water. secondly, technology had not reached that water depth. Thirdly, it would be very expensive to explore.

So, I had this license, which seemed not to be even worth the paper on which it was printed. Nobody wanted it; it seemed of no use. But being the kind of person God created me to be, someone who would never give up, who would never take no for an answer, I decided I was going to hold on to it and see it to a conclusion. Besides, before we got to that stage, we had spent a lot of money, because there are fees that you must pay to the government after getting the license. We had put all our life savings in it, so I couldn’t look back. I had to see it to its logical conclusion.

For three years, we were looking for technical partners. But, the stone the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone. Today, the bloc is one of the most lucrative blocs in Africa.

On her philosophy of faith

· Seek Gods face before you embark on any project
Asking God first is one of the things that are guiding lines for me. I also, try as much as possible to do what the bible tells me to do.

·Work hard-back your faith with action
You can’t say that you are walking by faith and you are not backing it with action and expect it to work. It’s like sitting for an examination without preparation because you are a christian, of course you will fail. Therefore, you must learn how to do the right things at the right time and then let your faith back you. You should act; nothing drops on anybody’s laps. If you are willing to work for it, it will work for you.

There are those who say it’s because I made blouses for General Babangida’s wife that I was given an oil bloc. I will not reply them. God sees all human hearts. Even if, as we know that that was one of the focuses of the administration, if I had not applied and followed up with persistence or if I had accepted the negative responses and never gone back, I would not have gotten the license. Even after obtaining the license, others would have sold it out, out of frustration because of their inability to get technical partners for three years.

No one called me once and said,‘go to this place and you will get an oil license’ It never happened that way. I got my license just as others who did not sew for Mrs. Babangida got theirs. Why can’t they appreciate hard work? A door opened and I worked hard to get it. I wasn’t expecting oil exploration, but when God wants to define your destiny, He will not come down Himself but will make a way for you. Your destiny helper might be beside you and you could ignore him or her completely or even look the other way. You have missed it.

Where were they when I was doing all that fasting? Where were they when we put all our life savings into the project? What was the guarantee that we would even hit oil at all? Because if you don’t hit oil in commercial quantities, that’s the end of you. How many of them can take such big risks? Those that were allocating the oil blocs did not know what they were allocating. All they knew was that it was deep offshore and nobody wanted it.

What would people have said if we had hit a dry hole? I know what they would have said: ‘what’s the matter with her, serves her right, long-throat, what’s she looking for in the oil industry, was she not making clothes, was she not comfortable?’ That’s what they would have said.

·Let Jesus be your standard of living
The bible says we should look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We were taught to ask ourselves what would Jesus have done or said in a particular situation? How would Jesus have reacted? We were also enjoined to behave like Him and try to emulate Him and let there be less of us and more of Him in our lives.

·Strive for excellence
Another thing is that God is a God of excellence. I like to go the extra-mile. Where others would have stopped or gotten fed up,or turned back or given up. Folorunso has just started. I’ll continue and not give up, because I also believe that anything worth doing at all is worth doing well. Do it until you make something out of it, do it over and over and over again until you excel at it.

·Don’t be ashamed to start small
Those company shares that I bought during the Indigenisation Decree period, I still have many of them. The bible tells us not to be ashamed of little beginnings. So, start small, water your seed and it will germinate. Don’t stop, keep watering it. Back up your faith with action.

On philanthropy and the Rose of Sharon Foundation

God called me into it. He had blessed me and I felt a need to do something for Him. I wanted to give to God. I had developed a relationship with Him. Every relationship, friendship or partnership must be a two-way thing. You can’t just be asking and receiving all the time. So, I decided to ask God where He wanted me to serve Him. I was alone in my altar one day praying, reading my bible and fellowshipping in God’s presence. As soon as I asked the Lord, He dropped a scripture in my spirit. I quickly turned to find it, it was James 1:27. That was where God instructed me to visit widows and orphans and look after them. He also saidthat I should make myself spotless from the world just as He desires of all Christians.

So, I set up the Rose of Sharon Foundation and launched it on 23rd May 2008. Till date, we have empowered over 900 widows; 11 of our widows have gone to the university. We have given scholarships to 1,366 of their children, and almost 100 orphans have been given scholarships. As at December 2016, we have 110 beneficiaries that have graduated from the university. We now have an alumni body that we have just set up and they are enjoying it. All these gives me great pleasure and fulfilment.

On unwinding

I would love to unwind but I unwind with more work because I enjoy it. However, I slow down on Sundays when the family meets, having fun, relating with one another, eating, discussing and praying. I love Christian books, but I don’t have time to read them as I would have liked. I just skim through. I listen to Christian music, and I love to dance to both secular and Christian music. I start my day by greeting my husband with a kiss, then I go for my prayers.