Just before her 66th birthday last month, Folorunso Alakija met with Solomon Elusoji at her Victoria Island office. She is a woman not afraid of change and the uncertainties that come with it
She came into the conference room late. But when she did, donning a pale violet jacket and her trademark spectacles, she apologised for the timing. Her day had been packed with meetings upon meetings and the interview was only an interlude. “I would love to unwind but I unwind with more work because I enjoy it,” she said.
Folorunso Alakija’s world, to many, appears to be a fairytale, a cut-out from a Disney Happily-Ever-After. This June, global media went crazy reporting about one of her sons’ lavish wedding, which had been held at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. But it is a mistake to assume that Alakija holds a romantic worldview, or that she subscribes to the kind of hedonism that is sustained on divine grace, like French Monarchs before the revolution. Her story, her journey, the script that she has written for herself, leaves no room for such a luxury.
The popular opinion held about Alakija’s fortune is built on the idea that she was lucky to be part of a crony system. The story goes that she was given an oil block because she used to sew clothes for Mrs. Maryam Babangida, wife to former Nigerian Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida. Apart from its coarse simplicity, the narrative fails to take into cognisance the complexity of success, even when providence has your back.
Alakija was born in Lagos, into a polygamous family of 52. Her parents didn’t have much schooling – her father only completed Standard Six, although he was a very successful businessman – but when she was seven, they decided to send her, together with one of her sisters, to England. “When we got to England, one of the first things we noticed was the harsh wintery weather,” she said. “We started in September 1959 and we were there for almost four years.”
Her four years in England would be one of the most important periods of her life. It was in England – where she attended Hafodunos Hall in Wales – that she learnt social intelligence, qualities which shone during the interview, in her speech and carriage. It was a sort of “grooming” – as Alakija herself put it – that gave her an edge in the world. Being just one of two black girls in an English school, she learnt very early to stand out, to take on challenges head-on and to believe in her own uniqueness. She knew, early, that she was different, that she was special.
This feeling of specialness did not diminish when her father brought her back to Nigeria. In fact, it must have increased, because everyone in the neighbourhood was in awe of ‘the girls who had just come from England’. When she was sent to Muslim High School, Sagamu, in 1963, she found herself leading protests. Although she claims she cannot remember what it was they were fighting for, it was another sign that she had cultivated an inner confidence, a stubborn will to take on things and win.
However, when her wahala became too much for the Muslim High School authorities, they sent her home and she enrolled in African Church Grammar School, Abeokuta, where she sat for her O-levels. For her A-levels exams, she enrolled at Adeola Odutola College, Ijebu-Ode in 1969.
While she was in Ijebu-Ode, though, she made up her mind to go back to England. “I was feeling very nostalgic about those earlier years,” she said. So her father sat her down and asked her what she wanted to be. A lawyer, she replied. But he was sceptical about the earning power of lawyers, although Alakija suggested the real reason was that he did not want to invest heavy in a female child. Instead, he sent her to Pitmans Central College in London, where she acquired a Secretarial Diploma.
As a young secretary, Alakija was intense. Normally, in the 70s, what was required of secretaries, in terms of speed writing, was 120 words a minute. But by the time, she had gotten her diploma, Alakija was pushing 140 words a minute. “I like to go the extra-mile,” she said. “Where others would have stopped or gotten fed up, or turned back or given up, Folorunso has just started.”
When she came back to Nigeria, she got a job as a secretary with the former Ooni of Ife, late Oba Okunade Sijuade. She worked with him for a year and a half, before joining International Merchant Bank in 1974, where she served as Secretary to the Managing Director.
During her time in the banking sector, Alakija moved her ambition gear to a different level. Despite having no university degree, she took several in-house trainings to improve her competency. It was impossible to ignore her.
Having worked as secretary for three Managing Directors of the bank, she was moved to head a new department: Corporate Affairs. While there, she took more trainings, competing with bankers who had gone to Business School. Later, she was moved to the Treasury Department, technically becoming a banker herself. “It was in banking I learnt a lot about office policies and procedures,” she said, “and it helped me, later in life, to be able to run my own organisations, including Famfa Oil.”
Alakija’s banking days also provides an important lesson on how to become rich: leverage on capital. When she was in that bank, she would travel abroad on a Friday night, buy jewelleries, suitcases of scarves, return on Monday morning and sell to her friends and retailers. “I wasn’t even touching my salary,” she said. She ploughed back her profits into her capital and grew her trade. During the indigenisation decree of 1979, she bought company stocks. She also delved into real estate, securing a loan and adding her savings to build a one-storey house and a bungalow at Ipaja, then let it out. “I’m always looking for something new to do, to take me to the next level.” The capital she built over the years would be instrumental when she needed funds to apply for an oil license.
This restlessness of hers, this ever-expanding ambition spirit, finally led her to a contemplative moment in 1985, when she decided to resign from her bank job. “I felt the bank had not been fair to me,” she said, because it could not no longer accommodate her burgeoning ambitions. “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.”
Moving on simply meant switching gears to a field where she could dominate. This was a woman who was not ready to play second fiddle. She yearned to be on top and was ready to put in the required work to achieve her dreams.
What followed her resignation was a resolve to study Fashion Design at London’s Central School of Fashion. At the time, she was already married with four children. But family, too, wasn’t going to be an excuse for not chasing her dreams. She struck a deal with her husband. “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 her fashion label, Supreme Stitches, in Nigeria, she entered a fashion competition organised by Daily Times, the leading and most prestigious newspaper house at the time. She had initially felt like backing off from the competition, because she felt she had just launched her label. What if she was not ready? But “I reminded myself I was not one to run away from challenges,” she said. She won the competition.
The win catapulted her into fashion limelight. Daily Times wrote about her extensively, took her on a variety of courtesy visits to society’s high and mighty. She started to sew clothes for beauty queens, government officials, all sorts of important people. “People would order for clothes to sell to their friends abroad,” she reminisced. “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.”
Sewing clothes was, of course, how she struck a close friendship with Mariam Babangida, who got her appointments with the then Petroleum Minister when Alakija was trying to help a friend facilitate a foreign oil deal. It is a perfect illustration of how the gift of a man will bring him before kings, and not before mere men.
Her romance with the Petroleum Minister started on a frustrating note. He rejected the foreign oil deal she had gone to see him for. But, since she already had a foot in the door, she saw an opportunity. “All I wanted was just a small contract but oblivious to me, God had bigger plans,” she said.
She did her research on what business she could get into in the oil sector and came up with a transportation service, moving crude from one location to another. But the minister didn’t buy it, noting that government was already connecting pipelines across the country. She went back and returned with a proposal to offer catering services for offshore oil workers. Apparently exasperated with Alakija’s biting persistence, the minister specifically told her that the focus of the Babangida administration, as it related to petroleum, was to empower Nigerians by awarding them oil exploration licenses, thereby keeping the nation’s wealth within its borders, rather than letting foreigners cart them away.
“I looked at myself and wondered what the man was talking about,” she said. “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.”
She left his office with drooped shoulders.
That she went back to take the minister up on his suggestion is stunning. This was a woman running a successful fashion business and living a very comfortable middle-class existence with her lawyer husband and four children. But she still felt she could accomplish more. More importantly though, she showed she wasn’t afraid of change and the uncertainties that come with. Her husband by her side, she started the long process of applying for an oil license and, unknown to her then, a battle for her soul.
Before getting involved in the oil license application, Alakija was a peripheral Christian (she had been raised Moslem). But when, after two years of submitting a second application (the Petroleum Minister changed) and spending most of her savings on the process, she sunk into despair and sought divine help. “I developed a hunger to find God and the Lord Jesus Christ and gave my life to him.” Her faith became an extra layer of armour with which she forged through what was perhaps the darkest parts of her life. “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.”
At the end of three years, when the Babangida administration was leaving, the license came. But, on the surface, the bloc which she had been allocated was hopeless. It had earlier been allocated to a big multinational and they rejected it. Even her technical partners said “this is deep offshore, no thank you, we are not interested.” The bloc was 5,000 feet deep in water and the cost of exploration – using the technology available at the time – would be prohibitive.
“So, I had this license, which seemed not to be even worth the paper on which it was printed,” Alakija told this reporter. “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, she looked for technical partners who would take a chance on the project.
Today, the bloc is one of the most lucrative in Africa, the engine that has driven her incredible fortune. Far from being a jackpot phenomenon, her success was the result of a deliberate spirit who was ready for opportunity when it came knocking.
But stemming from her Christian beliefs, Alakija holds that she owes everything to God. On May 23, 2008, she set up a non-profit, Rose of Sharon Foundation, to empower widows and orphans. “God called me into it,” she said. “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.”
The nonprofit Foundation has empowered over 900 widows – 11 of whom have gone to the university – and more than 1,366 scholarships have been doled to their children; about 100 orphans, too, have received scholarships. “As at December 2016, we have 110 beneficiaries that have graduated from the university,” Alakija said. “We now have an alumni body that we have just set up and they are enjoying it. All these give me great pleasure and fulfilment.”
After speaking for almost two hours with this reporter, Alakija glanced at her watch again and said “I have just five more minutes left.”