Fatumata Coker: Making Golf an Inclusive Sport

From her distinguished career in global markets to her pioneering role as the first female captain of the Lagos Golfers Club, Fatumata Coker, Afrinvest Securities’  Board Chairman, is making significant contributions to the Nigerian golfing community. With a focus on philanthropy and community development, she tells Vanessa Obioha her mission to promote inclusivity within the golfing world.

The golf section of Ikoyi Club 1938 buzzed with activity on a recent Wednesday afternoon as members gathered for the Annual General Meeting (AGM) preceding the election. Throughout the bar, restaurant, and foyer, members congregated in clusters, indulging in drinks, lounging, dining, and engaging in lively conversation. Amidst this bustling scene, I spotted Mrs. Fatumata Coker, the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Afrinvest Securities Ltd, elegantly attired in Ankara fabric that complemented her figure, her chic bun adorned with sprinkles of grey hair adding a touch of sophistication to her appearance.

Coker was in the company of a colleague, awaiting lunch. As she savoured a meal of amala and okra soup, she drew parallels between Nigerian and Liberian cuisine. She noted how Liberia’s wolor soup resembles Nigeria’s Ogbono soup in its slimy texture and highlighted the similarities between dumboy, a Liberian dish made from cassava, and pounded yam and fufu, both staples in Nigerian cuisine.

Over the past 15 years since relocating to Nigeria for work, Coker has remained connected to her African roots by opting for African prints in her attire, diverging from the corporate pants and suits she once wore during her time in America.

“Like 30 days in a month, you will be lucky if you found me without the African print on,” she said in a soft-spoken voice.

Similarly, she embraces her natural hair, preferring styles like the Back to School look. She often opts for braids or a bun.

“My hair is so fine. Typically, people relax their hair within two months, mine is twice a year.”

Despite not speaking Pidgin or any Nigerian language fluently, Coker could grasp a few words from conversations. She credited her understanding of Nigerian culture to Africa Magic on DStv, where she avidly watched Nollywood films and Nigerian TV shows.

A distinguished leader in both global and emerging markets, Coker hails from Liberia where she spent her formative years. She relocated to America during the civil unrest and spent nearly a decade working for IBM. Subsequently, she was headhunted by Microsoft to oversee their business operations in Africa, starting with Anglophone Africa before covering most of West, Central and East Africa.

Coker has held various leadership positions across different companies since then. She currently serves as the founder and Group Chief Executive Officer of YGroup Holdings Inc., Chairman of the Board of CreditRegistry, and an Advisory Board Member of ReEnergy Africa, among other roles.  Given her technology background, Coker is concerned about the implications of artificial intelligence (AI), particularly regarding the uneducated parent population in Africa.

“Our kids are exposed to these things and parents are clueless. That’s the scariest thing I feel every time I hear these things, especially for the African continent which is the youngest population in the world.”

She emphasised that children are exposed to and brainwashed by some of the information they find online and without parents’ guidance, it is a threat to society. She therefore argued that digitally conscious parents should help protect those who are not and their children as well as help urge the government to include parents in discussions about policies.

“They need to be able to say what they want for their children even if they are poor, they have the right to decide what information is shared with their children.”

Outside of her professional endeavours, Coker is a prominent figure on the golf course. She recently made history as the first female captain of the Lagos Golfers Club.

The club is renowned for its fundraising efforts in support of cancer patients.

At Ikoyi Club 1938, she holds the position of lady captain for the golf section of the lady subcommittee.

Coker’s foray into the Lagos golf scene was through the Ikeja Golf Club.

“I didn’t have a handicap at the time and a friend introduced me to a pro, Saibaba. I think he is the best,” she said glowingly of the pro.

Saibaba played a pivotal role in igniting Coker’s interest in golf. With her husband’s support, who facilitated her membership at Ikoyi Club 1938, they embarked on a journey to Saint Andrews in Scotland to delve into the history of golf. It was during this trip that she discovered the origins of golf as a gentleman’s game.

“It makes you want to be better because every time you play, you want to beat your last goal.”

She continued: “Every golfer is thriving to come lower and lower to that even par of the course they are playing. I do well in Lakowe because it is built for me and I hit really hard and I strike my ball for green in regulations. If I’m playing a par 4, I need four shots to be even with that hole, if I play three, I beat the hole, if I play five, the hole beats me,” she explained passionately.

So far, the lowest she has played is 76. Her goal is to play 72. “At first my goal was to be a single handicapper. I have met that goal, now the next is to be par with a golf course.”

To be sure, Coker was never athletic as a young girl. “I didn’t like nobody throwing a ball at me. I didn’t like anybody rushing at me. I didn’t like anybody making contact. I was just one of those kids who didn’t like such physical activity.”

Coker’s journey into golf began during her time at IBM, where the company fostered a culture of volunteerism among employees. Through IBM’s support, she engaged in extracurricular activities for children in inner cities.

“Once a year we would do a golf tournament to raise funds and introduce them to new techniques of the game and so forth. I became interested.”

Even though she initially played golf as an amateur, Coker’s skills were far from amateurish, as noted by friends who admired her efficiency on the course. By her fourth year, she invested in her kit. Upon fully relocating to Nigeria, it was only natural for her to bring along her golf equipment.

While there are various perceptions about golf, with some not considering it a sport and others associating it with older individuals, Coker shared a different perspective.

“It is built for every age group. My children started playing it young. As long as you can work and be healthy, you can play golf. We have ladies in their eighties playing golf here (Ikoyi Club 1938). And it keeps them going. It is not an elitist game as many think because if you put it that way, a lot of people will not be playing golf. It’s a lifestyle. It’s like wanting to eat healthy. It’s expensive but it doesn’t make you elite.”

Expanding on the topic, she delved into the historical origins of golf, elucidating how the game’s early enthusiasts, primarily skilled in carpentry, crafted their own clubs, inadvertently contributing to the perception of elitism surrounding the sport. She further highlighted the historical gender dynamics, noting that golf was initially exclusive to men due to societal norms dictating women’s attire at the time.

Despite the evolving acceptance of women in golf, Coker disclosed that many clubs still maintain gender-segregated sections except Lakowe Golf Club, where players of all genders mingle on the greens.

“But also what I have found out is, maybe it’s the traditional culture but women here like to be separated.”

In her view, women sometimes exhibit behaviours that contradict their desires. She illustrated this with an example: while aspiring for inclusion in executive positions within companies, some female CEOs organise conferences exclusively for women, which undermines their aim of inclusivity and setting an example for gender diversity.

Coker could come across as a restive person as her colleague pointed out earlier but she respectfully disagreed. She saw her ability to multitask as her superpower, allowing her to navigate the demands of her professional roles with ease and efficiency.

“And it works in golf because you have to be decisive,” she said, likening the game to life, as her husband often remarked.

“If you tee off, you have to go to the bushes and figure out how to get out of there because you just can’t lay in the bush. And when you get out of the bush, where do you want to be? You have to think precisely how you want to do it because if you don’t have all of that in sync, you’d probably be back in the bush. You have to have the ability to think, strategise, have a trajectory, be very determined and not be emotional about it.”

Coker is grateful that she can play golf. She counted herself lucky to be among the less than 25 million people who play golf in the world. Therefore, she is determined to use the opportunity to influence as many people as possible. This year, she and her Lady subcommittee are working towards encouraging more people to play golf under the theme “Play Golf, Make a Difference and Chop Life.”

She expressed their intention to educate players on techniques for longevity on the golf course. Additionally, she and her committee are devising a charity programme aimed at supporting individuals in their community, particularly caddies and day workers without regular salaries, as part of their efforts to make a positive impact.

“This will help their individual development or maybe help them get out of the situation that they are in. As we all know, education or any kind of trade can actually change the trajectory of a generation. And we are happy to give 10% of everything raised from our tenure to that programme. So we can enable people to go and finish that degree that’s been on hold because they didn’t have the money or that trade that they started but could not complete because they didn’t have the money or pay for the exams of their children. Anything to help that trajectory out of a static situation, that’s what we’re looking forward to to contribute back to our community.”

Also, she and her Vice Lady Captain Peggy Onwu are expanding the children’s golf programme such that they can compete globally.

For the Chop Life part of the theme, Coker said it’s simple the women coming to the clubs to have a good time and playing golf as therapy.

“The world is crazy as it is. The golf course provides peace.”

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