Africa is home to men and women whose success and wealth rival those of developed nations. Many of them started out with nothing more than a great idea and the will to succeed. But today, are billionaire industrialists.
These women and men of power have thrived in a continent that has long struggled with poverty, corruption, and degradation. And while many others migrated to seek better opportunities, they saw Africa’s potential and chose instead to remain. In the process, positively influencing the economic and social lives of people within and outside their nations.
This is the success story of Folorunsho Alakija, the second wealthiest woman in Africa. As a woman with an empire diversified in fashion, print, real estate and oil & gas, her resilience to fight and persist until she attained success is an inspiration to many people around the world.
Folorunsho Alakija’s Beginnings
On the 15th of July 1951, Folorunsho Alakija was born into the Ogbara family of Ikorodu, Lagos state, Nigeria. She is the eighth child of her father and her mother’s second child. Alakija was raised in a Muslim polygamous home, surrounded by 52 siblings and seven stepmothers.
Back in the days, the Ogbaras, late Chief Ogbara and his wives, were involved in the textile industry. Whenever Folorunsho Alakija was home for the holidays, she would wake up very early and head to her mother’s fashion shop. This was where and when her love for fashion took off. At a young age, she could combine colours excellently and creatively design fabrics of any type.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial home informed Folorunsho Alakija’s character. Under the informal tutelage of her parents, she learned how to manage a business and make it successful through great work ethics. Folorunsho Alakija and her siblings were taught to open up the shops early, handle customers properly, and manage to also manage the business’ finances.
Her mother, though uneducated, was a smart businesswoman who kept working hard even in old age, despite her daughter amassing great wealth.
For her primary school education, Folorunsho Alakija attended the Dinorben School for Girls at Hafodunos Hall, Wales. After that, she returned to Nigeria for her secondary school education at the Muslim High school in Sagamu, Ogun state.
At first, Folorunsho Alakija’s wish was to study law, but at that time, very few fathers were willing to fund their female child’s university education. Most Nigerian parents believed that there was no use in educating girls since they would get married and become another man’s property. Sadly, Folorunsho Alakija’s father was one of them. And so, she had to find other ways to become financially independent.
Her Corporate Sojourn
In 1970, she travelled back to the U.K and got her degree in secretarial studies from Pitman’s Central College, London. However, she knew that working in the corporate world would never give her the kind of success she wanted. It was the love for fashion that spurred her on to quit her secretarial job. She went on to pursue degrees in fashion design at the Central School of Fashion and the American College, London.
Folorunsho Alakija got her first job at Sijuade Enterprises in Lagos where she was a confidential secretary (1974). She worked there for about 18 months before going into the banking industry. Her second corporate job was at the former First National Bank of Chicago now known as First City Monument Bank (FCMB).
When it was clear that she wasn’t going to be promoted along with her peers, Folorunsho Alakija knew it was time to move on. Already, she had a flair for combining different fabrics and creating original designs. So taking a bold risk, she quit her job and travelled to England to study fashion design.
The Supreme Fashion Designer
In 1986, after she got her degrees, Folorunsho Alakija returned to Nigeria to set up her business, Supreme Stitches. That enterprise was unlike any other tailoring business. It was the start of a mega fashion brand that ladies in Nigeria and across Africa would strive to wear. She recognized the need for a fashionable yet wholly Nigerian/African look and took full advantage of the opportunity.
Just as the business started out, Folorunsho Alakija joined a fashion design competition. Her designs were so unique and creative that she won the contest and instantly became a sensation. Folorunsho Alakija built a fortune from designing and making high-end clothes for wealthy and successful women in the society. One of her clients was the former first lady, Maryam Babangida.
Supreme Stitches grew into a fashion powerhouse, influencing and reshaping the Nigerian outlook on female fashion and fashion in general.
In a short time, the business turned into a national franchise with women of different backgrounds and social classes wearing her brand. It got a point when local textile producers could no longer meet the level of demand. From what she realised, producing high-quality fabrics would mean travelling to Taiwan. Although they had the right amount of textile machines, Folorunsho Alakija was smart enough to know that the costs would cut into her profits.
Choosing to make do with locally produced fabrics, she began searching for ideas to broaden her fashion interests. Then it clicked. Supreme Stitches became the place where one could get monogrammed or screen written wears. It sold monogrammed t-shirts, tops, souvenirs, beddings and more.
In 2002, the name Supreme Stitches was changed to Rose of Sharon House of Fashion. But today, the business has grown from just a fashion business to the Rose of Sharon Group. This consortium includes two print media companies and a real estate enterprise.
The Oil Baroness
The fashion icon’s leap into the oil and gas sector was an unprecedented move. Her connections to clients with political clout gave her the opening she needed to get started.
Interestingly, the oil baroness previously had little plans to go into the oil and gas industry as she had been looking out for government contracts. The idea and opportunity came about when a friend of hers asked her to make inquiries about the crude oil lifting business on her behalf.
The minister she spoke to was more interested in people who would invest in Nigeria’s petroleum industry. Her friend wasn’t interested in oil production, but Alakija saw it’s potential. In May 1993, Alakija’s new company, Famfa Oil Limited applied for the allocation of oil prospecting license (OPL).
Her application was approved, granting her the right to explore 617,000 acres of the Agbami oil field in Central Niger Delta. While powerful and rich Nigerians with oil blocs’ allocations turned over their OPLs to foreign companies, Alakija kept hers. The fact that she had no experience or expertise in the oil business did not deter her.
Three years later, (September 1996), Alakija led her company into a joint venture contract with Star Deep Water Petroleum Limited. The agreement included the transfer of 40% stake of the license to the Star Deep Petroleum with Alakija as the majority shareholder. She also appointed the company as a technical adviser on license exploration matters.
In the year 2000, the first appraisal well unveiled recoverable stores in the surplus of 1 billion barrels of oil equivalent. But before Alakija and her associates could reap the benefits of their efforts, the Nigerian government seized a 40% stake in the company.
They ordered Famfa to hand over 40% stakes to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation with immediate effect. An offer of remuneration was never on the table. That left Famfa Oil with just a 20 percent stake in their investment. In 2003, Famfa applied for a conversion from an Oil prospecting license to an oil mining license (OML).
A year later, the application was approved, and OPL 216 changed to OML 127. When it seemed that things were about to get better, the government struck another blow. Unsatisfied with 40% percent shares, it forcefully acquired another 10% stake.
Their actions brought chaos. Everything she and her family had worked for, all their sacrifices and investments were snatched up. But Folorunsho Alakija was a woman of power and strength. Backed by her family, she went into battle with the Nigerian government. For 12 years, she fought back against her oppressors in and out of courts.
At the end of those hard years, her persistence and courage won her a remarkable victory. In May 2012, the Supreme courts returned what was rightfully hers. And all attempts to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision failed.
Now, Famfa Oil Limited is a top earning Nigerian oil company with Chevron and Petrobras as its partners.
The Rose of Sharon Foundation
Folorunsho Alakija’s success story would not be complete without an account of her tremendous impact on the society. Her desire to help people, to meet the needs of others, and to see people succeed inspired her to create the Rose of Sharon foundation. She founded the NGO with the aim of empowering women, specifically widows, orphans, and children.
Her foundation has changed the lives of thousands of people in many ways. It also set up primary to tertiary school scholarship programs, granted interest-free business loans, and enabled widows and the youth with skill acquisition programs.
Her Positions, Awards, and Recognitions
Folorunsho Alakija holds six honorary degrees and a fellowship at Yaba College of Technology. She became the first female Chancellor in Osun State University and Nigeria’s first female chancellor on the 9th of March, 2016. She is one of the Lagos Business School Alumnus and member of the Commonwealth and Investment Council Advisory Board. She is on the Advisory board of the Center for African Studies, Harvard.
In 2014 and 2015, she was on Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women in the World. In the July 2013 inauguration of the National Heritage Council and Endowment for the Arts, Folorunsho Alakija was appointed vice chairman of the committee.
Recognised as one of the champions of African Entrepreneurship, she was named Chief Matron of the Africa’s Young Entrepreneurs (AYE) NGO. She is an acclaimed public speaker, a writer, and has also authored several inspirational books.
Her dedication to the Nigerian fashion industry earned her the presidential seat at the Fashion Designers Association of Nigerian. And after serving two terms, she is now a lifelong Trustee of the association.
In 2014, she was named the richest woman from an African descent, a position that was previously occupied by Opera Winfrey.
Folorunsho Alakija’s success story is a tale of hard work, persistence, courage and the will to break through barriers. She not only created a $2 billion enterprise but has crafted a legacy that will last for generations. Alakija has succeeded in building her empire, marriage, and raising upstanding kids.
Still fully active in the business world, she is involved in the management and strategic planning of her oil and real estate companies, Famfa Limited and Dayspring Property Development Company Limited. The 67-year-old Mogul is the Group Managing director of the Rose of Sharon Group and the Executive Chairman of Famfa Oil Limited.
She is a living proof that success is not limited by gender, age, nationality or financial backgrounds, but rather, success is the product of courage to take risks and stand up strong in the face of adversity.
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