Women for centuries have endured various forms of discrimination and prejudice. Many societies consider females inferior to males, as men are seen as more important figures, while women are relegated to the background in almost every aspect of the society. This gender disparity is especially common in many African societies. Because African customs have confined women to definite albeit lacklustre roles of bearing children and caring for the household, it is almost unusual to find women venturing into what is considered men’s turf and it is even a bigger amazement to find women excelling in such fields.
Women, especially African women have had to struggle against marginalisation and discrimination to pursue their dreams, realise their ambitions, have their voices heard and have their legacies printed on the sands of time. Perhaps, this is why Ayn Rand in the process of actualising her dreams stated that “The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Women have realised that they need to work twice as hard as men to achieve success as their dreams won’t be accomplished in docility, nor will their voices be heard in timidity. One of such courageous African women of substance is Nigerian Businesswoman Folorunsho Alakija, the Group Managing Director of The Rose of Sharon Group and Executive Director at FAMFA Oil.
Background and Education
Folorunsho Alakija was born on the 15th of July, 1951 to Chief L. A. Ogbara who had 8 wives and 52 children. Folorunsho’s mother was a fabric merchant and at a tender age she assisted her mother in her business. As a result, she learnt a lot about fabrics, textiles and merchandising.
At the age of seven, Folorunsho travelled to the United Kingdom for her primary education at Dinorben School for Girls in Hafodunos Hall in Llangernyw, Wales. After four years, she returned to Nigeria at the age of 11 to pursue her secondary education at Muslim High School Sagamu Ogun State, Nigeria, and then returned to the UK for her secretarial studies at Pitman';s Central College, London. Later in 1984, she proceeded to study fashion design at the American College, London and the Central School of Fashion.
Folorunsho began her career in 1974 as an Executive Secretary at Sijuade Enterprises, Lagos, Nigeria. She then gained employment at the then International Merchant Bank of Nigeria where she worked as the Secretary for 12 years. Driven by her passion for fashion, Folorunsho left the corporate world in 1984 to study fashion designing in the UK. She returned to Nigeria a year later to start her fashion company – Supreme Stitches, which served many fashion conscious women, including the then First Lady of Nigeria, Maryam Ibrahim Babangida. A year after the establishment of her company, Folorusho was awarded the best designer in the country.
Folorunsho then renamed her fashion house ‘Rose of Sharon’ in 1997 with a vision to provide clothes for the modern woman for every occasion. Within a few years, Folorunsho’s fashion company rose to prominence as she combined ingenuity and creativity to create fashion styles that were widely accepted and applauded all over the world. Soon, ‘Rose of Sharon House of Fashion’ became a household name and as the national president of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN), she left an indelible mark, promoting Nigerian culture through fashion and style.
Desiring a new and challenging venture away for the fashion business, Folorunsho went in to printing business which gave birth to the establishment of the Rose of Sharon Prints and Promotions, as well as Digital Reality Prints. However, the business began to fail when the Lagos State government clamped down on the printing business because billboards were clogging up the skyline.
Folorunsho, a quick-thinking, intuitive woman took advantage of an opportunity to invest in the Nigerian Oil Industry by applying for the allocation of an oil prospecting license (OPL). Although it took a long and challenging time to acquire the oil bloc, the relentless woman faced down the challenges and finally acquired her oil licence. While describing her tenacity and dogged determination to acquire the oil bloc, she said “It took three years of not taking no for an answer and going back each time the door was shut in my face.”
The license to explore for oil on a 617,000-acre block—now referred to as OPL 216—was granted to Alakija';s company, FAMFA Limited. The block is currently located approximately 220 miles south east of Lagos and 70 miles offshore of Nigeria in the Agbami Field of the central Niger Delta. In September 1996, she entered into a joint venture partnership with Texaco and FAMFA was appointed the technical adviser for the exploration of the license. Five years later, Chevron bought Texaco, including the partnership with Famfa Oil.
Folorunsho’s growing oil business experienced another setback when the then government upon learning about the oil find, took 50% stake leaving Folorunsho with only 10% stake. The strong-willed industrialist did not sit by calmly to endure government’s infringement on her right. Despite contrary advices, she engaged the government in 12 gruelling years of legal battle which ended with the return of 60% shareholding to her.
Folorunsho may be a wealthy oil baroness with a smart head for business opportunities; she also possesses a heart of gold. She established a foundation called the ‘Rose of Sharon Foundation’ to help widows and orphans by empowering them through scholarships and business grants. Her company is also a major sponsor of the Agbami medical and engineering scholarship scheme, a scheme which awards scholarships to over a thousand people yearly. As part of her commitment to support education, Folorunsho in 2014 donated a considerable amount of money to Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University Lapai, the Niger State University, which was used to complete the construction of a 350 Seat Lecture Theatre named after her.
Folorunsho Alakija is a self-made billionaire, who at one time was the richest black woman in the world. As of 1st of February 2017, Folorunsho according to Forbes Magazine is rated as the 80th most powerful woman in the world and the 14th richest African with a net worth of $1.56 Billion. Folorunsho has also authored several books which include her autobiography, “Growing with the Hand that Gives the Rose”, “The University of Marriage” and “The Cry of Widows and Orphans”. The 66 year old billionaire has been married to a lawyer, Modupe Alakija for 40 years and their fruitful union is blessed four children.
* Mrs Folorunsho Alakija and her husband, Modupe Alakija
The odyssey of Folorunsho Alakija’s rise to fame and fortune is a one fraught with turbulence and overwhelming challenges. She did not throw in the towel when things were not going according to plan. She rose against every obstacle with dogged determination and exceptional tenacity until she weathered the storm and emerged victorious. She was not put down by intimidation, neither was she fazed by rejection. Her rise to prominence at a time when African women are forced into the shadows is a testament that to the fact that she is indeed a woman of fortune.