Folorunsho Alakija: An Amazon in Corporate Nigeria

Folorunsho Alakija’s story has no parallel in this part of the world where opportunities for women, especially in the business and corporate world are limited by social obstacles such as gender bias and cultural fixations. Her stubborn determination to succeed at all cost and dedication to hard work catapulted her from the obscurity of the Nigerian fashion industry into the company of global billionaires. According to Forbes she is the second richest woman in Africa and the third richest person in Nigeria with an estimated wealth of $1.290 billion.

In 2014, she won a landmark case against the Federal Government of Nigeria, a rarity for a woman, and she immediately displaced American broadcaster and actress, Oprah Winfrey, as the richest black woman in the world. That immediately brought her global attention. Mrs Alakija, 65, is a proud owner of 60 per cent stake in Famfa Oil Limited, where she is the Executive Vice President. The other 40 per cent is jointly owned by global oil giants, Chevron and Petrobas. That is how big Alakija is.

But how did a fashion designer, whose name barely resonated beyond Lagos and Abuja, became so wealthy? She tells her own story in an interview with Forbes last year. “I met a friend of mine on a flight on my way to England and she asked me if I could help her get partners to be able to lift crude oil from Nigeria. So, I called around and set up an appointment with the Petroleum Minister but he discouraged me. He asked “Are these people willing to invest in Nigeria because the government did not want to encourage more foreigners to come and lift its crude? I asked my friend who said they didn’t want foreigners to invest in Nigeria and that was the end of that”, says Alakija.

As it later turned out, Alakija’s encounter with her friend on the flight to England was an act of providence. Because after her friend decided not to invest in the Nigerian oil industry, Alakija decided to make use of her new contact, Maryam Babaginda. Maryam was the wife of Ibrahim Babaginda, the former president of Nigeria under military rule. As a customer of Supreme Stitches, Maryam was able to secure another appointment for Alakija with the Petroleum Minister, Jubril Aminu.

“I finally got another opportunity and I wrote an official letter saying I would like to offer transportation services to the oil sector. The minister’s feedback was he didn’t think it was a good idea because the government would soon be doing away with the trucks that were being used to transport crude oil and replace them with a lot more pipelines instead. So, I asked “what am I going to ask for now?”

He said, “Why don’t you think of exploration?” He said the government wants to put the resources on its land in the hands of its nationals, because it feels that it is about time that Nigerians begin to exploit their own resources rather than let multinationals continue to take away our wealth. I gave up on the issue at this point. I thought he was being sarcastic and that he didn’t want to help all along”, she says.

So, she walked away from the opportunity. But, then, with some prodding from her husband and children, she decided to pick up the challenge. But before showing up at the minister’s doorsteps again with a letter of intent, Alakija had already found her technical partners and it was now a waiting game. To her surprise, the oil minister was replaced and Alakija had to restart the whole process again. She kept pushing. Everything seemed to be going according to plan when the second oil minister was also replaced.

She finally had her oil block in the 1990s, but the battle was far from over. “When I was making the application, I listed several blocks. I didn’t want to take a chance on someone else taking my block. So, I applied for several blocks and the one I was allocated was the one nobody wanted because it was deep offshore and nobody was exploring deep offshore because it was too expensive to explore and there was no technology around to explore that initial depth of 5,000 feet at that time”, says Alakija.

At first, it seemed Alakija had drawn the short straw. It took her an additional three years to find new partners after her initial partners pulled out. After years of knocking on countless doors, one opened when Texaco finally showed up with an offer. Five years later, Chevron bought Texaco, including the partnership with Famfa Oil.

After receiving a signature bonus, out of which Alakija was able to pay the balance of the license to the government, Alakija started working with her new partners. Chevron set up an office four months after signing the partnership contract, with Alakija holding on to 60% of the shareholding of the oil block and Chevron taking 40%. Chevron later sold 8% stake to Petrobras in exchange for their deep offshore technical expertise.

“You can find oil, but if what you have spent is more than the quantity of oil available within the block to make your money back in multiples, then it was not worth carrying on and you cut your losses. You could even have a dry hole after spending millions to explore. So, when we found oil in commercial quantities, they said they had to announce it to their shareholders and it has been a battle ever since”.

The announcement of the major find in Alakija’s oil block by Chevron attracted the attention of the Nigerian government that had initially assumed that the oil block was one of the worst due to its location. The government snatched an initial 40% stake from Alakija, followed by another 10% stake, leaving her with a meagre 10% stake. She felt it was unfair and began a legal battle with the government which dragged on for 12.

While the legal fireworks lasted, she and her family were scorned at and deserted by friends, who felt she was being greedy instead of being contented with the 10 per cent. According to her, even her adviser then didn’t believe anything positive could come of the legal conflict. She ignored any advice or promptings to pursue the matter in court and persevered. After 12 years of intense legal battle, the courts ruled in her favour and returned the 50% stake to the Alakija family. Ever since then, the coast has been clear for the Alakijas to make their fortune from Nigeria’s cash cow, oil.

But, before hugging the oil wealth, Alakija had other interests in so many things. One of them is her fashion brand, Rose of Sharon, which remains a household name in Nigeria. She runs a high-tech printing business that employs more than 100 staff, while she is also a big player in the thriving real estate sector in Nigeria.

Alakija is not in the mould of the insatiable who fends for himself/herself alone. Rather, she believes in the injunction that: “Give and it shall be given unto you”. She is a giver with a large heart. Her charity outfit, Rose of Sharon Foundation, supports multitude of widows and orphans in immense ways. Aside that, Famfa Oil also engages in community related programmes such as giving scholarship and medical help to thousands of people in the Niger Delta are, all in the quest to give back to the society. She also gives her time to mentor women who look up to her as role model.

Alakija is happily married to Tokunbo Alakija, 75, her husband for 40 year, and they are blessed with four boys and several grandchildren. She loves to refer to her company, Famfa Oil, as a family business and quite frankly she is right. Her husband is the Chairman, and her four sons are Executive Directors. She has several books to her credit, one of them is “Growing the Hands That Gives the Rose”.

There is no gainsaying the fact that she is one of the most celebrated women in Africa because of her humongous accomplishment in business. She is a role model to millions of young women on the continent, who aspire to climb to the top of the corporate ladder but are sometimes hindered by unfair barriers. “You have to start from little and then grow to a conglomerate. It is one step at a time and while doing this, do not forget your responsibilities to your spouse, children and God’,’ she admonished young women at mentorship seminar in Enugu





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