She has dined with kings and queens, presidents and business leaders from across the world. She built an oil empire from the scratch. But Mrs. Folorunso Alakija, Nigeria’s richest woman, said the bed-rock of her enormous wealth as an entrepreneur is down to one h thing most: Faith in God!
“I look to God for every step I want to take in life,” she tells Guardian Woman.
Born in 1951 to the family of Chief L. A. Ogbara in Ikorodu, Lagos State, Alakija took the first step into the world of entrepreneurship by setting up Supreme Stitches, a tailoring company, which later morphed into Rose of Sharon House of Fashion. Her oil company, Famfa Oil, was granted a license to explore oil in 1993.
Alakija may be known by the world today as an oil magnate rather as a Nigerian fashion icon, but she tells Guardian Woman that being fashionable has never left her spirit though she quitted 15 years ago.
Being the Permanent Trustee of Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN) gives her the opportunity to still connect with the Nigerian fashion industry.“Fashion is my passion. It is part and parcel of my life and I will continue to be fashionable,” she said.Recalling how she started out as an entrepreneur, she describes her beginning as ‘awesome times’. “I started as a fashion designer making clothes for women and men, but with emphasis on women. I had a lot of clients from all walks of life, even from outside Nigeria. “Those were awesome times. They were challenging, fruitful and fulfilling. Fulfilling because I was doing something I enjoyed doing. I was creating what I wanted to create to make people beautiful. And beautiful they looked in my clothes. And they came to me with testimonies, accolades and compliments,” she said smiling.
“Even when I went abroad I would start getting compliments from the immigrations. I made my own coats for cold weather. I used aso-oke and velvet. I made them in different styles and colours and would make hats to go with them. That was fun. “We were not charging a lot. We were charging something like N120. But then, it seemed we were asking for arms and legs. But you know what, the clients kept on coming back. They complained and complained about the charges. But kept coming back for more.
Being a fashion entrepreneur in the days when technology, globalisation and social media were not at hand to aid business growth was not fun. But Alakija said she weathered the storm using her own formula. “I started with two flat [sewing] machines. It was difficult in those days because the good tailors were difficult to cage; they were usually working for no one. So getting the kind of tailors needed for business was hard. So we devoted energy to training and retraining of those we had.
“Then you have to be everything rolled into one. The cutter, treasurer, the secretary, the marketer, customer relations officer. You are everything you need to make the business grow. And your work is not finished until the client is satisfied. She said the fashion business was successful because she was able to react appropriately to the challenges her business faced then and because she made customer satisfaction a priority.
“We had to surmount challenges a lot. But we survived by becoming clever. We devised ways to market the company. I always made sure my clients were my advertisers. I made sure the clothes we made for them were the right fits for them.She eventually had to leave House of Sharon about 15 years when Famfa Oil became more demanding of her attention. Though she described the closing down of the fashion house as a difficult decision she had to take, Alakija said the birth of her oil company was a divine gift that could not be rejected.
“It was a door the Lord has opened. Must I reject it? It took a lot of hard work, a lot of pain and dedication, fasting and prayer.” “When I was looking for the oil bloc and it was not forthcoming, I turned to God. I knew there was God somewhere. It was at that point that I started searching for him. And I made a covenant with Him that if He granted me what I wanted, I would live for Him. And God has been doing His part and I’ve been trying to do mine. It is a vow that I must keep.”
As busy as her schedule could be, Alakija tells Guardian Woman that she reserves her Tuesdays for God, keeping faith with her covenant. She ministers every Tuesdays at the Rose of Sharon Glorious Ministry International – a ministry which grew from a house fellowship comprising five persons to a full-fledged Christian ministry with about 300 members. The ministry’s vision is “to restore the glory of the Lord’s people, release those in bondage, heal the sick and the broken-hearted and uphold marriages towards effective nation building,” says a message on her personal website. But her quest for nation building does not involve active participation in politics.
In 2014, there were rumours that she was interested in contesting for governor of Lagos State. Though she denied it at the time and during the interview with Guardian Woman, Alakija said she cannot rule out, totally, contesting in future. But her wish to do so would be solely inspired by God, she said. “I am not geared towards politics. However, it is said that you must never say never. I only listen to God. Whatever He tells me is what I do. But for now, He is singing it into my ears that politics is not for me. But if He tells it is time, it is time and I know He must have a reason for it.”But in spite of her unwillingness to go into politics, Alakija believes it is increasingly becoming obvious that the affairs of the world cannot be piloted by men alone. She said the present realities in the world call for a concerted effort from both men and women.
“It has gotten to the stage where men alone can’t do it. They need the support of women. And more women should support women. They should empower other women because it is in togetherness that we can begin to make a difference. Alakija has been married for 40 years. She has been able to manage her business and home because she has been able to prioritise what is important in her life, she said.
“I put my husband in the position of God’s representative in our home. I obey God and submit to my husband. I make sure we communicate. These two things are key to our relationship and for any sort of relationship between man and woman. You need to know your position, you need to know your level and make the best out of it. I believe it is important for a woman to know her position in a marriage. She said doing the right things at the right times and having a listening ear have also contributed to the success and longevity of her marriage. At 65, Alakija dedicates her youthful and healthy look to God. “I feel younger than my age in my heart and in my body, to the Glory of God. I know it is not my doing. I hate exercise. I use whatever excuse I have to avoid the trainer. I don’t eat right. I know the way I should eat but the nicer things of life are yummier than what we should eat.” “It would be nicer to get more involved in dieting may be I would look slimmer than this. But I started the dieting about three years ago when I found out that it can’t just be business as usual. I was not exercising my body; I ate whatever I liked and late into the night sometimes. So I feel good at 65 and I pray to live longer than this.
Today she does not count her success in terms of how much she’s worth but in terms of her relationship with God and how she’s been able to positively impact lives of people around her.
“I chose to hold on to the cross and look up to him every step of the way. Today additional accomplishment includes a wife of almost 40 years, a mother, grandmother, ministry, counselling, outreach, NGO Rose of Sharon Foundation for widows and author, writer, author of several inspirational books.”