AFRICANGLOBE – Forbes in November of last year rated her as the wealthiest woman in Africa with an estimated net worth of $600 million, while Wikipedia describes her as the richest Black woman on earth with an estimated net worth of $ 3.2 billion. But there is more to Mrs. Folorunso Alakija than business and money, as Yemi Adebowale found out during an encounter with her in her office on Victoria Island, Lagos recently.
The business mogul is the group managing director of the Rose of Sharon Group comprising the Rose of Sharon Prints & Promotions Limited; Promoskills Limited and Digital Reality Prints Limited. She is also the Executive Vice Chairman of Famfa Oil Limited and the majority shareholder of a highly lucrative offshore oil block.
Business aside, this amiable woman is equally deeply involved in philanthropy and Christian Ministry. Her Rose of Sharon Foundation helps widows and orphans by empowering them through business grants. To date, the foundation has empowered 2926 widows. 1,150 widows’ children and 67 orphans are currently on scholarships at tertiary level institutions. She has equally been very active in missionary work. Her Rose of Sharon Ministry “has been winning souls for the Lord while also restoring the glory of Gods children.”
Effors to interview Mrs Folorunso Alakija commenced about five months ago. Calls to her phone numbers obtained from contacts in the oil and gas industry did not yield any result as they were always switched off. At a point, it was as if the interview with the Famfa Oil boss would never materialise. However, a couple of weeks ago, a message sent by this writer to Tony Elumelu, former Group Managing Director of UBA, did the magic. He offered to talk to her and she agreed to the interview. And so, I was face to face with the amiable Mrs. Alakija last week Thursday evening. The venue was her Famfa Oil premises on Victoria Island. At 62, this Ikorodu-born self-made billionaire was looking 30 years younger. This cool-talking woman would also be a hugely successful motivational speaker if she ventured into that field.
Her responses to questions, particularly her thoughts on how to get Nigerian youths off the unemployment market and other life challenges testify to this. Again, at every point during the interview, she tried to de-emphasise the issue of wealth. Mrs. Alakija does not want to be seen from the perspective of a billionaire business woman, but as a hard working Nigerian business woman creating jobs, helping the needy and youths, and contributing her own little quota to the development of her beloved country.
Her rise to fortune is a perfect story in hard work and perseverance. She started as a secretary in a company called Sijuade Enterprises Limited. She also worked as a secretary at the defunct International Merchant Bank, before going into business. When was her first foray into business? What was the experience like? “My foray into business started when I left my job in the bank to set up Supreme Stitches, a fashion designing outfit. That was in 1986.
I had gone to the United Kingdom to learn fashion designing and returned home to set up the outfit. It was launched in Surulere, Lagos, on November 1, 1986. On the first working day after the launch, I was invited to participate in a fashion competition organised by Times Leisure Services, an arm of the defunct Daily Times. They were the only one into fashion competition at that time. Initially, I was not interested in taking part because my label had just been launched.
“But I was persuaded to participate. But being who I am; usually, I don’t like running away from challenges. So, I decided to participate; I also saw a challenge in it. Three weeks later, the competition took place and by the Grace of God, I won and things have not been the same ever since. Daily Times gave me huge publicity as the 1986/87 Designer of the Year. They introduced me to a lot of people in the society, through courtesy visits. I also visited eminent people and organisations. I got huge publicity and my client base grew to the glory of God. That was my first business.
“Supreme Stitches started in Surulere. It was this fashion company that metamorphosed to Rose of Sharon House of Fashion. The company later changed to Rose of Sharon Prints and Promotions. After I left the fashion line, I went into printing. We are into different kinds of printing like monogram, which is like embroidery. I also went into heat transfer printing i.e. transferring heat to T-shirts and stuff like that. We are also doing picture transfer into mugs, cups, plates and things like that. We also went into large format printing and large scale production of T-shirts. But because the quality of the materials we were getting locally for the T-shirts were not good enough, we had to suspend that and we started to import the T-shirts. We are also into screen printing.
The printing business grew. Our customer base grew and our clients also asked for all sorts of souvenirs. So, we began the importation of souvenirs from China in bulk containers. We printed on them locally. It has been interesting. We later set up a new company entirely for the large format printing, also in Surulere. You must be wondering why we are using Surulere for most of our businesses. The area is central and accessible to most of our clients. The printing arm of my business is still active while fashion is out of it.”
Mrs. Alakija is associated more with Famfa Oil these days than the other three firms in the Rose of Sharon Group. Famfa Oil owns the majority shares in a lucrative oil block located 70 miles offshore Nigeria in the central Niger Delta. In 1996, she entered into a joint venture agreement with Star Deep Water Petroleum Limited (a wholly owned subsidiary of Texaco) and appointed the company as a technical adviser for the exploration of the oil field, transferring 40 per cent of her 100 per cent stake to Star Deep.
Petrobras, Brazilian national oil company also owns a stake in the oil block. So, how did the Famfa Oil Story start? “The Famfa Oil story started in 1991 when we applied for an oil block. We got the license in 1993, but we did not get a technical partner until 1996 because our location is in a deep offshore area.
“At that time, oil drilling technology had not gotten to where we are today. Our own field is over 1500 metres deep offshore. So, it was too expensive to explore. As a result, would-be technical partners were not willing to partner us because it was too expensive to explore. They were also not sure if the field would be able to pay for itself.
They were careful in case we did not find oil in commercial quantity. Famfa Oil was in a limbo for sometime. Within those three years, the industry was not standing still. Gradually and slowly, more knowledge emerged about deep offshore drilling. Then, Texaco approached us. They had done their homework very well about deep offshore field and were willing to partner any indigenous oil company with such field. So, we got talking. Eventually, we signed an agreement after about three months of negotiation. The rest is history.”