The Story of Nigeria’s Richest Woman, Folorunsho Alakija

They say that whatever a man can do, a woman can do better. And that is exactly what Mrs. Folorunsho Alakija has done. 

In a nation of tens of millions of muscular, rigid and testosterone-infused men, some of whom believe the entire Universe revolves around them, she has managed to amass more wealth than many Nigerian men could ever comprehend, imagine or even dream of.

Like the stuff of legends, Alakija has broken the records, left countless tongues wagging, many souls stupefied with her incredible rise to the top of the financial ladder. Welcome to the dazzling world of Nigeria’s first female billionaire, FOLORUNSHO ALAKIJA. Fashion. Crude oil. Printing. Today, Abiyamo takes you on a currency-laced, money-laden and cash-spraying voyage, into the world of this woman, who stormed the Nigerian financial scene with the speed and terror of a thunderbolt –even if she never attended a university. She is worth $1.71 billion and is ranked one of the most powerful women on earth.

BIRTH AND EARLY DAYS: Well, unlike many other billionaires who fought various world wars and titanic battles with demons of poverty rising from stark and epidemic squalor before they built their own vast financial empires, Folorunsho Alakija was born with a platinum, sorry, silver spoon, in her mouth. She was born into the prominent family of the Ogbaras, whose generations were known and respected for their sagacity when it comes to monetary affairs and a great degree of financial acumen. In the year 1951, the family of Chief L. A. Ogbara in Ikorodu, Lagos State would be thrown into the spontaneous celebration of a new bouncing baby gurl (abi na girl, me I don forget the spelling jare). They named her Mofolorunsho (meaning ‘I hand over to God for His protection’). She says of her childhood:

‘It was a happy childhood, I enjoyed growing up. I learnt a lot with my guardian (Mrs.Coker), which was a totally different set-up to my mums. She taught us etiquette, how to sit at a table, went through our homework with us and it was from there actually that I left for England at 7’.
The Story of Nigeria’s Richest Woman, Folorunsho Alakija
Her step-sister Doyin, being the daughter of a favoured wife, aged 6 at that time was chosen by her father to travel overseas for her primary school education. He then decided that in order for Doyin not to be homesick, it would be good if someone accompanied her. A young son was initially chosen but the idea was eventually dropped paving the way for Folorunsho, who was seven at that time, to accompany her step-sister. Folorunsho grew up in a large family. Her father had eight wives and 52 children in his lifetime (now left with 46). Her mother was his first wife while she is the second surviving child.

EDUCATION: Upon turning seven in 1958, her parents sent Folorunsho and her step-sister, Doyin, to the United Kingdom where she started primary education as a fourth year pupil at the Dinorben School for Girls at the renowned Hafodunos Hall in Llangernyw, Wales. They went by sea and spent 14 days on the voyage on the MV Aureol. An aunt in Manchester was on hand to receive them. After studying at the private school for girls where they were the first coloured girls to attend, she returned to Nigeria and had her high school education at the Muslim High School, Sagamu, Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria. Later, she would be off to London for Secretarial Studies at the Central College in Pitman and then veered into the study of fashion design at the American College in London and the Central School of Fashion. She wanted to study law but her dad blocked the idea. Why? Read on.

FASHION CAREER, MAKING THE MONEY AND HOW SHE BECAME A BILLIONAIRE: In the year 1974, she began working with Sijuade Enterprises in Lagos as an Executive Secretary and later became the first head of Corporate Affairs at the defunct International Merchant Bank (IMB) where she even designed a corporate image/logo for the bank when the name was changed. Later, she moved to the First National Bank of Chicago (now known as FinBank) and was there for a while before moving to form her own tailoring company which she named Supreme Stitches. Her fashion house, now known as Rose of Sharon House of Fashion would later become well-known all over the nation. At a point, her influence in the Nigerian fashion scene was so great that she was made the National President of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN). Today, she remains the Permanent Trustee of the same organization that brought her to prominence, and then the billions.

In May 1993 during the regime of Nigeria’s military president and dictator, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, she applied for an allocation for an Oil Prospecting License (OPL) seeking to also try her luck in the lucrative Nigerian oil sector. But how did a talented tailor become a major player in one of the most profitable oil industries on earth? Okay, let’s slow down a bit. Remember Alakija was a most popular fashion designer in the 1980-90s. Over time, she became the designer of choice for many affluent clients and these included wealthy executives and wives of those in the Nigerian military top echelon. And since the military was in total control of Nigeria then, her fashion designing transactions with these influential Nigerians meant she had an unfettered access to the corridors of power. In 1986, a national fashion event was organized in in which she emerged a winner, clinching the Fashion Designer of the Year Award. In no time, Alakija became the favourite fashion designer to Nigeria’s most stylish First Lady, the late Hajia (Dr.) Mrs. Maryam Babangida who herself was an icon of fashion, elegance and style. Along the line, a smart Mrs. Alakija decided to utilize her ‘connections’ (is that not what we call it?) and went for the killer: oil.

Just days before IBB was chased out of office and fled to Hosni Mubarak’s hands in Egypt with his family, Folorunsho Alakija got the license/leasehold rights to explore for crude oil deposits on a 617,000-acre block (now called the Oil Prospecting License 216) on the 10th of August, 1993. Her company, Famfa Limited was now unstoppable. The oil block itself is situated at about 220 miles to the southeast of Lagos and 70 miles offshore Nigeria in the Agbami Oil Field in the central part of the Niger Delta with the water depths taken to be between 1,280 and 1,650 metres (4,200 and 5,410 feet).

Three years later on the 16th of September 1996, under the regime of the late General Sani Abacha, she decided to enter into a joint venture agreement (DOA) with Star Deep Water Petroleum Limited (a fully-owned branch of the American oil giant, Texaco) and in doing so, appointed the company as the Technical Adviser for the OPL 216, signing off 40% of her 100% ownership stake to Star Deep which in turn sold off 8% to another oil giant, Petrobras of Brazil on the 11th of May, 1998. That arrangement left Chevron with 32%, Petrobras with 8% and Alakija’s Famfa Oil with a controlling 60%, now said to be worth over $7.3 billion. In December 2004, her OPL 216 was granted a conversion thus becoming OML (Oil Mining Lease) 127 after the company discovered oil. Her fate with the billions was already sealed but there was a problem and she had to fight to the last.

The Nigerian Federal Government under the Presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo had forcefully acquired 50% of her OML 127 (leaving her with just 10%) using the cover of the Deep Water Block Allocations to Companies Back-In Regulation of 2003. Without wasting time, she headed for the court, filing a case at the Federal High Court in Abuja and the battle would drag on for almost ten years. In May 2012, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in her favour. The apex court ruled that the Minister of Petroleum Resources did not follow the due process in the acquisition even though the Federal Government had the right to make such acquisitions. Justice Bode Georges-Vivour ruled (NIGERIAN NATIONAL PETROLEUM CORPORATION (NNPC) VS FAMFA OIL LIMITED, (2012) 17 N.W.L.R. Pt 148/(2012) C.L.R. 5(a)(SC) thus:

“The agreement executed by the parties was done in clear violation of the provisions of paragraph 35 of the 1st Schedule to the Petroleum Act. It remains for all time a worthless piece of paper in the light of the long settled position of the law that parties even by consent cannot alter the provision of a statute.”

Still on how she hit it big, she narrated: In the fashion business, I met a lot of people and in the line of discussing with my friends over the phone and meeting up with one another, we got a call from a friend and, we learnt that this friend of ours had business associates who wanted to buy crude oil. We applied for several oil fields and at the end of it all which took about three years, we were allocated an oil field which no one wanted at that time because it was deep offshore and it was a block that was very very expensive to exploit at the time because it was over 1,500 metres deep and eventually when we were almost giving up hope, we were approached by Texaco in late 1996 after they had done a lot of homework on it. Of course, we were novices in the industry and after about three months of negotiation, we signed the dotted lines. To the glory of God, we struck oil in commercial quantities and we were told that oil has been collecting in the field for 17 million years. We just consider ourselves very lucky to have been allocated that oil field and they regretted it of course but the rest is history now.

Please note:
Agbami is one of the deepest and largest offshore oilfields in Nigeria and the Agbami FPSO (floating production, storage and offloading unit) operated by Star Deep Water Petroleum (but designed and co-operated by Chevron) is one of the largest in the world, capable of producing up to 250,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Agbami is one of the biggest discoveries in the Gulf of Guinea and commercial quantities of oil were discovered there in 1998.

Agbami crude oil is of the finest quality, it is described as a light sweet crude with a 45 degree API gravity, little or no contaminants or sulphur content. The oil field boasts of an estimated 2.1 billion STBO (stock tank barrel oil) with P50 recoverable reserves of 1.0 billion STBO.

LOVE, ROMANCE AND MARRIAGE: In the November of 1976, she married her lawyer sweetheart, Modupe Alakija. Her husband, Modupe and her four sons are all involved in the running of Famfa Oil. Her husband is the Chairperson of Famfa Oil while she remains the Executive Vice President. Of her marriage she says:
“No marriage survives without love, respect and support from the couple’’.

“My husband is my best friend, biggest adviser and supporter. We’ve known each other for 40 years and have been married for 37 years now with four boys.

Even though we work in the same office, I always ensure that we kiss twice in a day, morning and night. I still wash his undies until six years ago that he insisted I should stop.

I also prepare his special vegetable dish, does his manicure and pedicure regularly. I also go to the airport to pick him whenever he is returning from foreign trips.

It gives me joy whenever his friends praise my vegetable dish based on what my husband tells them during discussions.’’

CHILDREN: Their marriage has produced four sons all of whom also studied overseas. In July 2013, it was reported that she bought four new customized Mercedes Benz G-Class (G-Wagen or G Wagons, see photo) for each of her four sons. Below are also some of the photos during the wedding of her son, Ladi to Lolade Cardoso, a graduate of Business Finance from the University of Manchester. Ladi finished law from Warwick University in the United Kingdom and works with Rotimi Williams & Co., a Lagos-based law firm. Below are photos from the wedding of her son, Ladi:

HER INVESTMENTS AND PROPERTIES: Like every other billionaire out there, Mrs. Alakija also has a fulcrum on which her wealth rests, and these are: crude oil, fashion and printing. As at the time of writing this, she remains the Group Managing Director of The Rose of Sharon Group (which comprises The Rose of Sharon Prints and Promotions Limited and Digital Reality Prints Limited which does monogramming, designing and screen printing for promotional and gift items) and Executive Vice Chairman of Famfa Oil Limited. Also, she is said to own the ultimate status symbol: a private jet (likely a Bombardier) and prime real estate in Lagos and Landan ?

CONTROVERSIES AND CRITICISM: Just like every other part of the world where billionaires are assailed for raping the system, tilting the scale in their favour and then spraying crumbs to a bedazzled public all in the name of charity, Mrs. Alakija has also been subjected to her own fair share of criticism (not like she’s bothered anyway). There are some Nigerians who think she is just one of those who got incredibly wealthy just by ‘knowing someone at the top’ and taking unfair advantage of a system that is breathing in corruption and exhaling graft. They claim that the billions she has is not as a result of any outstanding product launch or any stellar business acumen but just being in the right place at the right time. Same has been said of Aliko Dangote, the world’s richest black and Otunba Mike Adenuga, Nigeria’s second richest man . Actually, there is no way one can amass a billion American dollars without attracting some controversy and a copious amount of bile from the populace. That’s just the way it is.

- This amiable woman and Nigeria’s first female billionaire owns one of the largest indigenous crude oil exporting companies in Nigeria. Her Agbami reservoir has been in operation since 2008 and it will be operating until 2024 when most of its oil reserves have been extracted. In other words, there is every possibility that she will be far richer than her current status as the years roll by. She is currently seeking to expand her already vast business empire. Who wouldn’t?

- Folorunsho Alakija never attended any university. Not that she did not want to but because her dad (who went only through the primary school) had other plans for her. Alakija wanted to be a lawyer because her father felt her studying law was too long and was a waste of money spending so much on female education.

- The Agbami FSPO was constructed by a South Korean fir, Daewoo Shipping and Marine Engineering and then shipped in absolute secrecy to the Gulf of Guinea in 2007. It took two years to build. Located right in the middle of the ocean, the Agbami FSPO generates all its 75megawatts of electricity all by itself.

- To put her wealth in proper perspective, her Famfa Oil owns 60% of the 250,000 barrels of oil per day coming from Agbami (that’s an incredible 150,000 barrels of gushing crude). That is about 6% of the entire 2.5million of crude produced per day in Nigeria, and that is more than the ENTIRE equity production of the French oil giant, Total in shallow water Nigeria despite Total’s four offshore fields and its position as the fourth largest producer of Nigerian crude. In a word, she’s BIG. Very big.

- She is of a Muslim background but with time, she settled for Christianity which she champions today with vigour and passion. In May 2012, she said at a church event:

“My husband’s mother was Igbo, while her dad was from South West here. And because of this, my mother in-law never wanted a Yoruba woman to marry her son. She was not comfortable also with my Muslim background then. She wanted an Igbo daughter in-law, but my husband said it’s me or nothing.

It was a tough battle until God finally prevailed… Whenever she wanted something from my husband and was not getting it immediately, she would start attacking me and saying I’m the one stopping her son from doing her biddings.

It was also an issue when she asked for a baby girl from me and I could not give her. I have four boys in my marriage… At some point, I was encouraged to fight back by my husband, but I refused and kept praying to God to change her.

Despite my mother in-laws opposition towards me, I made sure we took her to US and UK on holidays with us severally and kept showering her with unconditional love. My joy is that we settled before she passed on.”

-She has launched her autobiography and is titled Growing with the Hand That Gives The Rose.

–While studying as a primary school pupil in the UK, her British classmates could not pronounce her name (Folorunsho) and decided to call her and her sister (Doyin) ‘Flo and Doy’. Many of her friends still call her Flo.

-At the age of 40, she became a religious person and that is still very visible in her actions and mannerisms today. She launched the Rose of Sharon Foundation shortly after that and she stated: Jesus is the Rose of Sharon. God has a relationship with everyone of us. Regardless of what your religion is, we all belong to Him.

–She stated that all she wanted to do was business and was not happy when while she was working in the bank, people with university degrees were being promoted above her and she felt it was time to move to another place and set up her own business. She then resigned and went back to England to learn fashion design, the year was 1985. Her youngest son then was just two and she had to go with her two youngest sons. In 1986, she returned to Nigeria as a fashion designer setting up her own fashion label which she called Supreme Stitches and by the end of her first year, she became one of the most popular names in the Nigerian fashion industry winning the Nigerian Fashion Award of the Year. Her own mum used to sell textiles and she was used to assisting her in her store. You can watch her interview on CNN below:

– To the glory of God, we actually struck oil in commercial quantities. –Folorunsho Alakija, February 2012, CNN African Voices.

- We try our best to bring hope back into their lives…the foundation has been able to fend for 2,751 widows and 963 widows’ children, 66 orphans and actually 11 widows at university through the foundation.” –Folorunsho Alakija, February 2012, CNN African Voices.

- I am a very proud Nigerian. I have travelled far. I have travelled the world over, I have been travelling since the age of seven…

- I started off as a secretary to a bank’s managing director but that was not what I wanted. It was my father that set me along that path.

- Nigeria is a land of opportunities. It is a land flowing with milk and honey.

- Money has nothing to do with love. Love comes from within. Money is something you acquire along the line. Only love keeps people together. From the time that we started courting, it has been like that, and we thank God that to His glory, we’ve known one another for 40 years. I pray also that God continues to unite us. I believe that if love is the foundation of a union, God will prove Himself faithful.

- I don’t see any reason why anyone shouldn’t successfully combine his or her faith with affluence. As far as I’m concerned, wherever we get to in life is not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done through us. If God does not approve our success, we can never get there but can only try!

So, if you’re blessed with fame and fortune, remain thankful and do not become boastful because pride goes before a fall. I’m grateful to God for making me who I am, and the way I am. I always look back and remember that nothing is as a result of what I have done but for what He’s done through me.

- The mere fact that you’re passionate about anything doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be successful in it. You may not make money out of it, but you’ll enjoy it. It does not guarantee your getting to the top of the ladder! It will put food on your table if you decide to make it a source of livelihood, and it will set you apart from others because it gives you place, but that still does not determine the degree of success. The sure fact however is that it will get you off the ground. Then if you add hardwork to it, it will get you on top of the ladder. – Interview with Vanguard, June 2012.

She is quite eloquent, you can watch her speak here at an International Women’s Week Celebration in April 2013:
HONOURS AND AWARDS- On the 1st of July, 2013, the Nigerian Federal Government inaugurated the National Heritage Council and Endowment for Arts and Alakija was appointed the Vice-Chairman of the organization.

A motherly billionaire, Mrs. Alakija is giving back to the society via her Rose of Sharon Foundation, a faith-based, non-profit organization. She specifically focuses on rendering assistance to some of the most vulnerable people in the society, and that includes widows and orphans. She assists them with financial grants to start or sustain their businesses while orphans also get scholarships. 

The foundation, which is also into social empowerment, was launched on the 23rd of May, 2008 at the Ball Room of the Eko Hotels and Suites.


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