While Alakija was doing very well in her fashion business, with the who-is-who in her list of clients, according to her, she changed the name of her company from Supreme Stitches to The Rose of Sharon after a divine revelation.
Each of her companies were set up like four departments, which are:
Department for Fashion and Design,
Department for Souvenirs and Gift Items which where imported from China,
Department for Monograms, Screen-Printing and Picture Transfers on T-Shirts,
Department for Outdoor Advertising.
As an entrepreneur that she is, while she is deeply involved and doing well in the fashion, print and advertising industry, she was on the lookout for better opportunities.
“I wanted a new challenge; I was getting bored of the fashion business…"
The [Printing] Business did well for the first couple of years before it got into trouble when Lagos State Government started clamping down on the printing business because billboards were clogging up the skyline and her fledgling sales business plummeted.
Then something happened…
“I met a friend of mine on a flight on my way to England and she asked me if I could help her 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 said 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 to invest in Nigeria and that was the end of that.”
With that, the oil and gas opportunity came to an end, but her dogged determination transformed this negative conclusion into one of the most renowned success stories to come from Africa.
At that point, she decided to make use of her new contact, Maryam Babaginda, the late wife of Former Military President, Ibrahim Badamasi Babaginda, who as at that time was a customer of Supreme Stitches.
Through Maryam, Alakija was able to secure another appointment for with the then Minister of Petroleum, Alhaji Jubril Aminu.
“I went back and told the Petroleum Minister that I would like to render other services, like catering for the oil industry. He said there were already so many caterers on board various ships on the high seas, and as a result, there were no opportunities available.”
Although disappointed, she was relentless. So she decided to do some more homework.
After consultations with a close relative who worked for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), she was advised to offer transportation services for the petroleum industry, but it took a long time to get another meeting with the Minister of Petroleum.
“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 said ‘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 of its land in the hands of its nationals, because it feels that it is about time that Nigerians begin to exploit its own resources rather than let multinationals continue to take away our wealth."
"I had given up at this point."
"I thought he was being sarcastic and he didn’t want to help all along.”
So she went home and cried all night. She felt as if a major door had been closed.
But after seeking consolation from her husband, she went on to inform the First Lady of the outcome of the meeting.
“I told her that it was bad news and that the Minister of Petroleum wants to give me a heart attack."
However, she went back to do a lot more homework and consulted with a friend of her husband who was already in the oil and gas business. At the end of her research, she decided to not give up and officially apply for an opportunity to get an oil block.
Before submitting her letter, she had already found her technical partners and it was then a waiting game, but to her surprise, the Minister of Petroleum was replaced so she had to restart the whole process again and kept pushing.
While everything seemed to be going according to plan, the second Minister of Petroleum got replaced, but she still wasn’t ready to give up.
"Then third minister finally wrote me a letter to tell me my application was receiving attention. After two years, I got the letter and I cried my eyes out in frustration again at the snail’s pace progress the application was making.”
With that frustration, she went on a holiday to the Philippines, where she got the news of a change of government.
“I raced back to Nigeria to find that the previous administration had already done the oil block allocations before they left power and my licence was waiting for me."
"It took three years of not taking no for an answer and going back each time the door was shut in my face.”
At last, she got her oil block, but the battle was far from over.
She did not have the technology, expertise and money to start the process of exploration. But with the support of her husband, they used their life savings to secure the license or face losing it after the government threatened to terminate the agreement if full payment was not made.
“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 36,000 feet at that time.”
To worsen matter, her initial technical partners also pulled out. It took an additional three years to find new partners.
After years of knocking on countless doors, her persistence paid off.
“Texaco was already in Nigeria and looking to expand their business. They went to the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), who told them that Famfa Oil was looking for Technical Partners. So they linked us up."
"The license we had was not worth more than the paper it was written on until they came in.”
Five years later, Chevron bought Texaco, including the partnership with Famfa Oil.
After receiving a signature bonus, Alakija paid the balance of the license to the government, and 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 an 8% stake to Petrobras, a Brazilian Company 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 of oil block by Chevron attracted the attention of the Nigerian Government who 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.
“We felt like it was unfair. We had taken the sole risk and invested everything we had in the business. It had become a family business. We spent six years as a family to ensure this worked out and now that it was bearing fruit, they just stepped in and took away everything we had struggled and worked extremely hard for."
"I said to myself, ‘Folorunsho Alakija does not give up, my husband does not give up and my children do not give up.’”
The government's argument was that if Alakija and her family were allowed to keep their bloc, they stood to make $10 million a day.
Although, most of her advisers believed it would be impossible to win a legal battle against the Federal Government of Nigeria, but she ignored their advice and took the government to court. For her, the case was simple, Nigeria has a constitution and nobody, including the Federal Government, is above that constitution.
After 12 years of intense legal battle, the courts returned the 60% shareholding back to her.
“It was bittersweet. There were a lot of sleepless nights and battles."
But, after the victory in court, "suddenly we became the plague"
"Friends stopped picking up our calls and people were asking why we could not be content with 10 per cent."
"My husband was a rock, to myself and the family, during that time and I could not have done it without him.” - Folorunsho Alakija
Alakija has been married to Barrister Modupe Alakija since 1976.
They met a year after she returned to Nigeria from England.
They have four boys together.
The family resides in Lagos and her children are involved in the family businesses.
She is also known for her philanthropic work through Rose of Sharon Foundation which she started in May of 2008. The organization assists orphans and widows by empowering them through business grants and scholarships.
She has lots of landed properties both home and abroad but one of the most amazing homes she has is one which costs over $700 million dollars, which makes it the most expensive residential building in Africa.
The building is a masterpiece designed by Adeniyi Coker Consultants Limited (ACCL) and built by Julius Berger Construction Company.
Also, not many people can boast of having a private jet let alone a Nigerian woman. In this case, however, Folunsho Alakija is up to the task as her humongous net worth backs her up. She has one private jet which costs a whopping $46 million dollars.
Net worth: $1B
Awards and Recognition
1941 on Forbes Billionaire Ranking 2019
19 on Forbes List of Africa's Billionaires 2019
80 on Forbes List of Power Women 2016
87 on Forbes World’s Most Powerful Women 2015
Vice Chairman, Nigerian National Heritage Council and Endowment for the Arts 2013
“My desire was to study law but my daddy did not believe in investing in girls at that time.
“Today, I have no university degree, but God’s glory lifted me up and I have received numerous Honorary Doctorate Degrees at home and abroad.
“All of what you now see today has taken almost two and a half decades, so I am not an overnight success.
The success story of Folorunsho Alakija teaches us that success does not happen overnight.
Be inspired and inspire others
By William Ikiabo | 2019