In this interview, Folorunsho Alakija, the Nigerian billionaire businesswoman and philanthropist, tells MOBOLA SADIQ about her life at 70, business, family and other issues
Have you achieved all that you wanted at age 70?
Do you know that the goal post continues to change as long as one is alive? For as long as one is alive, one will always have other things to achieve. One can never achieve everything while one is alive. There would always be something that one would be aspiring to do or get. And, it might not be everything one wanted at a particular milestone; one could still be working on some. It is when one dies and gets to the ‘beautiful gate’ that one would know if one has achieved all. Right now, it is too early to say (that I have achieved all) because I still have more time.
What are the most profound lessons you have learnt about business and life in general?
About business, I have learnt that it is not every business one ventures into that one would succeed at. One would win some and lose some. But, when one loses, one should not give up or run away. One just has to keep trying. It is the mistakes that one made that would teach one lessons that one could apply to improve on subsequent attempts. I have learnt that one can turn one’s challenges into bigger and better opportunities.
As an employer in Nigeria, I have learnt that when one hires a staff, no matter what they tell one during an interview, one is going to find out that one would have to teach them a lot of things they said they could do. But, one must not throw the baby away with the bathwater. One should give them an opportunity to learn something new. Also, one must follow up with staff when one issues instructions. Set reminders and targets. At home, one would find out that children, no matter how young, are extremely intelligent. Children will test one’s patience and mood. Also, one should not be far away from one’s children. One should always be in constant contact with them. Children need to be guided and if parents don’t teach them, outsiders would teach them the hard way. Every child deserves the attention of their parents. When one is too busy with work or business, something could happen in their lives that could lead to regret.
In what ways are you grooming women to be successful in business?
We are doing that through ‘Flourish Africa’—a women empowerment movement. I came up with that because public speaking had made a lot of people reach out to me to become their mentors. But, I don’t have the time to mentor people individually. So, I decided to make it a group thing since they have common interests, goals and values. I set up Flourish Africa to help women to be who God created them to be and flourish.
Is this initiative for only Nigerians or other Africans as well?
We are getting there but an adage says, ‘Charity begins at home.’ We felt we should start in Nigeria before we spread our tentacles to other African countries and beyond. In June, we wanted to take some women to the Commonwealth Business Forum in Rwanda but it was postponed.
How does it feel to be re-appointed as the Chancellor of the Osun State University, Osogbo?
I thank God that nobody said, “Thank God, her tenure is over; good riddance.” It was the exact opposite. That means I have been doing something that endeared them towards me, to the point of re-electing me for a second tenure. It feels good to know that whatever I’m doing is being appreciated.
How do you combine being a Chancellor with your activities as a businesswoman?
The Chancellor role is not an everyday one. It is quarterly, and once a year, for convocation. They bring matters to my attention and I give advice. It does not take too much time
Women of your status in society usually have many traditional titles. Do you deliberately not have one?
Yes, it is deliberate. It is not for me.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a major scare in many countries, especially for elderly citizens. Did you at any point fear contracting it?
When the index case was reported in Nigeria in March 2020, God specifically told me, “Fear not my daughter. I have anointed the doorposts of my children’. So, I was going about my duties without any fear. As soon as the airports were opened, I travelled to countries I needed to go to, and I’m still flying. I initially said I would not take the vaccine because after all, God had spoken to me. However, my son convinced me to take it. He told me it was a precaution, so I just took the vaccine last month.
Do you have spiritual fathers that mentor you?
Of course, I do. One needs to. When one is confused about certain things, one needs a fatherly guide. One needs clarity and advice from them. They play the same role a biological father or mother would.
A lot of people say it is often hard for accomplished women to submit to their husbands. What’s your reaction to that?
That is a wrong notion. I have always submitted to my husband. The Bible says we should submit to our husbands and no one can rewrite the Bible. Also, one should not do things in ‘one’s way.’ Rather, one should do things in ‘God’s way.’ Husbands also have to love their wives. There is more demand on the woman to submit. They have to show one another respect. And, it’s not just about the money. One is also supposed to submit one’s money. In fact, one is supposed to submit everything that belongs to one. God no longer sees two people when one gets married; He sees one. Nobody owns anything more than the other (in a marriage).
Do you have any plans for retirement?
I am still feeling strong and fine. I still climb the staircase when I need to. And, it shall continue like that by God’s grace.
With your fame (as a billionaire), how do you cope with demands from different quarters?
I do as much as I can because I cannot please everybody. If anybody else were in my shoes, I don’t think they would do more than I have done. As long as I have satisfied my conscience by following God’s instructions and helping out as best as I can, then I’m okay. If one tries to please everybody, one would end up pleasing nobody. We all have to help one another. I cannot do it alone. That is why many affluent people are helping out in whatever areas they can.
Can you share some of your childhood moments?
I grew up in a polygamous home. My dad had eight wives and 52 children. My mum was his first wife and they both died about 12 years ago, one month after each other. They lived till 92 and 95 years old respectively. I thank God that we have longevity in our family. I went to England at the age of seven with one of my siblings who was six years old. I was there for four years without any visit to Nigeria. Those four years actually shaped a big chunk of my life later on.
I met different people, different culture, different language, different food and different lifestyle. I really learnt a lot in those four years. Those four years were bittersweet in the sense that I didn’t like the weather. But, we learnt new things. We lived there and ‘grew up’ with people from a totally different culture from the one we were used to, so we found it interesting. By the time we came back (to Nigeria), we had begun to ‘lose’ the Yoruba language to the extent that we mispronounced some words. However, I grew out of that stage and began to speak proper Yoruba again.
I am glad that we were brought back to Nigeria because I learnt a lot of things, such as not trusting everyone like I used to. It became clear to me that it is only God that one can trust. Man would always deceive and fail one. Over time, I bonded more with my siblings that were about the same age with me. We stuck together a lot and did not listen to some of what our mothers told us about the other wives. Then, we all started getting married and we were not seeing one another as often as we used to. But, the love that bonded us was still there.
There have been different phases in life. There was a time I thought I needed to leave the bank to pursue another career. I no longer saw a future for myself at International Merchant Bank where I used to work. We (staff) started noticing that over the years, the rate at which people got promoted was slowing down. The management began to create more ‘posts in between the existing posts.’ That meant I wasn’t likely going to become a manager quickly, so I decided to leave while I was still energetic and able to do something for myself.
I had always known at the back of my mind that I wanted to be a businesswoman. It was not just because I came from a background of businesspeople, but because it had been prophesied into my life that I went into business and did not remain a salary earner, I would make more money than my parents ever did. I always had it at the back of my mind that at some point, I would branch into business. I worked with the bank for 12 years and while there, there was no time I wasn’t selling one thing or the other to my friends. On weekends, I would ‘dash’ to Italy to buy jewellery.
Life was totally different then. We could sleep outside (our houses) on Lagos Island for hours enjoying fresh air. People didn’t really use air conditioners back then. There weren’t fences round the houses, and everybody in the neighbourhood knew one another.
At the time, I left the bank, people had started looking inward and fashion was at the top of the list of businesses that one could do, and it paid well. People used to say I was expensive and I would say, “No, you get what you pay for. It is not expensive”. Meanwhile, my clientele continued to grow because I just won a ‘designer of the year’ award and people were flocking to me. I was satisfying them because what I was making was different from what they had been used to. People used to come with suitcases. They would place orders and go on to sell the clothes I made in the United States of America, England and other places. There was a time some white Americans came to me and bought different kinds of linens. I still have some of them because they didn’t finish paying for the goods so I seized some of them.
Did you have a shop in London?
I never had a shop in London. But, I was able to make a couple of arrangements with some shops on Edgware Road in London, and they did very well with me but I learnt my lesson in America.
What’s your advice to young entrepreneurs, especially women?
Firstly, you must do your homework before you set out. You have to decide what line of business you want to go into. Not because your friend is doing it but because you have the ability to do it. You have to be able to hold your own. What are you gifted in? Don’t be a copycat. Why don’t you take it to the Lord in prayers and ask him, “What should I do?” I do that and get answers.
How did your journey in Christian ministry begin?
I knew the Lord (became born again) at the age of 40 when I was looking for an oil exploration licence. I had been struggling with that for five years before it came through. It was during that period I sought the face of the Lord and said, “Listen, this isn’t working. I know there is a God and I can find Him.” That was when I made a covenant with God and said, “God, if you would bless me. I would work for you all the days of my life.” From then forward, I saw a difference. He honoured his part and I am honouring Him.
You’re now referred to as Apostle Alakija. Is your apostleship ordained?
Correct! As a matter of fact, the revelation came three years ago and I was ordained then but I didn’t use the title until last year. Initially, I wasn’t planning to do anything for my birthday. I was just going to have a quiet day in the presence of the Lord but God said, “You are going to be ordained. You are going to become an apostle.” At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was the one thinking or I was hearing God. So, I reached out to various pastors and everybody came back with positive feedback. That was how I went ahead with it. I was ordained on my birthday last year by Pastor E.A Adeboye.
Was that why your dress sense changed?
Not because of the apostleship. By November, it would have been two years that God told me (in a dream) to stop wearing wigs. When I woke up, I said, “God, if this is you speaking, then you have to confirm it through others before I would take any step.” About 10 days later, I got a call from a married couple that God said ‘no more wigs.’ I screamed and right there, I undid my braids and did an afro to work. Meanwhile, I had just bought 12 wigs of different types and colours from England. When I went to speak at a T.D Jakes event, I wore a black and white wig and again at the crusade. That was the last time.
You have spent 30 years in the oil and gas industry. How would you describe your experience and what are those things you think need improvement in that sector?
The oil industry is a very challenging sector all over the world. But, do I really enjoy being in the oil industry in this country? If you compare it with other African countries, you would find that there is a lot of encouragement in other countries. There are a lot of incentives to encourage one instead of pulling one back, stigmatising or abusing one because one is a woman in a male-dominated sector. But, what has gender got to do with it? Did God say any particular sector is for men? It is unfair. The sky is big enough for every bird to fly. Why must we (women) be witch-hunted? I am talking from my own experience. There are those who say, after all, I got the oil exploration licence because I was making blouses for (a former First Lady), Maryam Babangida.
About three years ago, I got really fed up with all that was being said on social media about how I got the oil exploration licence. People were saying things they didn’t know about; all because they have not had an opportunity to be blessed by one in one way or the other. A blogger started another wave of it (rumours) online and I said I was going to reply the public. I sat on my desk at home and wrote one-and-a-half pages but just then, my phone rang. It was a pastor and he said, “Madam, God said I should tell you that if you believe He can help you, then don’t fight for yourself.” You would think I had called that pastor and told him all I was going through. At that point, I just dropped my pen. I then said, “Of course, I would allow God help me.” I told the pastor, “Sir, I am in the middle of writing. I want to put down everything from the beginning to the end and publish in all the newspapers because I am sick and tired of this.” I asked him why people were so unfair. After that, I dropped the pen and went to pray. About three days later, I was about leaving the office when I peeped into the door of one of my sons (all our children work in the family business).
He then told me that he would like me to look at something on his computer. It was what someone had written an hour ago about our company, Famfa Oil. He wrote about what a lot of people who are not in the industry don’t know. I told him to send it to me that I would read it the following morning. We printed it but the guy who wrote the article didn’t put his name or phone number. We eventually got to a foundation of his and asked him about the article he wrote in response to the blogger who had allowed a lot of people to abuse me online. We asked for his permission to publish his article because we felt it could only have been God. In response, he told me that he had been reading all that was going on online and he felt it wasn’t fair.
He said he did not know me but he needed to set the records straight. He said he spent about two hours writing it and put it online. Afterwards, people read the post and attacked the blogger who attacked me. All these are in my book which was released on Monday (July 12, 2021). I never expected all that to happen. That was God. When one says one wants to exonerate oneself, one would not get far. But when it is God, He shuts up the mouth of the Lion. It is one of the reasons I say that I wish I had given my life to Christ a lot earlier than I did 30 years ago. It is too sweet to know God.
Are you making the impact you hoped for when you started The Rose of Sharon Foundation?
Yes, there’s a huge transformation in the lives of the beneficiaries. Whether it’s the women or the children, there is a huge difference. Some of the people we trained are now doctors, lawyers and engineers. We were going to stop at sponsoring their first degrees but then, we took it a step further. At the end of every year, we give the best students scholarships for Master’s degrees.
At 70, what can you say has helped you sustain your marriage?
The native intelligence is communication, sitting down to talk about one’s issues and not lumping them up until one becomes bitter. Even the Bible tells us that one must not go to bed without settling issues one may have. Ideally, young couples should sit down and discuss what they want for their families.
As for us, we decided that we were going to treat all our children equally and that is what we did. One of the rules we put in place was that we didn’t want to have any child that would come home with funny hairstyles.
It is expected that the husband would be the provider of the home and the woman would be his helper. However, times are changing, so there is nothing wrong if the wife also works, rather than stay at home. But, she should never abuse him because he doesn’t have a job.
And for the men, don’t take out your aggression on your wives and don’t beat them. Support one another and have common goals for peace to reign.
What is your advice to young ladies on how to handle their men?
My advice is for them to respect their men; that is what the Bible says. They have to submit to their men. God will not support any woman who does not submit to her husband. Even if what the man is doing is wrong, God still expects the woman to submit to him. You cannot say you are submitting to God if you are not submitting to your husband. God won’t accept that. Do the right thing, respect your husband and for the men, love your wives.
What was your happiest day?
My happiest day was the day I gave my life to Christ.
How do you stay healthy, what keeps you going?
I eat practically everything— fried plantain (dodo), amala, vegetable, okra, ogbono soup. However, I have been making conscious effort in the last six weeks because I noticed that I had added weight. The COVID-19 pandemic has not helped because we all haven’t been as active as we used to be.