In the heart of Lagos, the Rose of Sharon Glorious Ministry International is home to an intimate congregation who meet every Tuesday for fellowship and prayer. They are dedicated to a common purpose, to serve God, a vision which has remained intact since its founder, Folorunsho Alakija, made a pact with God decades ago.
“I don’t think I could have got this far if I had not entered into a covenant with God. It was 25 years since I gave my life to Christ. I entered into an agreement that if he would bless me I would serve him all the days of my life,” says Alakija.
The ministry is one of many ways Alakija is keeping her promise to God. Another is through her work with the Rose of Sharon Foundation, a not-for-profit providing care, financial support and scholarships for widows and orphans. In return, God has kept his side of the bargain.
Alakija is worth a staggering $1.73 billion according to Forbes, making her the fourth richest person in Nigeria and second richest woman in Africa behind Isabel dos Santos. She is the Vice Chair of Nigerian oil exploration company, Famfa Oil, which shares a joint partnership agreement with international giants Chevron and Petrobras. With a 60 per cent stake of block OML 127 of the Agbami field, one of Nigeria’s largest deepwater discoveries, Famfa Oil produces approximately 250,000 barrels of crude per day, according to Alakija. Having just turned 65 in July, Alakija has a lot to be thankful for. She is blessed with a dedicated husband, four sons and grandchildren. Alakija’s feet are firmly on the ground but her journey to becoming one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful women in the world began with an encounter 36,000 feet above sea level.
“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,” says Alakija.
With that, the new oil 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. This tenacity began at an early age.
“I come from a Muslim background and it was a polygamous lifestyle. My father had eight wives and 52 children. All the wives had to cooperate with each other. To them that was how life was, they cooperated with one another, they quarrelled and made up again, most of us were living under one roof in private bedrooms, I think about four floors of a building, in the heart of Lagos Island,” says Alakija.
Born into a family of traders, Alakija cut her teeth in the textiles trade while still a child.
“My siblings and I used to help my mum in the store and that is where we learned a lot about textiles, textures, colours, patterns and merchandising. That is where I learned all the practical steps that I later on applied to my fashion business.”
The fashion business came after her stint in the corporate banking world. After qualifying as a secretary in Britain, a place where she also went to school from the age of seven to 11, Alakija worked as an executive secretary with the bank, Sijuade Enterprises, in Lagos for a year and a half before joining the International Merchant Bank of Nigeria.
“I joined them as a secretary and I was there for about 12 years. I was promoted to other departments of the bank, including heading the corporate affairs department. From there I moved into proper banking, working in the treasury department. I loved it because I was trading with the bank’s money to make money for the bank. Later on, the bank was expanding and they started putting extra cogs between the wheels to ensure that people did not get promoted too fast to get to top positions within the bank. So I asked myself, ‘how long will it take me to get from a treasury officer to a general manager?’” says Alakija.
She quit her job and decided to study fashion design. She enrolled in the American College in London as well as the Central School of Fashion where she obtained a distinction. Immediately after that, Supreme Stitches was born and Alakija became renowned for her haute couture range, which was worn by women around the world.
Alakija says divine intervention persuaded her to rename her fashion business.
“I rebranded to Rose of Sharon House of Fashion because God gave me a revelation that I needed to change the name. It was a revelation initially given through a pastor but I decided I was not going to change it until I heard from God myself. I had a dream a year after the prophecy was given and I saw the new name on the body of my van in the dream and I changed it overnight,” says Alakija.
Then came her foray into printing. Alakija established the Rose of Sharon Prints and Promotions, as well as Digital Reality Prints.
“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,” she says.
The Lagos State government clamped down on the printing business because billboards were clogging up the skyline. Sales for her fledgling business plummeted.
“At some point when I went abroad, I saw some printing machines and realised that those were the similar kind of machines I had been shown in [a] dream but those were for offset. I went into the wrong type of printing out of disobedience and ignorance. I misunderstood and I was excited with the large format machines so I didn’t do too much homework into trying to find out more about the pictures that I saw in my dream. So I eventually got into the offset printing five years ago. And it’s been a success. We started out with 30 people and now we have about 100 employees,” says Alakija.
There was a smooth transition from the fashion business into mass-produced t-shirts. Demand for monograms, screen-printing and picture transfers on t-shirts increased. The company set up four departments, including a souvenirs department where they imported souvenirs and gift items from China. Ever the entrepreneur, Alakija was still on the lookout for the next big thing.
Alakija’s encounter with her friend on the flight to England was fortuitous. After her friend decided not to invest in the Nigerian oil industry, Alakija decided to make use of her new contact, Maryam Babaginda. Maryam was the wife of Ibrahim Babaginda, the former president of Nigeria under military rule. As a customer of Supreme Stitches, Maryam was able to secure another appointment for Alakija with the petroleum minister, 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, Alakija did not give up. 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. It took a long time to get another meeting with Aminu.
“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?’”
Alakija cried all night. It felt as if a major door had been closed. After seeking consolation from her husband, Alakija went on to inform Maryam of the outcome of the meeting.
“I told her that it was bad news and that the petroleum minister wants to give me a heart attack. I went back to do a lot more homework and consulted with a friend of my husband who was already in the oil business. At the end of the research, I decided to not give up and officially apply for an opportunity to get an oil block,” says Alakija.
Before submitting her letter, Alakija had already found her technical partners and it was now a waiting game. To her surprise, the oil minister was replaced and Alakija had to restart the whole process again. She kept pushing. Everything seemed to be going according to plan when the second oil minister was also replaced.
“At this stage I still wasn’t ready to give up. The 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,” says Alakija.
Swaying from one military coup to another, the Nigerian political climate was volatile during the 1990s. While on holiday in the Philippines, news broke about yet another change in the Nigerian regime. Alakija’s oil application was still being reviewed.
“I raced back to Nigeria to find that the current 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,” says Alakija.
She finally had her oil block, but the battle was far from over.
“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 5,000 feet at that time,” says Alakija.
At first, it seemed Alakija had drawn the short straw. She did not have the technology, expertise and money to start the process of exploration. Alakija, with support from her husband, had to use 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. It took Alakija an additional three years to find new partners after her initial partners pulled out. After years of knocking on countless doors, their 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,” says Alakija.
Five years later, Chevron bought Texaco, including the partnership with Famfa Oil.
After receiving a signature bonus, out of which Alakija was able to pay the balance of the license to the government, Alakija 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 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 in Alakija’s 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.’”
Most of her advisers believed it would be impossible to win a legal battle against the government, which, at the time, was notorious for its corruption. Alakija ignored their advice and took the government to court. For her, the case was simple, Nigeria has a constitution and nobody, including the government, is above that constitution. After 12 years of intense legal battle, the courts returned the 60% shareholding back to the family.
“It was bittersweet. There were a lot of sleepless nights and battles. 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,” says Alakija.
Dolapo Oni, Head of Energy Research at Ecobank, praises Alakija’s courage.
“Alakija has run a very successful business in Famfa Oil. She was one of the first women in the oil business and her battle with the federal government shows a great deal of tenacity. After they took away her block, she successfully won it back. She was also one of the first women to partner with a joint venture partner, Chevron, which has been very successful,” he says.
Oni, however, feels the oil company needs to branch out.
“I think they are risk averse. Having been as successful as they are, they do not want to explore other opportunities. I personally feel like you have to increase your reserve base, you have to explore other assets and Famfa has traditionally not diversified their holdings in other fields, which I believe could be very profitable for the business as well.”
For now, Alakija seems content. She met her husband, Modupe, a year after she returned to Nigeria from England and they have been married for over 40 years. These days, Alakija spends her time as a proud grandmother and an author, having penned several books, including her autobiography “Growing With The Hand That Gives The Rose”, “The University of Marriage” and “The Cry of Widows and Orphans”.
As Alakija stands amid the melodic songs of praise in her Tuesday fellowship, she is at peace. Interfere with her business, however, and it’s war.