And so it came to pass recently that 62-year-old Folorunsho Alakija, the oil baroness from Nigeria, became known as the richest black woman in the world. Alakija, however, is profoundly uncomfortable with the ‘super-rich’ tag. She believes that she is far more than just her fabulous wealth.
Her minders who fondly refer to her as ‘Madame’, make it clear that an audience with her will be granted only if she is engaged in a comprehensive manner. Those seeking to label and box Alakija as just another rich woman in Africa are not going to be entertained.
But her prickly attitude notwithstanding, Alakija’s extensive oil fortune has seen her morph into an instant celebrity. So much so that she has upstaged the queen of black corporate accomplishment herself, Oprah Winfrey.
‘Richer than Oprah’ screams one of the headlines that accompanied the narrative about Alakija’s life and how she made her millions. According to FORBES, she is worth about $3.2 billion. Or $2.5 billion (Forbes Nov). Other estimates put her fortune at $3.3 billion, but in October, Ventures Africa Magazine suggested that figure could be as high as $7.3 billion. This makes Alakija – at the very least – $500 million richer than the Queen of Talk.
It also means that she is the fourth-richest black person on the planet, behind fellow Nigerians Mike Adenuga ($4.3 billion) and Aliko Dangote ($11.2 billion), and Ethiopian Mohammed Al Amoudi ($12.5 billion).
The oil baroness was born into a wealthy family, so her story is no rags-to-riches tale, but the reality of her climb to the top of the oil heap is still mind-blowing. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. “God was directing us into oil production. My entry into this business was God’s own way of leading me down a particular path that had its ups and downs,” she says matter-of-factly during an interview on the sidelines of the Brics Business Council meeting, recently held in Johannesburg, South Africa.
A self-proclaimed fashionista, Alakija cuts an elegant figure in her designer duds and eye-catching headdresses. Her trademark African-inspired couture ensures that she stands out in any gathering. Preparing for the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA photo shoot, the multibillionaire confers occasionally with Amanda, her unobtrusive aide, who is a constant at her side.
Flamboyant but diminutive, Alakija was born in 1951 to a wealthy family whose patriarch had eight wives and 52 children. While she is the offspring of a polygamous father, she is undoubtedly the only wife in her own marriage.
“I am the first lady of the Alakija family,” she says, firmly eschewing the idea that her husband, a lawyer by training, would be allowed to follow her father’s example.
Deeply religious, Alakija is very much a representation of many modern businesswomen with strong Christian roots. When I ask her to contextualize her faith, she says: “God directs us to be in business. There is no church without business. Business is the concern of the church.”
And while she has gone to great lengths to showcase her generous charity work through the Rose of Sharon Foundation, details of her oil business remain sketchy.
So How did Alakija acquire her petrodollars? That’s the proverbial million-dollar question – and it still needs to be answered properly. To quote football legend Maradona, did ‘the hand of God’ set her on the path of prosperity? Or is it the less lofty but infinitely more probable case of ‘God helps those who help themselves’?
On a recent trip to Abuja, the city of federal government in Nigeria, I posed the question to some of the business people, activists and journalists I int-eracted with. How does a former secretary and fashion designer get an oil prospecting license from one president, only to have it taken away by another? My desire for a plausible answer leads me back to where it all began, long before Alakija became the woman to push Oprah off her global perch.
Determined that their daughter would receive an international education, Alakija’s parents sent her to a private girls’ boarding school in Wales when she was seven years old. Although she returned home to attend high school, it was not long before she left again, to complete her secretarial studies in London.
Alakija was back in her homeland, working as a secretary for what was then the International Merchant Bank of Nigeria. When the institution became defunct, she crossed the ocean again, this time to study fashion. It was a move that would stand her in good stead.
A gusty entrepreneur, armed with a passion for fashion, Alakija launched her own line, Supreme Stitches. She says hard work and a keen business savvy ensured that she quickly made a name for herself in Nigeria, and in 1986, scooped up an award as the country’s top designer.
Casting around for a new challenge, Alakija decided to apply for an oil prospecting license. As a close associate of the president at the time, Ibrahim Babangida, her propinquity to authority gave her a foot in the door.
In 1993, she was eventually granted a 620,000 acre plot to explore. But there was a snag. Alakija had no idea how to drill for oil. In fact, she says, many believed that nothing would come from her block because it was so far out at sea. “It was 5,000 feet into the sea. We didn’t have the techno-logy. It was a big risk.”
Today Nigeria is Africa’s oil giant, but in 1993, prospecting was still an extremely dicey and expensive endeavor. But Alakija is not someone who gives up easily. With her firm belief in God and family, she stuck it out.
“We stayed the course. We made the right connections and partnered with great people, who put Nigeria’s interests first,” she explains.
In 1996, still green but eager to learn, Alakija hired oil conglomerate Texaco. Its brief was to assess the oil potential in her granted area. After four years of research, Texaco reported back: Alakija was sitting on an estimated one billion barrels of oil.
Her tenacity had paid off. Most of her wealth can be traced back to Famfa Oil, a company she founded after the Texaco assessment. The deposit, called OML 127, currently produces 200,000 barrels of oil every day.
With access to Nigeria’s liquid gold, Alakija’s journey to riches was set on course. She describes the oil find as a “true blessing”, but concedes that it also had its “ups and downs”. Wealth brings its own challenges, and Alakija’s case, these challenges came from serious political players who ruled Africa’s most populous nation.
In many ways it is unsurprising that her newfound status as a serious oil producer would draw the attention of the wealthy and powerful. While Alakija enjoyed excellent relations with Babangida and basked in his protection and indulgence, the opposite was true of his successor. During his presidency, Olusegun Obasanjo unconstitutionally acquired a 50% interest in Alakija’s block without duly compensating her company. Famfa Oil went to court to challenge the acquisition, and in May 2012, the Nigerian Supreme Court reinstated the 50% stake. Chevron owns 40%.
Alakija is not keen to delve into the details of her battle with Obasanjo’s government, but she is forthright about her readiness to stand up for what she believes in. She says the Obasanjo regime “just took” her oil block and had no interest in negotiating with her or her family. “We were prepared to fight them because we had the law on our side.”
She speaks quietly but pointedly about how fellow Nigerians had cautioned her against taking on the government of the day. “You are really foolish, you can’t win against government” was a common refrain. But Alakija says, for her family, the choice was clear. They had to stand their ground. She recalls how many fair-weather friends “stood back and watched” while she was fighting the state to reclaim her seized assets.
“It was a real eye-opener. It made us better Christians. For every battle we fought, a better lesson was learnt,” she says philosophically.
In May 2012, with the law and the Lord on her side, Alakija’s oil shares were restored by a Supreme Court writ. The landmark decision morphed the oil baroness into another stratosphere, placing her in the spotlight, not only on the continent, but also globally.
Now a regular at the Brics Business Council meetings and other intra-African trade meet-and-greet soirées, Alakija is easily recognizable in her iconic, colorful headwraps. A member of the elite guild of Africa’s uber-rich, she is an integral part of a small coterie of business people and policy analysts are keen to parade as the drivers of the Africa Rising narrative. Their stories are compelling and signal a departure from the prism of hopeless and despair through which Africa is historically depicted.
Alakija and her fellow billionaires are the new breed of African global players. They are leading examples of progress and economic growth, and more importantly, they are proof of the handsome returns on investments available to an increasingly affluent middle class.
In a modern, democratic Nigeria, sans military dictators, Alakija epitomizes Africa’s promise. She embodies the can-do attitude projected by many of her countrymen and – women in the private sector. It is the approach Nigerians often use when they engage with business players and investors keen to exploit the county’s vast oil resources, despite its obvious infrastructural weaknesses.
Alakija is vocal about the importance of African countries shifting away from extractive-based economies. “Gone are the days of the multinationals that just take and go. Our eyes are open. We won’t allow it a second time.”
Her sentiments are strong, but some argue that it is easier said than done. Despite Nigeria and Angola’s oil-producing status globally, both countries still need to re-route crude oil off the continent to be refined.
Alakija concedes that Africa has its share of challenges. But she is opt-imistic that its political and business leaders are prepared to hire the exp-ertise, cultivate the technology and go the distance to add real value.
She is also a strong proponent of intra-African trade, saying Africans need to band together to develop their businesses and increase their market share in the global stakes.
“We need to hold each other’s hands. As Africans, the barriers are crumbling. A divided Africa is in no one’s interests. We face common challenges and for all those reasons we need to cooperate more, to trade more, to visit each other’s countries, and take hands and work together.”
She is happy that Africa’s democratization program has heralded economic prosperity and greater economic growth, not just for its uber-rich, but also for its expanding professional classes.
Her sought-after properties in Dubai and London, her private jet and her extensive high couture wardrobe have become fodder for anyone wanting to boast about Africa’s newly minted billionaires. Alakija owns five apartments, one of them in One Hyde Park in London, the world’s most expensive apartment block, according to Vanity Fair.
But in a world with finite resources, to be rich is no longer enough. Net worth has to be larger than the size of your portfolio or your bank balance, says Alakija. Even more so in the wake of the global financial crises, where conspicuous consumption invites opprobrium and scorn.
While philanthropy and charity are often the hallmarks of the super-rich, who believe they have to give back in some way, increasingly wealthy Africans know that in order to remain rich, good deeds are necessary.
Put differently, there is a real value proposition in giving away money. It makes more money. It leads to tax breaks. For all you naysayers, just ask Bill and Melinda Gates, who are leading corporate citizens. They have not only made philanthropy sexy, but infinitely more profitable.
This is why the wealthy – even the nouveau riche – are increasingly involved in charitable trusts and donor organizations. As the affluent get richer, often at the expense of the poor, charity and philanthropy have become buzzwords for those seeking to draw attention away from crass materialism and ostentation.
This is nowhere more obvious than in countries where the chasm between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider, and where the origins of extreme wealth are sometimes ascribed to being in the right place at the right time. Responding to my earlier question about Alakija’s proximity to power and patronage, one Nigerian social activist offered: “In my country, Nigeria, depending on whose mistress you are, you can become a millionaire in the space of a half an hour.”
Stories and rumors abound about the oil baroness’s good fortune. Her detractors in the social justice networks believe that privately wealthy Nigerians owe their largesse to their government connections, not because they are particularly competent or industrious. Others who admire Alakija’s business prowess are adamant that she genuinely cares for the underprivileged. They believe remarkable tenacity and fortitude lie at the heart of her enormous wealth.
When I ask if her extreme mammon makes her uncomfortable, Alakija responds: “My wealth allows me to reach out to others, to those in need. I am a God-fearing woman and I am not in competition with anyone. I use my wealth to touch the lives of others.”
Through the Rose of Sharon Foundation, the oil tycoon dedicates money, time and effort to ease the burden of widows and orphans. Women and their well-being are at the center of her good deeds.
“We need to understand how central women are to households and their communities. They are the ones that are putting food on the table. Their education is therefore crucial. Women can really transform a nation. Food and education are just two of the many issues that need addressing when we talk women empowerment,” she points out.
Alakija attributes her charitable nature to a lifelong dedication to Christianity. She believes she needs to make a difference by helping to educate those in need. The Rose of Sharon Foundation has chapters all over Nigeria and Alakija says she is proud of and encouraged by their impact on the lived realities of women.
“At first I just wanted to give away the money. But I then realized that whatever charity we perform, it must be sustainable. So now we assist with microfinancing, scholarships and education,” she says.
English poet and historian William Hutton once cautioned: “The charity that hastens to proclaim its good deeds ceases to be charity, and is only pride and ostentation.” When asses-sing Alakija’s life story and her many, many good deeds, Hutton’s words are food for thought.
But it is French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus who nails it on the head for me: “Too many have dispensed with generosity in order to practice charity.”