In this interview with PUNCH’s ‘Nonye Ben-Nwankwo and Gbenro Adeoye, billionaire businesswoman, Folorunso Alakija speaks on her childhood, how she ventured into the fashion and oil business, and how she’s sustained her marriage of about 40 years.
There is a beautiful picture of your grandchild displayed proudly on your table. You must be proud to be a grandmother…
Absolutely proud! But then, there is no way the grandchildren can take the place of your children.
They are another level of joy that you cannot really put a finger on, but each time you look at them and interact with them, they remind you of the old days when you had your children so you tend to spoil them.
The things that parents don’t allow these little children to do, you find that grandmothers and grandfathers tend to be a bit softer than they were with their children.
I think it’s because one feels a little differently at that age and of course, as you are getting older, you tend to slow down on some things.
You are beginning to appreciate time with your ‘new children’ unlike when you didn’t have much time with your own children as you now have for the grandchildren.
As a result, you are being a bit partial. When you have your children, you are very strict with them because of the way you want them to turn out.
But it is not that you don’t want your grandchildren to turn out even better than your children, but you have a softer spot for them because it is new and a different level of joy, they have a special place in your heart, so you tend to be a bit partial.
Obviously, age doesn’t affect your looks because you still look good and dress good. What is the secret?
I’d tell you that I hate exercises. I love food and do all the wrong things. I eat late. I know I’ve added weight. I’m not near the size I was as a teenager. I’m beginning to learn to diet, which was not a part of my lifestyle three or four years ago. But now, I’m paying more attention to that, although, not as much as I should. If I did that, of course, I would be slimmer than I am now. I do have a trainer that I always have an excuse to make sure that he doesn’t come. I always tell him, ‘Oh! I have a meeting’; ‘I’m rushing to so and so place’ or ‘Do you know what? Don’t bother to come tomorrow’. It is only three times a week but guess what, I haven’t allowed him to come in the last four months.
What made you go into Fashion Designing?
I’m no longer a fashion designer, though I’m still a passionate supporter of the fashion industry considering the fact that I am still a life trustee to the Fashion Designers’ Association of Nigeria (FADAN). So fashion is my passion, it is something that I will always be a part of. I wanted to leave the bank to set up my own business. I wanted to ensure that I’d be leaving the bank for a career that I would enjoy and that would be lucrative. I wanted a profession that would not make me get out of bed grudgingly every morning. So I looked at my talents. I had always known that I love everything beautiful and had to do with creativity. I knew I had creative abilities. I looked at everything to do with textiles, colours, merchandising and things that adorn the body because I come from a family of textile merchants. I put all of that together and looked inwards as far as the economy was concerned and knew it was the right time to get into the fashion industry because Nigerians were beginning to appreciate what was being made locally. And because I come from the background of businessmen and women, I just thought fashion was what it had to be.
Didn’t your friends and family wonder why you had to go into tailoring as it was called in those days?
Yes, back then it was known as tailoring but when I was getting into it, it was being seen as fashion design and it was getting fashionable to be called a fashion designer. And I noticed that each time I wore something that was locally made abroad, I got a lot of attention and compliments. So it was also one of the reasons I chose fashion designing. I believed it was the right time because Nigerians were looking inwards and the economy was also crying for it.
So why did you get out of Fashion Design?
I started my fashion line in 1986 and as soon as I came into it, I won a national fashion competition, which brought me fame and fortune. It helped to advertise my clothing line- Supreme Stitches. The clothes I made were very appealing to the public. They were different and fresh. People were not only making clothes for themselves, they were placing orders to go and sell abroad. Some of the clothes found their ways into some stores abroad. And I was enjoying myself. It was hard work, I must say, because I had women lining up with suitcases full of fabrics they wanted me to design and make for them. And I wasn’t having enough time to even grab some food. It was that good. I was seeing my creation. I would ask them what their profession was; where they were wearing the clothes to and so on to get a feel of the kind of designs I needed to do because they varied from client to client. I designed for the high and mighty, the middle class and young people. With time, people got to label me and my designs for the special occasion designs, maybe when they wanted to attend a special occasion, they would find their way to me. They didn’t mind what they had to pay because they always got the compliments and they were always proud to show the label.
I carried on like that for years and got to a point where the Lord started telling me that He had finished with the fashion part of my life and needed me to move on. I got into the oil industry and that was taking a lot of my time. I was travelling a lot to attend meetings with our partners. I had to begin to listen and listen to the voice of the Lord and it was calling me into the ministry and I needed to say ‘Lord, send me’. When that time came, I decided to diversify into an area that would not need my full attention. I decided it was best to leave when the ovation was loudest rather than carry on and struggle to do so many things at once and be Jack of all trades, master of none. So I decided to get into mass production, which would not need me to be there on full time basis. However, I needed to source for the fabrics locally and in large quantities. Soon, I realised that we could not get the right textures we wanted to be woven locally and to be dyed to the colours we needed in a way that they would last like the imported ones. That was where we had a problem. I went as far as Taiwan to try to get machines to produce my own textiles. When I realised the amount I needed to put into that alone, it was too much for me to afford at the time. So I decided to carry on sourcing locally. I had to start planning to look into what else I could do. As we started making T-shirts, fez caps and so on, people started asking for monograms on them. People didn’t want to wear them plain. So I sourced for monogram machine and we added that service. We were monogramming on bed sheets, towels and there were big demands. Then people started to ask for screen printing and monograms were more expensive than screen printing. When they wanted volumes for events or as souvenirs, we needed to look for a cheaper source other than monogram so we had to get screen printing machines. Then there were those who wanted gift items. So I started travelling to China to bring in different types of souvenirs for companies to give out at the end of year or other events. I was having great fun. So here we are; it is five years old now.
You said your family was into textile business, did you have a privileged background as a young girl?
The word privileged background is relative. But I can say that we were comfortable. I come from a polygamous family of a father with eight wives, 52 children. I’m child number eight, Muslim background. One of my half sisters and I were the first children of my father to be sent abroad to go and study at the tender ages of six and seven. I was seven while she was six. I would say that sending children abroad at that time at such young ages proved that the family was affluent. Usually, it was people in their 20s or 30s that went abroad to study in those days-. It was very rare to find children of about six years being sent abroad to study at the time. So we were all over the newspapers the day we were leaving. It was big news. I still have photographs of the day we were leaving in my autobiography where my dad, my mum and my step mum were seeing us off. We travelled by sea. In those days, people travelled by sea, and it took us 14 days to get to England.
After four years, we returned to Nigeria for further studies. My parents were in the textile business for a good part of our lives. There was a time my father was also in the business of leather sandals and he was making a lot of money. There was also a time that he was dealing in stockfish. He was a very big businessman and there was hardly anything that he touched that didn’t turn to gold. He only read up to Standard Six but had his wits about him. He was a very jovial man but business was something that he was born to do and he excelled in every area that had to do with business. He invested in shares, real estate and things like that. By the time he died, he had enough houses to go round all of his children that were still alive- 46 of us. My mother and my step mother were also into textile trading and they placed orders with him which they in turn sold to market women.
When my siblings and I came home on holidays, we had to open the store and be my mother’s assistants in our store. So we got quite proficient in the merchandising area of textile. We learnt how to combine colours and be creative with textiles before they were sent to my dad’s office for him to make orders from Switzerland and the Far East. So we got to interact with those who would come to town from neighbouring countries, usually early, before other stores opened. So my mum always encouraged my sister and I to make sure that our store was opened very early. My mum was very strict. She taught us how to make money so that was how I cut my teeth as much as trading and being a businesswoman is concerned.
We learnt some of your colleagues in the UK used to call you Flo because they couldn’t pronounce Folorunsho. Did you keep that as a nickname till much later?
Many of my colleagues in the bank still call me Flo. Many of them later became managing directors of many of the banks in Nigeria. Those who were my contemporaries age wise, would call me Flo and those much younger than me would call me Mrs. A. But the Flo was short form for Folorunsho because it was long, complicated and too challenging for them to master.
What was it like growing up in a large family?
Flo and Doy (my sister) had partnered together even before we went to England because there was just one year difference in our ages. We had been sent off to a guardian to live with and go to school from there. Our guardian lived in Yaba and our school was Our Lady of Apostles, also in Yaba. So we only had to walk to school. We were taught table manners, etiquettes, how to be a young lady before we were bundled off to England. When we came back, we were like little princesses. We had done a lot of shopping before coming back. Anytime we were going out, people in the neighbourhood would be on their balconies waiting to see what the young girls that had just returned from England would be wearing. They were always eager to see what we wore. We had lovely clothes, shoes and had begun to lose the Yoruba dialect. Few months later, we were bundled off to boarding school. We came back home at the end of each term to live with our other siblings. And our parents didn’t want to separate so we were living together in my half-sister’s mum’s place. My mum’s place was on the next floor and then I began to experience some preferential treatment that my step mum’s domestic staff were giving to my half sister so I decided to stay with my mum. Although the two mothers were reluctant but you know how it is with human beings. They would feel this is the child of our ‘oga’ (boss), so we would give her more meat than the other one. So I decided to go and stay with my mum. My half-sister and I are still very close. We started interacting more with the other children. Despite the fact that we all came from different mothers, the children were very close. It was like we formed our own government and the mothers formed theirs. Sometimes, they got on well with one another and sometimes they were at one another’s throats. But we children chose not to look their way and we carried on being one another’s friends and loved ones and that is how we carried on with one another in close communication. Even after we started living apart, the children were always constantly in close touch with one another. And some of us were in the same boarding schools and we loved coming home after school when we would bond together again- it was fun. We also looked forward to a time when it was the Ileya festival (Id el Kabir) because it was when everybody would converge at Ikorodu. All the mothers would come home with rams, some would bring two or three and then there would be competition among the boys. They would organise games among the rams to make them hit one another with their heads. The girls would be more interested in ‘what are you wearing for Ileya? Show me’. And everybody would be looking forward to the day we would kill the rams, eat, party and attend other parties. I remember those days with nostalgia.
You have been married for close to 40 years. Are you still in love with him the way you were when you met him many years ago?
If anyone of us is abroad, for instance, the two of us would make sure that we call each other a minimum of twice a day. We have spoken three times already today. If it wasn’t that I was running late for the interview, I would have picked up the phone again to ask him to buy me three brushes but I had to give the job to my assistant to do. So every little thing, we are talking throughout the day.
You are still friends?
Very much so too. We are lovers, friends, brother and sister.
Where did you meet him?
We met at a party in Surulere, Lagos, two weeks after I relocated to Nigeria from England. The party was in the evening. So my brother, his fiancée and I were attending that event and we were all seated together. Then came along my husband-to-be; he said to me ‘why are you following your brother about’? I said ‘what do you mean?’ Then he accosted my brother who he knew well and said your sister is a big girl, why are you allowing her to follow you about? Then my brother said, ‘stay away from my sister. Leave her alone’. Anyway, we got talking and after the party, he suggested that I should sit with him in his car rather than sit in my brother’s car so we could carry on with our conversation and we would be driving in a convoy back to our abodes. So we carried on talking and said goodnight. But from that night, unless one of us is abroad, there has been no day that we have not seen each other. Ever since that day, we have seen each other every day unless one person is away and the other is somewhere else.
Your name is more popular than his. Do you know if sometimes in his sober moment, he asks himself ‘why is my wife more popular than I am’?
I believe that; that is on the contrary. You know why? He is extremely shy. He does not like publicity. I’m an extrovert; I don’t mind publicity. I like to throw parties; he likes to listen to music.
Nowadays, marriages fail a lot but what would you describe as the secret that has sustained your marriage for so long?
A lot of things make marriages break. What I have noticed over the years is that a marriage doesn’t break suddenly or in a day; it is a gradual process. And the earlier you nip it in the bud, the better. And it is always better to know what the dos and don’ts of marriage are before you get into it so that you don’t get your fingers burnt and so that you can enjoy rather than endure your marriage. One of the tenements of marriage is that you must communicate with one another. If you do not talk to one another regularly enough, your love can begin to grow cold. You may begin to drift apart and then other things begin to set in. The Bible tells us that if one person offends the other, you need to take care of that matter immediately and not let it degenerate. Do not let it degenerate into something that you will still be sulking about the next day because with every action, there is reaction and with every reaction, there is a counter reaction. I counsel partners and one of the things I tell them is never to make the mistake of having separate bedrooms from the very start. Make sure you share one bedroom even if you have 10 bedrooms.
And not only that, if you tell the carpenter to make your bed to be from one wall to another, you are making the biggest mistake. It can separate you. When you quarrel, it won’t help. But when there is nowhere to turn and you end up kicking one another, you will make up quickly. One of the things I do to break the ice rather than let things degenerate is to ask my husband to help do my zip even when I can do it by myself. I have broken the ice.
You are bound to quarrel because you are two human beings. If anyone tells you they have a perfect marriage, it is a lie. Yes, they may be compatible and be having a good time but that does not mean it is perfect. It doesn’t exist. Make sure that you set up the values that you will use to run your home and bring up your children. I greet my husband good morning with a kiss. There are different ways of showing submission. It is not that we are asking you to put your head on the floor so that he can trample on it. No! We are saying show your husband respect. It is the will of God. Speak to him nicely. There is no man that you would treat like that and would not honour, respect, appreciate and do whatever you ask of him when you ask for a favour. He would go all out with pleasure and even go the extra mile to do whatever you ask of him. That is what a lot of people don’t realise. Likewise, a man should love his wife; that is what the Bible says. He should honour and respect his wife and not bring a girlfriend into the matrimonial home and say what can she do? Are you supposed to do that? Is it fair? Is it right? Is it because you are stronger than her physically? If you decide to give her a slap, she can’t beat you, but all she has got is her mouth and she will abuse you very well. One thing will lead to another and the marriage will degenerate. Once it starts degenerating and you don’t quickly nip it in the bud, it may lead to separation and then divorce.
Why haven’t you thought of going into politics?
God has not called me into politics. There is nothing that I do that I would not ask Him first. I don’t have an affinity for politics; I’m a businesswoman, a philanthropist, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. All of those things keep me very busy. If he calls me into politics, he will direct me, equip me and it will be a matter of it’s your call Lord, if you send me there, I will obey. And he has not called me into politics.
As a young girl, did you ever think you would be globally known?
I never knew that I would be globally known but I did know that I would be a businesswoman and I also knew that the Lord had planned that I would be successful.
So how do you feel now being known as the richest woman in Africa?
I’ve never called myself that and I just live my life. I do whatever I need to do with all joy and pleasure. It has not changed me; it will not change me and there is no amount of money that can change me, my husband and my children. That is the way we have lived our lives; we will continue being who we are as a family.