Dethroning the super-rich

Folorunsho Alakija, oil tycoon and richest black woman on the planet

Nigerian billionaire oil tycoon Folorunsho Alakija has surpassed Oprah Winfrey as the richest black woman on the planet.

It is not every day that we are introduced to someone who had no expertise or experience doing the thing from which they became stupendously and improbably rich. Not just becoming rich but also dethroning other billionaires along the way.

This is an inspiring story that proves that black women on the globe are holding their own in the business world. The good news is that many young black women are climbing the wealth ladder at a faster pace than ever before.

Global businesses’ attitude towards women is finally changing and most of the world’s wealthiest women reportedly inherited their wealth while smaller fractions are self-made billionaires.

“I think that it’s very encouraging to see the women entrepreneurs who are having success and indeed debuting in the ranks. And every time one of those happens, it is really quiet newsworthy. However, I don’t think that we should get all too excited right now because female self-made billionaires make up less than two percent of all billionaires,” testified Forbes Global Wealth editor, Luisa Kroll.

Last October, former talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey was unseated as the richest black woman in the world. Winfrey, who is the sole African-American billionaire in the United States, finally met her match in the mould of Nigerian billionaire oil tycoon Folorunsho Alakija, who boasts a fortune of $7.3 billion (as of December 2013) compared to Oprah’s $2.9 billion. She also doubles that up as the richest woman in Africa.

This is an impressive amount of money especially when you consider the fact that only 30 years ago, Alakija was a well-known fashion designer with zero experience, expertise or investment in the oil industry.

This is wealth that she swotted for from being a company secretary and shrugging off all tags associated with black women in business. She is a self-made billionaire and Nigeria’s first billionaire with a net worth of over $7 billion.

The little known Alakija captured the attention of the international community after she got rave reviews in the respected Forbes magazine when she was named as the richest woman in Nigeria. She went on to be named by Ventures Africa as the World’s Richest Black Woman, unseating Oprah.

But it takes more than just a billion to dethrone the queen of media from the top of the rich list. It takes a lot of hard work, style and self-belief.

Alakija is more than just a rich oil tycoon. She is also a fashion designer, philanthropist and has interests in the printing industry. She is the group managing director of the Rose of Sharon group and the executive vice chairperson of Fomfa Oil Limited in Nigeria.

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s popular Africa’s Voices, Alakija, who rarely grants interviews, stated that she was helping those in need as an author and a philanthropist.

“We found out that widows are a stigma in society. Once they lose their husbands, the society turns their back on them. We try our best to bring back hope in their lives. So far we have managed to fend for 2 751 widows and 963 widows’ children in addition to 66 orphans through the foundation,” said the former banking secretary cum fashion designer cum oil baroness.

Nigeria is the most popular African country due its vast oil resources and minerals. It is not a surprise that Alakija was born and bred in the West African country, which is the only nation in the world where anyone is able to become a ‘billionaire oil tycoon’ virtually overnight.

Always hiding from the limelight, Alakija is profoundly uncomfortable with the super-rich tag and she believes that she is far more than just her fabulous wealth. No doubt everyone is dying to know how she managed to earn $7.3 billion in the first place.

The 61-year-old was born into a wealthy, polygamous Nigerian family. Born in 1951 to a chief LA Ogbara who had eight wives and 52 children, Alakija travelled to the United Kingdom, aged just seven where she did her primary education at Dinorben School for girls in Llangernyw, Wales.

Upon her return, she attended Muslim High School in the Ogun state before flying back to Europe to undertake secretarial studies at the internationally acclaimed Pitman’s Central College in London.

In addition to her secretarial qualifications, she also studied fashion design at the America College and at the Central School of Fashion also in London.

She then met her husband, Modupe Alakija, who is a lawyer by profession. They married before settling down together in Nigeria’s capital Lagos. The couple is blessed with four sons.

But it is how she rose from being a mere company secretary to being the richest black woman in the world that has got people talking. She rose from being an executive secretary in 1974 for the International Merchant Bank before establishing a tailoring company called Supreme Stitches.

“It was a time when Nigerians were starting to look inwards and fashion was beginning to pick up in Nigeria and people were very proud of wearing African fashion, Nigerian clothes,” explained Alakija about her switch from finance to fashion.

It is also interesting to note that at one time Alakija rented a three-bedroomed apartment in a popular district of Lagos and that is how Supreme Stitches started.

Supreme Stitches was well received by the Nigerian populace as it promoted the country’s culture through fashion and style. It also catered exclusively for the upscale clientele. In 1986 she was named the best designer in Nigeria.

Despite significant economic and political upheavals, Alakija strived, pushed and broke down all the necessary barriers to succeed.

The thriving business led to the next biggest thing after Alakija had amassed a small fortune selling high-end Nigerian clothing to fashionable wives of military bigwigs and society women.

According to media reports from Nigeria, Alakija applied for the allocation of an oil prospecting licence in May 1993. The licence to explore for oil on a 617 000-acre block was granted to Alakija’s company, Famfa Limited. The block is located approximately 220 miles south east of Lagos and 70 miles offshore of Nigeria in the Agbami field of the Central Niger Delta.

According to Ventures Publications, many wealthy Nigerian businessmen and military bigwigs who had been allocated oil blocs by the military administration at the time had no clue as to the technicalities in operating an oil bloc. So many of them typically acquired oil prospecting licences and then flipped them off to international oil companies for substantial profits.

But Alakija was intelligent. She had no expertise or experience in running an oil field but she decided not to sell off her licence. Having explored the block, Alakija subsequently reached a joint agreement with Salt Deep Water Petroleum Limited, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Texaco, as a technical adviser for the exploration of the licence in September 1996, transferring 40% of her 100% stake to Star Deep.

Star Deep sold off 8% of its stake in OPL 216 to Petrobas, a Brazilian company leaving Alakija and her family owning 60%. Today Famfa owes 60% of a Nigeria deposit called OML 127 which produces 200 000 barrels of oil each day.

But it was not all smooth sailing. In 2000, soon after the one billion barrel discovery was made, the Nigerian government announced that they were revoking Alakija’s 620 000-acre grant. Initially the government said they just wanted to take back 50% of the grant but they ended up taking 90%.

This forced the oil baroness to wage a fight and she sued the government for breach of contract and after a bitter 12-year court case, she was vindicated in 2012 by Nigeria’s Supreme Court. Earlier this year the court increased Alakija’s share from 10% to 60%, instantly increasing her net worth by billions of dollars and securing her spot as the richest black woman in the world.

Her company is now being run by her sons and husband while she spends most of her time giving away her vast wealth. She recently spent more than $100 million to buy property in London’s One Hyde Park development and another $45 million on a Bombardier Global Express 6000 private jet.

Alakija also has a foundation, Rose of Sharon, that helps orphans and widows by empowering them through scholarships and business grants throughout the world. In February last year, the Nigerian government inaugurated the National Heritage Council and Endowment for the Arts and appointed Alakija as vice chairperson of the body.

“I told as much of my life as I could to encourage people, to encourage others to get to where they should be, where they want to be. We are living in a land flowing with opportunities, a land flowing with milk and honey. It has its challenges, its faults but Rome wasn’t built in a day and we all have to come together, those who live in it and those living abroad and come together to build our nation.

“Nigeria has made a lot of progress and it can only get better. We will have to continue to dialogue and criticise ourselves and make it a better place to live,” she added.

Rose of Sharon recently held an event for widows, their children and orphans where she refuted claims circulating all over the internet that she is venturing into politics with her first step being garnering for the governorship of Lagos state in 2015.

“God has not called me into politics and I have never been involved in politics. Please ignore whatever you may have read purportedly portraying me as a governorship aspirant. I have been paying attention to my calling from God to look after orphans and children through the Rose of Sharon foundation,” she urged the media.

She is the fourth richest black person on the planet behind fellow Nigerians Mike Adenuga, Aliko Dangote and Ethiopian Mohammed Al Amoudi. The active philanthropist, entrepreneur, wife of 40 years, mother, and indelible woman takes the crown of being an undeniable force to be reckoned with in Africa’s economy.

Interestingly the richest person of all time, inflation-adjusted, is an African. King Mansa Musa 1 ruled the Malian empire from 1280 to 1337 in what would be modern-day Ghana, Timbuktu and Mali. During his life, Musa controlled more than half the world’s supply of salt and gold.

He built mosques and palaces that still exist today and his wealth was worth the modern-day equivalent of $400 billion.

Farai Diza

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