In this interview with KUNLE FALAYI, one of Africa’s richest women, Folorunsho Alakija, speaks on her philanthropy, family and meeting the current richest woman in Africa.
You talk glowingly about your husband anytime you have the chance, do you ever quarrel?
Of course, we do quarrel. Even the mouth and the tongue quarrel. The good thing is that we make up within our home and family. Hardly does it ever get to the children. If the children ever find out about it, no problem. The whole idea is to ensure it never extends beyond our own walls and family. We know how to communicate and obviously, something must have worked for 42 years. Before that, we had courted for three and half years. By now, we already know more about each other, our likes and dislikes. You have to study your partner and find the easiest way to make up with each other. For instance, when he is moping or something, I may go to him and tell him to help me do my zip. That makes his heart melt and from there, we start talking again.
You work in the same office, what is that like?
Yes, we work together in the same office. When we are at work, he is the boss, when we are at home, he is the boss. I give him all the due regard and respect. That does not mean he does not give me my due respect too. He respects me a lot while I give him all the respect too. My staff marvel at our marriage and always have something to learn from us. I remember a young woman whom I took interest in at the foundation. Within one week of my discussions with her, she got back to me and said her husband had already noticed that there was something different about her.
You do a lot of philanthropy, many would say you are able to do all that because you are wealthy.
Philanthropy is not just about money. Many people assume that philanthropy is easy for some people because they have money but it does not have to be all about money. It is about using your time for the benefit of others. Some need to be encouraged while others need to be taught about how to excel.
You have one foundation already, the Rose of Sharon Foundation that empowers women and orphans, why establish another charity – Flourish Africa?
“One of the areas God called us to minister is the area of helping widows and orphans. If we do not spread the word about the ‘forgotten people,’ nobody will remember them. We want to expand the scope of our work beyond what we have done in the last 10 years. As time goes on, we would expand to other parts of Africa and the world. But right now, we want to focus on women and orphans here. We do not want to look the other way. We have been able to answer calls for help here and there to assist in ways we can. Flourish Africa is there to inspire, encourage and help other women. There should be more to women than being good mothers. Women should be able to contribute to the change in the society. We must stop paying lip service to the needed change. Women who have made it, not just in terms of money but in all areas of life, should help other women.
But are you not concerned about the backlash from the society where many people are afraid that women are being taught to be rebellious?
On the contrary, we are not teaching any woman to disobey their husbands or be unruly at home. We are simply letting them know that they can be much more and have a happy home. We are teaching women to get up and get going. Flourish Africa is there to teach women to spark their thinking and open their eyes to see the kind of abilities God has put in them to excel. Part of our activities would include organising workshops to change people’s thinking and narrative.
As someone who has the means, does your empowerment activities include establishing a world class garment company where women can be trained considering your fashion designing background?
The answer for now is no. There was a time God told me that he had finished with the fashion aspect of my life. I have moved on from there, so I don’t see myself establishing such a company. Why I said ‘for now’ is that you never say never. You don’t know when God will open a door and say it is time to do something.
You have only boys, is your passion for women and girls fuelled by the fact that you don’t have a girl child?
No. The passion I have about women comes first from the fact that God has called me to help widows and orphan children. The other area is because of my entrepreneurial mentality. I realised that the world could be a better place to live in if everybody has money. I was born into a family of entrepreneurs. Right from a tender age, I have been seeing how people trade and are make money. How can the world leave out over 50 per cent of its population – women – in the scheme of things? When all hands are on deck, then we can achieve our goals. That is the idea of my philanthropic activities. I would love to see a better world where women are being given the opportunity to make the world a better place.
Does that mean you would support any woman who decides today to become Nigeria’s President?
God has not called me to politics. I know that I am not the only one around. There are those who would be interested in that area. For now, it is not my calling. I would certainly not object to people with such aspirations. In whatever way I can support, I would but if it is something that would bring me into the limelight, I would take a step back.
You have been rated richest woman in Africa…
When people rate me that way, I say Amen.
But now it is an Angolan – Isabel do Santos. Have you met her?
Yes, I met her at a conference in South Africa about five years ago. I went up to her to introduce myself. Unfortunately, she did not have her complimentary card on her at the time. I have not seen her since then.
Do you have a particular percentage of your wealth dedicated to charity and philanthropy like many rich people do all over the world?
I have not done that yet. When God tells me to do that, I will do it or when there is an opportunity or a point in time when something calls for it, I might. But for now, I am just doing it as it comes. For instance, in our Chevron-Agbami Field partnership, we have spearheaded a lot of philanthropy. The partnership has led to thousands of overseas scholarship for engineers. We have put in place mobile laboratories, mobile clinics and e-libraries in different parts of the country. The number of these things is astronomical. There are also thousands of people who have benefitted directly from our charity and philanthropic works which we do not talk about. There was a time we heard of a woman whose child’s intestines were outside the body and all we did was to send someone there to ascertain if it was true. When they did, we called the woman and all she needed for the child to be okay was N2m. When I told the woman to meet me at the foundation and handed over the cheque, she nearly dropped the child on the floor.
What would you consider your biggest regret?
I would have said I would have loved to have a female child. But I can’t say that now because God has been merciful. We have two female grandchildren already. They made up for it.
And the biggest decision you ever made?
Giving my life to Christ. At the time I did, I wondered what took me so long and why I did not know him before that. That was 27 years ago. I give him all the glory.