By Funke Egbemode
SHE is many things to many people, different people, depending on where you are standing. In the late 80s and early 90s, to me, and many fashion and style reporters, Folorunsho Alakija was our reference point, the must-get interview. We wanted her voice on our fashion pages and the photographs of her designs definitely lifted your pages. When you told your angry editor you had Rose of Sharon interview, he definitely calmed down. Photos of her signature embroidered gele stood out then and now still.
Years later, as an editor, her face, her stories continued not only to grace our style pages, but moved on to the front pages. Yes, that’s how achievers roll.
In December 2013, at the launch of my book, Conversations With My Country, at Eko Hotel and Suites, Lagos, she gave the keynote address. She was already playing on the global stage. She was already a Forbes-listed billionaire. But she attended the launch in person; she could have sent a representative, or declined the invitation altogether because of her busy schedule. But she came. And she sat through the event.
So you see, to me, Folorunsho Alakija is that humble professional, billionaire who always makes time for whatever and everything that she puts her mind to. Once she is convinced it matters, once she is convinced it is about the good of her country, once it is about supporting women, she makes out time. It becomes part of her busy schedule. I’m sure you are itching to read how much she launched my book with. Well, I’m not telling. All I can reveal is she came ready. No promissory note. No failed promise. When we sat in her home a few days before the event and she gave me her word that she would be at the event, she kept it.
Keeping her words as I later found out is not just about her honouring her friends who are not yet billionaires and appointments, I believe, for Mrs Alakija, it is a way of life, a guiding principle, both on the financial global space and even behind closed doors. I’ll cite an example.
In an interview in a popular soft sell magazine, the interviewer had asked her what the secret of her over four decades of marriage was. And she answered: ‘My husband and I made a decision that we will stay together, forever.’ That may sound simple. But go over it again and feel the depth. The couple gave each other their words. It was a decision. We are here, in this marriage, together, storm or calm, wild winds or sunny days. We will stay together. This marriage will last all our days.
It was a decision that has worked, a lesson for us all, male and female. What’s the worth of honour without kept promises?
Apostle Folorunsho Alakija, to many women, widows and orphans she has touched in their millions, is a hands-on kind keeper of her words. She holds fellowships and prayer meetings with them. For her, making a difference in the life of a widow should not just be about the bag of rice and semolina. They need counselling, encouraging prayers and sound words of God regularly. A billionaire she is, but close your eyes and imagine her calling out prayer points in a church environment and you just might feel the down-to-earth woman of means I’m trying to describe.
If an intervention needed to be done, it did not matter where, she stretched her hands, deployed her resources. That was why it didn’t matter to her that she was neither born nor bred in Osun state, she is there sending her money of the kind of errands that history will not forget.
In 2018, Mrs Alakija showed a strong commitment to the importance of Osun State University having its own teaching hospital, and she went the whole nine yards to ensure the idea transcends mere desire. On the 22nd of November, 2018, the foundation for the 250-bed Osun State University Teaching Hospital (UNIOSUNTH) was laid and we are talking world class facility here, complete with a Community Health unit, Maternity & Neonatal Medicare department, Research and Diagnostic Laboratories, state of the art operating theatres, cutting edge Diagnostic Imaging, inclusive of C.T Scan, M.R.I Scanning Facility, Ultra-Sound Scanning Facilities, X-ray and Radiotherapy Suites, Lecture rooms, Necropsy and Morgue.
A year earlier, in 2017, ‘The Hands that give Roses’, an arm of her Foundation, donated a quarter of a billion (N250m towards the completion of the access road to Osun State University main campus.
And when Covid-19 sauntered into our lives with all its bags of terror, Mrs Alakija stepped up to the plate again. Through Famfa Oil, she donated to a federal initiative N1bn (one billion naira) as part of her response to resolving the scourge of COVID-19 in Nigeria. This is one out of several, and perhaps a recent intervention that need no second-guessing.
Osun was not left out of her generous extension of largesse during the ravaging scourge of Covid-19. Her personal donations as well as her role in the 21-man Food and Relief Committee constituted by the state government were very notable in the state’s fight against Covid-19.
Mrs Alakija has been a dependable developmental partner to the Government of the State of Osun,v deploying her time and money to aid the vulnerable in the society. Through her work with the Rose of Sharon Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation providing care, financial support and scholarships for widows and orphans, she has helped countless people scale socio-economic barriers over the years. She engages in community related programmes such as provision of scholarship awards and medical support to thousands of people across the country all the way to the Niger Delta area. Giving back to society for Alakija is as important as her signature finely embroidery-edged gele.
Raised in the heart of Lagos Island as one of 52 children born to her father, Alakija’s stride to historical and economic significance did not gain traction overnight. Years of focus and determination got her the life she’d hoped and prayed for. Driven by a palpable resolution to build enduring legacies coupled with a diligent pursuance of prodigious productivity, Alakija surged from the humble beginning of her secretarial duties at Sijuade Enterprises, Lagos, and the International Merchant Bank of Nigeria, to a record-breaking internationally-recognised mogul.
After 12 years of intense legal fireworks, in 2014, she won a landmark case against the Federal Government of Nigeria, reclaiming her 60 percent stake in Famfa Oil Limited (where she is the Executive Vice Chair), which had earlier been reduced to a meagre 10 percent through bully tactics by the government. The other 40 percent is jointly owned by global oil giants, Chevron and Petrobas.
This week, this amazon celebrates her 70th birthday with a full shoulder of epaulettes, having become one of the most important voices and names that fan the embers of hope in the Nigerian brand. Alakija’s triumphant narrative, enhanced by grit, gumption and divine grace is quintessentially one Omoluabi story Osun state is proud to be associated with.
Across and beyond Africa, indeed among the world’s wealthiest, Alakija who has built a successful business empire over time is like the proverbial elephant that is many things to as many as contact its different body parts. She exudes inspiration and humility, encouraging all who come in contact with her that God’s grace beautifies and lifts beyond any human’s wildest imagination. Her story edifies and stirs hope that a man, a woman will fulfill destiny once God and only God holds his or her hands.
Her story has also challenged many women to believe and reach for the stars. Her appointment as the first female Chancellor of a Nigerian public university is a further validation of the substance she has been graced with.
In this world, there are heroes and there are spectators. Spectators, they like to fold their arms and watch things happen. They do not know when or care enough to step and help out. Heroes are not like that. They pitch in all the time, in every small way. They like to make a difference, help make change possible. They do not wait until they can change everything and everybody in one fell swoop. They believe their little drops will make an ocean eventually. What will our world be without them?
Raise your glasses, people, to our heroine, our amazon, Dr (Mrs) Folorunsho Alakija as we celebrate 70 years of a remarkable life.
Happy birthday, people’s mama.
Egbemode, the Osun State Commissioner for Information and Orientation sent this piece from Osogbo