Africa’s first female billionaire’s fine threads and oil

One recent morning, Folorunsho Alakija walked into an exclusive dressmaker’s shop and began ordering dozens of hand-embroidered fabrics imported from India and Dubai.

It is not everybody who could have taken on Obansanjo at the height of his power and walked away with victory

Having made purchases worth several thousand dollars, she told the happy store owner: “I don’t mind paying money for something that’s worth it.” Alakija should know.

Recognised for her one-of-a-kind fashion sense, Nigeria’s first female billionaire started off as a dressmaker herself.

Armed with a fashion degree from London, Alakija quickly made a name for her label, Supreme Stitches, after its launch in 1986.

With an estimated net worth of $2.5bn, she was listed by Forbes as Africa’s 13th richest person in 2013.

Blocks for frocks

In the late 1980s, Alakija’s label landed its biggest client: Maryam Babangida, the wife of then military dictator Ibrahim Babangida.

The details remain murky, but in 1993 Alakija’s Famfa Oil acquired the deep offshore oil prospecting licence 126, which is now oil mining licence (OML) 127 and contains the Agbami field.

There was no public tendering process, and for years, many questioned the wisdom of the acquisition.

“Most serious, long-sighted business people at the time were looking at telecoms,” explains an investment banker close to the businesswoman at dinner at his exquisitely furnished flat in one of Abuja’s most prestigious apartment blocks.

“It wasn’t a particularly smart acquisition in relation to oil prices at the time,” he says.

Famfa discovered commercial quantities of light and sweet crude in 1999, but commercial production did not begin until 2008, when surging global oil prices made the field profitable.

Producing around 250,000 barrels per day, the field is now one of Nigeria’s most lucrative.

Evidence of Alakija’s quiet but undisputed clout can be seen in a six-year-long legal battle against then President Olusegun Obasanjo, insiders say.

In 2000, Obasanjo’s government forcefully acquired a 50% stake of OML 127.

The Nigerian Supreme Court reinstated Famfa’s rights in 2012.

“It is not everybody who could have taken on Obansanjo at the height of his power and walked away with victory,” an insider points out.

Property empire

Almost as remarkable as her ascent is her own background.

Among her father’s 52 children, she and her sister were the only two educated abroad, causing a stir in the Yoruba community at the time.

Upon returning from the UK, she applied for a position at a newly opened American bank on the advice of her husband, Modupe, himself a successful lawyer.

Her time as executive secretary at The First National Bank of Chicago, now Finbank, exposed her to many members of the country’s banking elite.

Friends say she invested most of her salary in stocks and property.

“She was very determined. She had built her first house in Lagos even before her 30th birthday,” says a longtime family friend who requested anonymity.

She has built a dizzying property portfolio in the United Kingdom.

Rose of Sharon 5 Limited, an Isle of Man-headquartered company managed by Barclays, reportedly manages a property portfolio worth £60m ($98m).

Alakija herself snapped up a property at London’s exclusive One Hyde Park last year, and ac- quired a Bombardier Global Express 6000 jet.

There have been whispers that Alakija is eyeing the political field.

In late January, dozens of campaign posters cropped up in the Lagos neighbourhood of Alausa.

Alakija was quick to say that she did not sanction the posters. ●

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