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'The Africa rising narrative is not a myth'

BIG VISION: Billionaire philanthropist Folorunsho Alakija

SECURITY AT The Global African Investment Summit was tight and, considering the elite guest list, for good reason.

The annual event – now in its second year – brought together African heads of state, finance ministers, billionaire business people with high net worth and investors with the aim of making deals to advance the continent.

On the roster was the prime minister of Benin and the presidents of Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Malawi as well as Aliko Dangote, of the Dangote Group and Jim Ovia, founder of Zenith Bank, Nigeria’s largest commercial bank.

Former Nigerian President Olusegen Obasanjo, who many at the summit credited for supporting Nigeria’s wealthy entrepreneurs, was also in attendance.

The collective wealth in the room ran into the tens of billions in pounds and boasted more than a handful of Forbes profiles among them.

Among them was Nigeria’s richest woman, Folorunsho Alakija, best known for her considerable contributions to her country’s fashion industry but now for her extreme wealth, most of which comes from an oil-exploration licence granted to her company, Famfa Ltd in 1993.

The 617,000-acre oil block would go on to become the highly lucrative OML 127, of which Alakija’s family retains a 60 per cent stake.

With an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion, the entrepreneur was this year named by Forbes as Africa’s second most powerful woman, after Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She is also ranked the 87th most powerful woman in the world.

Speaking to The Voice, Alakija said attending the conference was a moral duty to the continent she “cares so passionately about”.

She explained: “I believe if you are offered such an opportunity, one needs to give the support to help move our continent forward…to be a voice, just like your newspaper, The Voice.

“It’s an opportunity to be able to speak out and let the world know what we need to say. We should say it amongst ourselves, then to the rest of the world to let them know what is going on in Africa.”

The African icon said there were many things happening on the continent that made her excited.

“You hear that expression ‘Africa Rising’ all the time and it’s not a myth, it’s true. African has been rising. It is rising. It is here to stay and it will carry on rising,” she emphasised with pride. “We have been down there for too long but this is our time and we need to take advantage of it, make the best use of it and take Africa where it needs to be.”

As well as her business acumen, Alakija is building a growing reputation for philanthropy.

In 2008, the committed born-again Christian set up the faith-based NGO, Rose of Sharon Foundation.

It empowers widows and orphans through scholarships and business grants.

To date, it has supported 970 widows, 11 of whom are now in university, and awarded scholarships to 1,366 children of widows and 72 orphans.

MIXING AND MINGLING: Alakija attending Pitch @ Palace hosted by the Duke of York

The loans are interest free and the scholarships have no conditions attached. It has also provided accommodation for residential/business purposes for 82 widows.

Speaking during a panel of esteemed guests during the two-day conference, held at Westminster Central Hall on December 1 and 2, Alakija advocated philanthropy as another means of helping Africa progress.

She said African countries offering tax breaks to the wealthy in exchange for charitable donations could be a way to encourage billionaires to follow in her footsteps in giving generously.

“Charity should begin at home,” the mother-of-four said.

In a 2014 speech at the University of Lagos, Alakija told students that her success was not a “rags to riches fairytale” and that she had worked hard for her dreams.

“I’ve always wanted my own business,” she revealed to the audience before sharing the secrets to her success: “Hard work. Persistence. Those times you nearly give up, but I chose not to give up. Times when it would be easy to compromise, but I chose not to.”

Alakija, descended from a long line of Nigerian chiefs, admitted her own father had urged her to train as a secretary, which she did, but “I had bigger aspirations”, she added.

She went on to add banker, fashion icon, corporate promoter, printer, real estate owner, oil magnate and author to her long list of achievements.

In this spirit, the formidable businesswoman hopes to support and encourage other women who could benefit from her wealth and connections.

“God has touched my heart in so many different ways that I felt a need to do something for God,” Alakija told The Voice. “So I asked him where do you want me to serve? He specifically gave me a scripture in the Bible and I went to check that out and I found he wanted me to serve in the way of widows and orphans. He has sent me to them. You have to start where you are and gravitate and expand from that point so that’s where my philanthropy started. You have to reach out and touch those who are around you so I started in Nigeria. Charity begins at home.”

Alakija, who named Fela Kuti’s mother Funmilayo Ransome Kuti – the first Nigerian woman to drive a car as well as an activist for women’s rights - as an icon she admired, said there was more work to be done in that area.

“The rights of women aren’t anywhere near where they should be, not just where I want them to be,” she said with passion. “We form 50 per cent of the world’s population and the world population is being put down and not being given the right opportunity to put in their quota to grow business, grow the economy and to use their time and energy and talents to make a positive impact on the world.”

Can women change the world? “Absolutely,” Alakija replied instantly. “Governments need to give them the opportunity to be able to speak and be heard. The contribution we can make can only be positive.”

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