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Nigerian billionaire takes on cause of 'mistreated widows'

From Jessica Ellis, CNN
February 16, 2012 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Folorunso Alakija is one of Nigeria's most successful businesswomen
  • A banking executive turned fashion designer who also made a fortune from oil interests
  • Today she is giving back as a philanthropist, helping Nigeria's widows and orphans
  • Alakija has recently released her autobiography

Editor's note: Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- From shaking up Nigeria's fashion scene to striking it rich in the oil business, Nigerian billionaire Folorunso Alakija has tasted success in all walks of life.

The former banking executive-turned-fashion designer-turned oil magnate is one of the west African country's most accomplished businesswoman, boasting a long and successful career in several fields.

In recent years, the 61-year-old has been dedicating her time to give back and help those in need as an author and philanthropist -- in 2008, she launched the Rose of Sharon foundation, a non-governmental organization that provides for widows and orphans across Nigeria.

"We found out that widows are a stigma in this society," says Alakija. "Once they lose their husbands, the society turns their backs on them, their in-laws begin to mistreat them, they become depressed, they don't know where to turn, they don't know where their next meal is coming from."

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In some parts of Nigeria, many widowed women face untold hardships as a result of traditional customs -- in many cases, if a widow doesn't have any male adult children she can lose all her husband's property, while in-laws often do not provide her with economic support, especially if she does not accept becoming an additional wife to one of her husband's brothers.

Alakija, a mother of four sons, is working hard to change such conditions, using her financial background to provide interest-free loans and scholarships.

"We try our best to bring hope back into their lives," she says, noting that so far the organization has been able "to fend for 2,751 widows and 963 widows' children, 66 orphans and actually 11 widows at university through the foundation."

Alakija says her organization's next goal is to help set up schools across Nigeria, in areas where the women would be able to work the land while their children would attend classes within walking distance.

"Where they and their children can live and grow fruits and vegetables and sell them so that they will be able to build their confidence a bit more," she says.

Born into privilege in 1951 in Nigeria, Alakija grew up in a very large family -- her father had eight wives and 52 children in his lifetime. At the age of seven she moved to the UK with her sister to attend a private school before returning to Nigeria four years later.

She did her first professional steps in the 1970s as a bank secretary but quickly moved along the corporate ladder, becoming the first head of corporate affairs at IMB, Nigeria's International Merchant Bank.

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Two years later she moved into a financial position in the treasury department but soon started thinking about creating her own business.

"It was a time when Nigerians were starting to look inwards and fashion was beginning to pick up in Nigeria and people were being very proud of wearing African fashion, Nigerian clothing," remembers Alakija, who made the switch from finance to fashion in the mid-1980s.

We will have to continue to dialogue and criticize ourselves and make it a better place to live in.
Folorunso Alakija

After studying in London for a year, Alakija returned to Nigeria to make her debut as a designer. She rented a three-bedroom apartment in a popular district of Lagos and called her fashion label Supreme Stitches.

The business was an immediate success as Supreme Stitches became a household brand in Nigeria and turned Alakija into a big name in the country's fashion industry.

By the 1990s, the award-winning designer's entrepreneurial acumen led her into another major investment -- a foray in the oil business that resulted in the creation of Famfa Oil, a family-run oil and gas exploration and production company in which Alakija, her husband and their children are all heavily involved.

Read more: Master storyteller brings folk tales to life

Alakija's latest chapter in life saw her turn to writing for her autobiography -- titled "Growing with the hand that gives the rose" -- in which she shares the secrets to her success through her life experiences and challenges.

"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."

She hopes her latest book will spread her efforts for future change in Nigeria.

"It's a land flowing with opportunities, land flowing with milk and honey," she says. "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 criticize ourselves and make it a better place to live in."

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