Chief (Mrs) Afolake Akanbi is the wife of Oyo State Senator Soji Akanbi and CEO of Libragold Group, a leading travels and tourism company. She was a banker with more than two decades before she ventured into private business, focusing on such areas as the tourism industry, particularly in such areas as Muslim pilgrimage, flight charter and cargo operations. She recently celebrated her birthday with visits to some homes of the less-privileged. She spoke with PAUL UKPABIO about her family life, business and issues of national interest.
You have just celebrated your 50th birthday. How do you feel hitting the golden age?
I have felt fulfilled right from age 40. I have a feeling of fulfilment because I have been able to achieve my set goals at every point in my life. Hence, from age 40, I set a five-year goal for myself, and to the glory of God, all the goals have been met. I have trained myself to enjoy inner peace irrespective of the situation, and that to me is the best gift of life. Was it always your dream to become a successful business woman? Actually, growing up exposed me to business; I grew up spending my holidays in my father’s office and helping out with the business of the day. My mum and dad were involved in the same business. It was more like a family business, so it was natural that we got involved. I love the art of making and spending money.
I started business as a young girl in secondary school, and the interest grew as I grew older. Each time we travelled abroad on holiday, I would borrow money from my dad to purchase gift items which I sold in school, although I always paid him back with a premium. I think that was a training I valued so much. Nothing went for free. I am used to living in a crowd, having grown up in a large family. I was also trained to give back to the society. My mum engaged us in lots of humanitarian works, so getting married to my husband who went into politics at a relatively young age and growing with him in politics and philanthropy was natural. As a young girl, who did you hope to be like? My dream was to become a successful business woman, a good home maker and housewife who would devote her time to her family.
That was what I wished for and that was what I got as I grew older. In future, I hope to retire having an orphanage taking care of the less-privileged toddlers, or probably a grooming or finishing institution. Who influenced you most, your dad or your mum? I would say both of them influenced me in peculiar ways to become who I am today. Your business speciality in travels and tourism, particularly Muslim pilgrimage, is a terrain that people used to think is reserved for men… Like I said earlier, I love the art of making and spending money, so business came to me naturally as a venture. I have a number of businesses, but my main line of business is travels and tourism and that is Libragold Travels and Tours Ltd.
It is a company I started in 1996 and it is still in operation. Contrary to people’s opinion that anything Islamic is exclusive to men, Muslim pilgrimage is a hospitality business, and women are excellent in hospitality. I am one of the women tour operators who pioneered the industry, and I thank God that we are still in operation and waxing stronger. Quite a number of women have joined the industry and I embrace all of them with open arms. I have pioneered a number of additional services for the Muslim pilgrimage and in fact, I am currently working on an exhibition to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia. However, the spiritual aspect of the process is handled by learned scholars who are majorly men, and, in fact, that is changing now because we now have women scholars who are grounded in the rudiments of the Umràh and Hajj rites, and who can lead our women in performing their spiritual rites.
Did you work before you started a business? Oh yes, I was a banker. I worked with the defunct Devcom Merchant Bank and Trans International Bank, both in Lagos, before I left to start my own business in January, 1997. As at that time, I had two children, and because my husband was into business and politics and engaged much in interstate travels, I thought I needed to devote more time to my children. So I sought my husband’s consent to start a business that would provide me the flexibility to be available for my children. So here I am almost 22 years after. At what point did marriage come up or did you meet your husband in school? I grew up in a family of five girls.
My mum never ceased to ring it into our ears that the value of a girl is to have quality education, get a good job, get married in good time and start raising her own family. Of course, we made fun of my mum back then. Unknown to us, the belief had stuck in our hearts. So, all the five of us, our marriages came naturally at the right time and age. What made you to think that he was the right man? He is intelligent and full of wisdom, but I think it was more for his resilience. My husband was so persistent. It got to a point that I had to take the matter to God and He guided me right (laughs). Did you envisage that he could one day become a politician? He was already into politics before we got married.
Funny enough, barely a year into our relationship, he informed me of his intention to go into politics and I took to my heels. For about two or three weeks, I avoided him. Then my mum asked after him one day, and I said he wanted to venture into politics and I didn’t want that, so I was opting out of the relationship. She sat me down and counselled me that I should not allow that to destroy a beautiful relationship. Rather, I should support, guide and pray along with him. I wept because I was too scared of the future with a politician. As a young guy, he was upwardly mobile. His investment and portfolio management company was doing well and had great prospects. He had other businesses too which I was already an adviser and partner to. And from nowhere, I thought he wanted to rock the smooth sailing boat by going into politics. Although we were not yet married, we had a beautiful relationship and everybody was looking forward to it ending up in a happy union. He was just 29 years old. With my mum and my friends’ intervention, I thought otherwise to give the relationship a shot.
So I joined him to prepare for his election into the House of Representatives in 1991, which he won, making him the youngest member of the House of Representatives in the Third Republic. We got married in April 1993. How do you cope with his teeming crowd of political associates? I mentioned earlier that I grew up living in the midst of a large family. My parents are business people with affluence, so they attracted people to our house. So in our home, we always had various kinds of visitors. We were always entertaining people. Hence, coping with the crowd and his people has never been a problem at all. Political rallies, campaigns and so on have become part of me. As a senator, he works in Abuja and you run a business in Lagos. How do you keep the family going? Don’t forget that all my children are all grown up now. Two of them are working and the last one is in his final year in the university, so I have all the time to myself.
My business has branches in Lagos, Ibadan, Ilorin, Osogbo and Abuja. Libragold office in Abuja has been in operation since 2007, long before my husband got to the Senate. So his position now sees me going to Abuja more often than before. When I am in Lagos, I go to my Lagos office. When I am in Ibadan, I go to my Ibadan office, and when I am in Abuja, I go to my Abuja office. Technology has made life really easy now for good time managers. When my attention is required at home, I stay back at home and work while attending to other issues. So my life revolves around my family. How about your social life? Are you a member of any club or do you hold any chieftaincy title? I enjoy partying in the company of my husband. Though now, he hardly has the time or rather, he attends more political and business functions than he attends parties. I am an active member of the Nigeria-British Chamber of Commerce, Nigeria-American Chamber of Commerce, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Women in Management, Business and Public Office.
What do you do at your spare moment in form of hobbies? I have a passion for writing. I have been writing Divine Wisdom for Happiness for over a decade. It’s inspirational and educative. I also love cooking. You mean as a top executive you still find time to cook? Yes. I love to cook. At home, I am in the kitchen most parts of the day. I enjoy cooking, but I eat very little. My advice to our youths is that they should set achievable goals at all times, stay focused, work hard and never compromise on their principles. It takes a lot of energy and will to stay upright in our society, but trust me, at the end of the day, it pays off.
Giving back to the society is an act that must be taken more seriously by our youths. You don’t have to be rich before you give back. Little acts of charity go a long way. My father-in-law gave me a piece of advice just before I got married; he said: ‘My daughter, marriage is full of challenges, so any friend or acquaintance who is not contributing to your progress and your marriage, please do away with such a person.’ This has helped me greatly in sustaining my marriage and home. So, to married women, I always give the same advice and also add that you should make your life revolve around your family. Whether you are pursuing a career or in business, your ultimate is to nurture a closely knit family which you can refer to as your own.