Chief Grace Otuola Awoyemi, the Iyalode of Ilishan Remo, Iya Ijo Methodist Church, Ilishan, Yeye Oba Ilishan Remo and the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Amazing Grace Exclusive and Graade Nigeria Limited, joined the octogenarian club on June 20, 2016. In this interview by YEMISI AOFOLAJU, she X-rays her birth, childhood years, marriage and sojourn into entrepreneurship.
Can you recall your experience growing up?
My parents are late. My mother was Madam Abosede Idowu and father, Pa Alimi Odujinrin Idowu. I was the first of my mother’s two children.
Was your father a monogamist?
He had many wives, I knew at least four of them, but had three children, two from my mum and one from another woman. At birth, I was a very precious child because my mum lost her first child at three months and had to wait for another seven years before I was born after consultations with gods, unlike now that medical checks abound. My parents were pagans. In fact, I was born in a shrine and the whole town knew about my arrival. At my birth, my mother was unconscious for many hours before she came round again. I was pampered as a young girl in the shrine where I was restricted to until I was three years after which I moved to my father’s house. Due to my mum’s line of business, I had to move to my grannies’ house. Their house was close to a school and I always watched the pupils pass by when going for physical exercise. I told my grandparents I wanted to join the school but they refused. I insisted that I wanted to go to school when I was about seven years old. I was brilliant and always came third in the three arms but I was sickly which made my mum to go round again out of fear of losing me and she was eventually told to stop me from attending classes. I was out of school for another two years. In those days, teachers were more dedicated. There was a teacher, Mr Ogungbe from Ago Iwoye in my grandparents house who prevailed on my grandmum to send me back to school. I finally decided to go back to school and told my parents to go and appeal to their god to allow me go back to school because my classmates were already ahead of me.
My brilliant performance in Standard Three made me to be loved by all my class teachers and specifically Olori Yetunde Gbadebo (nee Idowu) from Abeokuta who taught me in 1950. I decided to live with her. The late patriarch of Methodist Church, Bolaji Idowu, was her brother. She was and is still my mentor.
Is she still alive?
Yes, she is very much alive. I decided to live with her, though my father was against it, I had my way. We only had Sagamu Girls’ Secondary School and Sagamu Teachers Training College in the whole of Remo then. She was the one who took a form for me and eventually became my guardian. Her maiden name coincidentally tallied with mine, so people thought she was my blood sister. I was given admission but my father later came to inform the principal that I was not related to Miss Idowu. In the long run, I was sent back to the primary school. Two years after, Mr Soyombo, our headmaster sent me back to Sagamu, saying that I should not be denied education because my father was not a Christian. I was baptised there with my uncle, a Methodist member as guarantor. Later, my principal wanted me to go to UMC, Ibadan for a four-year course, but the Methodist Teachers’ Training College course was for two years and I was already a mature student. I had a boyfriend then who was the only child of his parents.
Did you marry your then boyfriend?
Yes, I did. We courted for seven years before we got married. I lied to the principal that my parents could not afford to pay my school fees just to get married. That was how I attended Methodist Teachers’ College for two years.
What attracted you to him?
His mother was a nice woman who I got attached to through my friends. I joined them to sell water, palm kernel and kola nut for her, though this was against my parents’ wish. In the process, she started calling me ‘my wife’. Later, the son approached me. I thought within me, ‘was it because your mother used to call me ‘my wife’ that gave you the confidence to approach me? Initially, I didn’t give in though he was equally stubborn. He had a friend who was my uncle who drove away other men from me.
For how many years did you teach?
As a Grade 3 teacher, I taught for three years in both Sagamu and Lagos. I travelled abroad, London precisely in 1962 and had five certificates there.
Were you married then?
Yes, I was. I got married on January 1, 1959.
How old were you?
I was 23 years old.
What was the reaction of your parents to getting married at that age?
They were expecting this. In those days, girls who were 16, 17, 18 years of age were given out in marriage. All my age mates who were not educated got married before I did.
What courses did you study abroad?
I first enrolled for Chartered Secretarial Studies, Business Studies, later Taxation, Management Studies and Credit Management. I had these between 1962 and 1968.
Didn’t you have children while undergoing the courses?
I had three of them.
How were you able to combine all these?
All the courses were on part-time basis. I came back to Nigeria in December 1968 while my husband came in 1969. I first taught at a school in Mushin, Lagos for three months before joining Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, Lagos as executive officer in the Administrative Department. I got another job with the Lagos State Ministry of Finance as Executive Officer, Accounts, where I was posted to the High Court.
How long did you work for the government?
I joined the government in 1968, and resigned in 1975.
I was working and also trading.
How did you cut your business teeth?
Before I left England, I was earning 1000 pounds per annum. On getting to Nigeria, I was paid 648 pounds. Then, naira was more valuable than pounds sterling. I couldn’t cope with the family needs with just 648 pounds. My husband then was earning 720 pounds per annum at United Nigerian Insurance Corporation. We had four children and these were attending schools where fees were paid. As the account officer in the High Court, I was always left with little or nothing to do for the rest of the month after the judges might have been paid their salaries and travel expenses. Calculating how to spend our salaries on rents, children’s school fees among other needs was my major preoccupation. After working hours on a fateful day, on Martins Street, I saw a head tie being sold for three and a half pence. I bought some which I sold for four and a half pence each. I later saw a lace material similar to the one sold for 28 pounds in England being sold for 65 pounds here in Nigeria. Since it was very difficult to get pounds sterling, I appealed to my boss who had a house in England to help change my naira to 25 pounds. I bought some jewellery (GL) and sent to my sister in England to help me sell. My boss collected 125 pounds with which my sister bought 10 bundles of lace materials and sent them to me. A customer bought the lace with the suitcase for 400 pounds. This was how I started my business with 125 pounds.
When did you hit your first million?
I cannot remember.
What was the feeling like on your first outing with 125 pounds?
I got it changed and sent it back to my sister. This was how I started selling textile.
Are you still trading?
Yes, I am. When the business was growing, my husband and I did it together. He travelled abroad every weekend and would bring to Nigeria all that my sister bought for me. For him then, it was good night on Friday in London and good morning in Nigeria on Monday.
What was the experience like being in the same business with your husband?
It was nothing unusual. We were selling together till he died in 2005.
Were you satisfied with textile business only?
I was duped when I tried to diversify.
What other business did you go into?
Rice business, the famous Dikko Rice. We could not buy directly, we got our consignment after we might have paid to a middleman for us to get the product at the ports with tickets. The middleman collected money and never supplied me the rice till date.
Did you ever feel like quitting business?
I felt like quitting when I lost 450,000 dollars. I brought in lace materials with two trailers and a pickup van which were impounded by the Customs at Anthony. Selling lace materials then was like selling cocaine now. Another consignment through Seme-Ota was again seized based on a tip-off within a space of three months. This was the time I felt quitting the business was the only option. Again, I gave some amount to an American who wanted to set up soft drinks business in Cross River State. He was to help me pay to the Central Bank so that I could collect in dollar or pound sterling abroad. He too duped me. It was like starting all over again. It got to a point when I wanted to sell all I had to relocate to the UK since all my children were there studying.
What has kept you on?
God has kept me on.
What is the secret of your success?
God has been my secret because I don’t believe in failure. I always push ahead. There was a time that I didn’t have up to five bundles of lace material to sell, but I continued buying each design in five yards to show that I was still in the business.
Did you display these in the shop?
Which shop? I only had one just for five years and I never stayed there for a day. I always had a sales girl in the shop. As we speak, I don’t have any. My house has been my shop till date.
Who are your customers?
Nigerians are my customers. You [Women Affairs] will soon be one of them. The quality of my fabric has always done the magic. Quality has been the watchword of my business. Though my clients are of the opinion that my textiles are expensive, they are of good quality. I started selling Aso Oke just by chance. But I am now known more with Aso Oke than lace.
What do you value most?
My children are my assets.
How will you rate today’s teachers?
Teachers nowadays are businessmen and women. In our days, we not only taught the pupils in school but continued teaching them at home. Who is doing this now?
What can be done to remain on top of challenges?
I have told you the challenges I had, but I never allowed this to get at me. I pushed on in spite of all odds. Whenever you come to a brick wall, try all you can to climb or break through it. The issue of the 450,000 dollars that I was duped of ate deep into my husband’s purse as he spent nearly the same amount chasing after the culprit. I later told him on the need for us to start all over again. One thing that has helped is that I am a land speculator. When our business was moving, we invested in properties, though we have sold many. If we didn’t invest, we could not have sold. Investing in properties is the surest investment in the world today. If you buy cars, they might crash, if you invest in dresses or gold, you can dispose of them easily or they can be stolen.
What are your hobbies?
My hobbies are reading, shopping and singing to keep me in shape. In 1979, some Chinese doctors who came to Nigeria advised me to stop walking after a check up. They said that with time, I wouldn’t be able to walk again, but this was not my portion. This was the time I chose to travel to Hong Kong, South Korea and to the far East to get good textiles. I can shop from morning till evening. When shopping I don’t feel hungry. When I am reading, I don’t feel sleepy, when I am singing, I forget all my sorrows.
How do you give back to the society?
Giving back to the society is my weakness, but I don’t like making noise about this. I hate seeing people in need. I believe in sharing because as I give God keeps giving me.
Who is your role model?
Olori Yetunde Gbadebo remains my role model. She was instrumental in my being educated. She is a teacher and a preacher. I started preaching like her in 1953.
Are you still in touch with her?
Yes. She will be around for my party today.
How old is she?
She is 88 years old.
What counsel do you have for young women?
Do I have any? Even if you do, will they listen? They are fond of discarding any word of advice from the elderly as they say, ‘that was in your time’. The only advice for them is to be hardworking, honest and God-fearing.
What lesson has marriage taught you?
I was lucky to have a good husband. Marriage has been kind to me. I had a brother in my late husband. My husband of 46 years was my friend, confidant, lover and everything to me. If you offend me, I easily forget, but if anybody offended my husband, he or she had offended me because he was the type who was not used to reacting to issues.
At 80, what is your wish?
My wish is to serve God and humanity the more.