By Moji Fasasi
TUCKED away in the cool, serene ambience of Tiamiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island, Lagos; fortified against the surging turbulence of the fast encroaching Bar Beach, the magnificent white building looms in majestic grandeur, its architectonic beauty accentuated by the two concrete Eyo statues, each standing in festive permanence at both edges of the roof. The massive iron gate, richly engraved with symbolic bronze sculptures, opens into an enchanting garden, replete with huge, artistic planters, sprouting an array of elegantly flourishing flora.
A smartly dressed, uniformed guard ushers the reporter to a seat at a canopied table surrounded by a set of white garden chairs in the centre of the garden area which also accommodates a rectangular swimming pool, shaded by rustling trees. The reporter tarries only a brief moment before being led into the tastefully furnished sitting-room where her hostess was already waiting to receive her.
Sitting comfortably in the richly upholstered couch, resplendent in a sparkling white satin outfit, stylishly made out in her distinctive three piece agbada ensemble, her head gracefully covered in matching lace-trimmed satin headgear, the reporter beholds a charming, youthful lady whose roundish, smooth face brightens in a spontaneous burst of friendliness as she offers the visitor a seat.
This is the captivating Princess Abiola Dosunmu-Fernandez, the Erelu of Lagos, Erelu of Egbaland, an astute business woman of long-standing repute, an accomplished socialite and frontline crusader for women emancipation in Nigeria. Glowing with the contentment of an inspiring life-time of deep commitment to achieving eminence through industry and dynamism, Erelu Abiola Fernandez’s soft voice rings out in clear rhythmic candour, betraying a firm outspokenness that springs from an inner strength of character.
A woman of strong convictions, great independent spirit and immense love for challenges, the Erelu of Lagos has left few areas unexplored in her life-long drive towards achieving solid economic independence for herself as well as enhancing the status of women in the Nigerian society and beyond.
Inspired by her strict royal upbringing and the strong, dynamic business acumen of her maternal grandmother who was also a notable woman leader, the affable descendant of the Dosunmu dynasty of Lagos had abandoned her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. She chose instead the relatively fulfilling world of business at an age when it was not fashionable to be in the trading profession.
For Erelu Fernandez, her pioneering role in business began in 1968 when she emerged as one of the first two women to open a garment and fashion accessories shop on Broad Street, the gateway to the bustling business and commercial nerve-centre of Lagos in the 60’s.
From that privileged position which saw the local corner shops doubling as information centers for tourists and business people arriving Lagos for the first time, Erelu had her first contact with the aspirations of the emerging Nigerian woman, striving hard to make a headway in the competitive commercial world dominated by men.
A widely travelled and exposed lady, Princess Dosunmu got her first big break in business with a German company, Colt and Wolfe, which specialized in the manufacture of tapes and binders and later with Bata Shoe Company, where she later became a shareholder. From these enhanced beginnings, she moved on to manufacturing endeavours, establishing a company for that purpose.
A strong urge to break new grounds in her chosen career materialized in the eventual opening of another garment shop at 71, New Bond Street, London, some ten years ago. Here, the highly creative and innovative Princess took up her pace-setting gauntlet once again, this time, in the field of fashion, introducing traditional hand-woven fabrics, aso-oke, to the Western world. The various imaginative patterns were widely promoted in international fashion magazines like Vogue.
Not one to rest on her oars, the Princess’ restless industry and entrepreneurial zeal have consistently engendered a continuous spurring of bright business ideas which have witnessed the diversification of her efforts over the years. She has been variously involved in import business, merchandising, food packaging, estate business, interior designs, and more recently construction and fish farming, in addition to her pet project, a Holiday Village she plans to put up at Lekki in conjunction with her foreign associates.
Apart from her bold step in establishing one of the first indigenous companies to lift crude oil in Nigeria, Erelu Fernandez was the only woman who participated in the public bidding for acreage last year. Although she lost her bid, the indefatigable business mogul has remained undaunted in her determination to excel in the highly competitive and male-dominated oil industry.
Every day is not the same for Erelu Abiola Fernandez, for her varied interests make equally varying demands on her time. Erelu’s day begins by 8 a.m. when she attends to visitors, business callers, as well as domestic duties before embarking on the usual string of business engagements.
First published Saturday, 26 March, 1994.