The freight forwarding business is not a sector where you would usually find women in their numbers as operators as it is a strictly male dominated one. But Princess Elizabeth Obanla Adeola has through sheer dint of hard work, risen to occupy a pride of place among the men folk. For this reason, she was made the president of the Association of Women Freight Forwarders, Lagos, Nigeria, an organization she founded. In this interview, she speaks on the place of women in the industry.
How challenging has it been running a freight forwarding business?
I can say it’s been tough and rough but we’re trying our best and the only challenge we have is not having government and financial institutions’ support. If you have a very good business idea and you don’t have the financial wherewithal to deliver the job, you will just be lost.
As a woman in a male dominated terrain, what were some of the obstacles you faced trying to establish yourself in the industry?
I thank God today because when I started it was very rough. I started about 26 years ago and when I started, men were the ones that dominated the industry. We didn’t have women interested in it because the men refused to accommodate them. The only woman I knew who was in this sector then was the late ObokunBoladare. She was very popular then.
All other women I met in the industry were either employed by companies as clerical staff or secretaries whose only job was to do documentations of their company’s cargoes.
No woman hustled with the men. I can say it authoritatively that I was the only person that started it. I was the first woman that started hustling with men at the MuritalaMuhammed International Airport. Sometimes I would be locked up for days in the police station we call Tanko City, at International Airport. Then I could remember vividly, the chairman of our association trying to discourage me from continuing by asking me, “How many women do you see here?”
And he will order the policemen to go and lock me up. Immediately they release me, I will be back to my business. Later on when he realized what he was doing, giving me tough time, he decided to let me be. My male colleagues also tried their best to discourage me by asking me the same question, “What are you doing here? Go and find something else to do instead of wasting your time here.”
Despite the discouragement, I refused to quit. I just knew deep down within me that, this was what I wanted to do and so I remained focused and determined. So, today I thank God that I was able to endure the pain and established myself.
What will you say was the driving force during those trial moments?
When you want to start a particular thing, some people will say they want to do it for a certain period of time while some will be determined to finish to remain there for a long time. When I started, I already knew at the back of my mind that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. So, I was focused and determined especially when I had people saying that women can never be successful doing this. It made me want to do more.
I was determined to make it in that sector. In fact it was so tough then that it became a huge challenge to even get a customer to work with because everyone kept asking me the same question, “What are you doing in this business?” Sometimes I will be negotiating with a customer and the men around will be discouraging them from giving me jobs. Some of them will say, “Don’t give her she will run away with your money” and all sorts of things. Some will take pity on me and give me the job while some will withdraw their documents. But I thank God that today; I was able to break that jinx.
Did you think of quitting at any point?
Never, not for one day. Such thoughts never struck my mind because I was too focused to be distracted then. I just loved the job and I didn’t mind whatever came my way then. A few people around me kept encouraging me, to keep pushing on and never give up. I have some airline managers and some custom officers who supported me fully.
Can you readily recall one day you will never forget as a freight forwarder?
It is a very long story but I will summarize it for you. There was a day I went hustling for a client at Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi. I had never met him but I felt I may likely get the job. On getting there, I met with the man and I explained to the man but instead of him to give me the job, he called the police and I was arrested. It was so embarrassing but at the end of the day, he allowed me to do the job because I told him that I am not a thief and that I can deliver. Another was when one of my customers imported a gun used for hunting. The man was from Ibadan. I was just doing my thing; I cleared the gun but before I knew what was happening, I found myself at the former IG MD Abubakar’s office.Then, he was the commissioner of police at the International Airport. I was arrested and told to provide the man before I would be released but I was later released through the intervention of our chairman. From that point on, I started getting favour from the police; they stopped arresting me and the chairman allowed me to do my business without disturbing me.
As the president of the Association of Women Freight Forwarders, how well have you been doing your bit to encourage women to come into this business?
What I can say is that, if you’re doing something good, some people would want to emulate you. When I was still struggling to establish myself, I made a vow that I won’t stoop low to debase womanhood and today, I got married to one of my colleagues.
Some people believe that women freight forwarders do not have the capacity to keep a home but today I thank God that I’m happily married and I’m doing well with my family. So that in itself is a way to encourage people into the business. Some women who studied me unknown to myself, decided to follow my footsteps and it worked for them.
How about properly educating women on how to go about their business properly and according to your work ethics?
We have been travelling to different parts of the world for seminars in order for us to have more experience and be able to meet up with international standards. Women who join us to attend these seminars get enlightened on customer relations. You know, there’re different ways to approach and relate with your customer and some of them might not know. But the seminars help and prepare them for any future challenge. If not for the just concluded elections, we would have made three trips but now that everything has calmed down, we’re looking forward to travelling to Germany and London to educate ourselves more on how to tackle the challenges of the job.
As a successful business woman, how do you manage your home and your business without any conflict?
I won’t lie to you, it’s been very tough. My husband is in public office now because he is part of the executive in our association. He’s the Financial Secretary of the association. Running an office and managing the home coupled with the fact that we have other businesses, I must tell you the truth, has been very challenging.
At times, I may get home late and my husband will insist on eating food prepared by me even though we have a cook. No matter how tired I am,I have to satisfy his wish. It is difficult but I have tried as much as possible to cope with it. Sometimes, I cook in my office for times when my husband might call to say that he’s on his way home and insists on eating a particular dish. I don’t have a choice but to get it ready for him before he arrives. My weekends are for my family, I spend it with them.
If you’re to advice any woman coming into this line of business for the first time, what will your advice be?
That going round with men should not be your priority. You might go round with 100 men and still not get there. You must stay focused, be truthful and be efficient. Don’t let the little money you make get in your head. If for instance, you have never counted a million naira in your life and a customer gives you 10 million naira to clear his goods make sure you finish his job before you buy something as small as sachet water from the money. You don’t spend somebody’s money anyhow.
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