By Estelle Cholet
Daring, efficient and ambitious… These are just some of the words that have been used to describe Folashade Akanni-Shelle, the new managing director of Bolloré Transport & Logistics in Nigeria.
Bolloré waited until the end of January 2021 to make Folashade Akanni-Shelle’s appointment official. At 41, Akanni-Shelle is – since October 2020 – the first woman to head the Nigerian subsidiary of Bolloré Transport & Logistics (BTL). At the same time, she is returning to her home country which, she knows, is waiting for her to make her mark.
While in Tanzania, her previous assignment, Akanni-Shelle managed 300 people. In Lagos, she will be supervising more than 600 employees. She is also responsible for managing an area of 925,000 km², which consists of the group’s branches in Badagry, Agbara and Abuja, as well as the 26 warehouses scattered throughout the country.
A huge market and an historic recession
With more than 200 million inhabitants, Nigeria is a huge market for the group, which has specialised there over the years in the transport of consumer goods, telephony and oil and gas. Moreover, Akanni-Shelle comes in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, which is hitting the Nigerian economy hard. The IMF is expecting a -4.3% recession for 2020 and a very slow recovery during 2021.
However, Akanni-Shelle loves a challenge. “My goal is to make BTL the first clearing agency in Nigeria. And we are going to do it differently from our competitors: without compromising either on the group’s policy or on our level of compliance,” she says.
Régis Tissier, in charge of the Tanzania-Rwanda-Burundi zone, believes Akanni-Shelle, his previous manager, is perfect for the job. “She has a natural authority that commands respect through competence. When I had to replace my assistant in Tanzania in 2017, I was the one who went to look for her. She is hard-working, efficient and very ambitious. She thinks very quickly. Sometimes even too fast. Some decisions take a little time… But [Fola]Shade is like that: she goes for it. Tanzania has taught her not to always react too quickly.”
Climbing the Corporate Ladder
Akanni-Shelle is already familiar with Nigeria. Besides the fact that she spent her whole childhood between Ngoyi and Ifako Agege, at 23 she became a representative of OT Africa Line in Lagos – an operator owned at the time by Delmas, itself controlled by SDV Logistic International, which would later become a subsidiary of Bolloré Logistics in 2015.
She was the first Nigerian woman to hold this position. Akanni-Shelle’s secretary meanwhile, was twice her age. Her team was apprehensive at first. “I was extremely anxious, but it went very well. Later I understood why: it was the power of knowledge. They didn’t think that someone like me, an African, a woman, could know the business as well as I did. But as long as you know what you are talking about, and others know that you know, they can’t say anything against you.”
She then began climbing the corporate ladder one rung at a time. After Nigeria, she became the head of logistics services for Bolloré in Ghana, then director of logistics solutions in Uganda, and finally general manager in Tanzania. “I was not propelled to the top. I was forced to move forward step by step. And because I’ve gone through all the steps, because I’ve held so many different positions within the group, I’m much stronger.”
Getting stuck in as soon as possible
Akanni-Shelle has a law degree from Cardiff University in the UK. She then decided to specialise in maritime law in Southampton. “I said to myself, Shipping can withstand anything. Wars, recessions, pandemics. No matter what happens, people will continue to move things from point A to point B. Even in the worst of times, they will transport medicines, food, weapons. Something always has to move. So this is the best industry to work in.”
After completing her master’s degree in maritime law, she quickly set about finding her first job which would be at OT Africa Lines, but not in Nigeria right away. At that point, the group was only looking for a shipping agent, with lower qualifications than those she had.
However, her goal was to get stuck in as soon as possible. After a year, the position evolved to better correspond to her profile and she became a double assistant to both the sales manager and the export manager. She accompanied them everywhere – including, after two years, to their agency in Nigeria.
She had then planned to take a leave of absence and return to her country, which she had discovered was dynamic and full of opportunities. Aware of the young woman’s potential, her managers found a way to keep her in the “family” by offering her the position of local representative. Akanni-Shelle would remain with the group for seventeen years.
Back to school to finish top of the class
Despite this trajectory, Akanni-Shelle admits that the climb wasn’t smooth. From her early years at Bolloré, she noticed that her male colleagues who started at the same level as her progressed much faster. Her frustration steadily grew over the years until she decided to look for a way to jump off the Bolloré boat without it affecting her career. In 2016, she decided that she would do an MBA in Business Administration and Management.
She submitted her resignation, which was refused. Instead, she was granted a sabbatical year, at the end of which she would be appointed to Tanzania. Akanni-Shelle would then go on to be awarded the title of valedictorian of her class at Cranfield University in the UK.
Akanni-Shelle wanted a position in Nigeria and she finally got it. Not only did she wish to lead Bolloré’s latest project and be closer to her family, she also wanted to honour her family’s first “strong woman”. Alhaja Taibat Abebi Agunbiade, her grandmother, was a businesswoman ahead of her time and “a matriarch who always got what she wanted”. Despite not having gone to university, she became one of the stars of the Nigerian clothing industry. A network that Akanni-Shelle has had from a very young age having attended the best schools in the country, which will serve her well in her new position.