by Linda Ikeji
For women in Africa, especially in Nigeria, setting up your own business comes with a unique set of challenges. However, as more take the plunge, the rewards are starting to be reaped. For the few who rise to nationwide or global prominence, the trail they blaze opens up a door for many to follow through in their paths. They become reference points to the small and the great, and their achievements change the narrative of folk tales that once told us “a woman can’t do that”.
A fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Architects, Arc Yemisi Suswam (PhD, FNIA) is the Chief Executive Officer of All Purpose Shelters Limited.
Women in Nigeria now have a favourable circumstance to set their dream projects in motion and fully own the sense of personal and professional satisfaction that comes with it. Life does give you more than a few opportunities, why waste any that come your way? Women are increasingly gaining influence in the corporate world and Nigeria is no exception. Thanks to a new crop of bold and creative female entrepreneurs who are leading the business charts in the country, time is not far away when female entrepreneurs and workforce worldwide will surpass the number of working men globally. Women need to be investors of their future and an essential part of the workforce.
Through exceptional resilience in balancing career and family life, one of the strongest women who has continuously shown the immense possibilities and opportunities that exist for women in Africa is Arc. Yemisi Suswam. Although many know her as just a “former first lady of Benue state, north central Nigeria,” this multifaceted achiever with up to 25 years of architectural experience under her belt revealed to PLEASURES Magazine layers of unparalleled authenticity that translate to all that she is and does.
“Simple, hardworking, creative, positive, honest, friendly, God-fearing and tranquil” are just a few of the adjectives that best describe her, and indeed her unassuming homely personality and calm demeanor may tempt one to underjudge her at first sight. PLEASURES Magazine has taken time to dig deep to reveal layers of experiences, training, and principles that make up Arch Yemisi Suswam, an ordained minister of God at the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG).
From a simple Christian family background, under the mentorship of her civil servant father, Chief Ayo Balogun of Emure, Ekiti state and businesswoman mother, Chief Mrs. Hannah Balogun (Nee Haliru Kaiama), who she reckons were her early role models.
Arch Yemisi grew to be the woman we celebrate today with her early memories of love from her parents who even though busy at the time, found a way to express their affection to young Yemisi. Her father through careful study discovered her strong personality and groomed it, instilling in her discipline, compassion and transparency which remain at the core of her values today.
Even though nurtured for the most part in the lap of luxury, being in boarding school from as early as primary three forced her to learn independence and adopt self-reliance which proved to be invaluable for the journey ahead. At primary three, she assumed her first formal leadership role as assistant Head Girl of her school, continuing as a prefect in primary four and eventually becoming her school’s Head Girl in primary 5. As a very athletic young girl, she represented her school in competitions at the state level and continued to become a Sports Prefect at Federal Government College Oyo where she had her secondary education.
A Phd holder in Architecture from the University of Jos (2020), Arch Yemisi was indeed an exceptional student who distinguished herself in all that she set out to do, and her university was no different. As the only female in the early class of architecture at the Federal University of Technology Minna, Arch Yemisi defied the odds and stood out for excellence to become one of the best students in her class. There she obtained both a B.Tech Architecture in 1992 and M.Tech Architecture in 1993 and went on to complete the mandatory one year National Youth Service Corps, at the Federal Capital Development Authority in Abuja in 1994.
As a career-driven young woman with foresight, the opportunities which existed in Abuja’s vast lands waiting for development were not hidden to her. She settled in, took the reins, conceived the dream, and birthed “All Purpose Shelters Limited”, her private architectural practice in 1994 and registered the company in 1995. The company began with a secretary, a driver and herself, who were responsible for ensuring her early clients received their desired designs in a timely and succinct form in line with the globally accepted standard. Not long after, she challenged herself to go a step further to supervising client projects, and soon found a gap which she termed “An imbalance in the fabric of the building”, and she quickly filled that gap, giving rise to “All Purpose Lights”.
The lack of adequate electrical fittings in the contemporary architecture in Abuja spurred the mandate for All Purpose Lights, which is to deliver the best quality electrical fittings for buildings in Abuja to compliment other building accessories. From Alaba market in Lagos Nigeria, to Dubai and eventually Italy, she sourced state of the art fittings for her clients and her colleagues in the industry. What started as a dream in her little apartment at Udi Street Maitama, Abuja in 1995, had now metamorphosed into two solution-oriented companies on their way to making a mark in the nation.
In 2003, still operating out of a small office, her company All Purpose Shelters Limited, won the open tender among150 other development companies for the Wuye Ultra-Modern Market project in Abuja, Nigeria. This was a project under the Private Public Partnership Initiative by the Federal Capital Territory Authority, and was a design, build and manage contract which further expanded the All Purpose Shelters Limited. She conquered every challenge that presented itself, and under the glaring eyes of the government, friends, family members, and the public, she again took the wheel, and even though not the smoothest of sails, she led her team to dock in safety and success, and in her heart of service she continues to push for one of her visions for the market, aimed at ensuring that food is served on the common man’s table.
The Wuye ultra-modern market, even though one of many of the ‘All Purpose Shelter’ Projects, was a milestone achievement that has shown to all, the excellence of Arch Yemisi Suswam, the All Purpose Shelters Limited and the endless possibilities that exist for women in business in Nigeria and ultimately Africa. For All Purpose Shelters Limited, All Purpose Consult, and All Purpose Light, the watchwords are standard and integrity. Projects and products delivered, are pristine contemporary architecture that meets client needs and are at par with architectural designs and projects globally. They provide a bill of quantities that will start and finish client’s projects, to give room for proper planning, and by extension proper execution.
Arch Yemisi Suswam’s story will of course lack an integral part without mentioning her husband’s tenure in office as the Governor of Benue State from 2007 to 2015, hence her time as a First Lady of the state. But leadership did not start for her family at that level, her husband Sen. Gabriel Suswam earlier served in the fourth Assembly, and for someone who already had early training in leadership, this was another opportunity for her to committedly work for the greater good of others. She set out to always feel the pulse of the people and know exactly what their needs were, doing all in her power to ensure those needs were adequately met. It is as a result of this, that the Sev-Av Foundation was birthed, a tripartite non-governmental organisation focused on the control of the spread of HIV in the state, skill acquisition programmes for youths and managing an agro-processing centre for farmers.
As an exemplary leader, Arc Yemisi Suswam who was inducted into the College of Fellows of the Nigerian Institute of Architects on Nov. 29 2019, weaved herself into the fabric of the people she was called to serve and birthed several projects through the Sev-Av Foundation. The anti-HIV campaign project which spread billboards around all 23 local government areas, ensured widespread testing in the state, and education of HIV/AIDS negative and treatment of the positive individuals was a huge success. In no time, the world health organization (WHO) declared Benue state number 11 in the states most affected by HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, from its previous number 1 place. The skills acquisition project, over the years, has graduated no less than 10,000 students in skills ranging from knitting, tailoring, beading, computer studies, catering, and welding fabrication.
Arch Yemisi Suswam also started the “Celebrate Benue Woman”, an initiative aimed at giving Benue women a sense of self-reliance, self-confidence and a mindset of possibilities. These projects and service to her people, whom she embraced even though being originally from western Nigeria, set her apart and won her numerous awards both during her time as First Lady of Benue state and after her husband’s tenure in office. Today those awards, from the European Union, the Nigerian Television Authority, Nigerian Institute of Architects, Christian Association of Nigeria, The Sun Newspaper, to mention a few, adorn her office and home, telling all the story of a hardworking woman and high achiever who never cowers down in the face of challenges.
A graduate of Harvard Kennedy school of Executive education in Women and Power: Leadership in a new world (2009), Arc Yemisi Suswam has risen on the backs of many women who she considers mentors and role models, to become the phenomenon that she is today. Some of such women are, her mother who was a firm disciplinarian, a teacher by profession that set the right examples for her in her early years, her secondary school principal whose focus and firmness she admired, former first lady H.E. Mariam Babangida, Winnie Mandela, Hilary Clinton, and H.E. Fati Abubakar. Professional women who command respect in their own right, and still humble themselves under the leadership of their husbands, women who have made great impact in their career.
Arc Yemisi Suswam is indeed a woman who dots her I’s and crosses her T’s, but this she never does without the recognition of the one in whom her strength is found and the one she considers the Architect of all things. Anyone who has encountered her never goes home without having the pleasure of meeting Architect Yemisi the “God Lover”. In her words,“ I have encountered God for myself, I believe in the power of God, and it has spurred me to surrender all my desires to the will of God for me, God’s spirit informs what I do and I return all glory to God for everything”.
Arc Yeimisi Suswam has walked a path many can only dream of in their lifetime, she has shown resilience, integrity, graciousness in her dealings, a mindset of an achiever and has continuously overcome challenges that presented themselves on this journey to leave a trail for many to find success also. She has maintained an impeccable character through it all, showing the world, especially young women that through simplicity, humility, selflessness and a commitment to put in the work “It can be done!”