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Want a Jeep? Go and sell akara

By Sam Eyoboka
LONG before the world started     feeling the pangs of the     current economic meltdown, Nigerians, reputed for their doggedness despite the absolute poverty confronting them due to years of corrupt and inept leadership in the country, have perfected plans to develop the informal sector of the nation’s economy not minding the monumental odds against them.

Mrs Comfort Ogo-Oluwa in her Jeep

They have come to realize that if they don’t take the bull by the horns and strive to create wealth for themselves and empower their children with quality education, nobody, not even the self serving politician would look their way nor are the banks willing to assist them, because they lacked necessary collaterals to attract needed loans.

\Today, several Nigerians irrespective of their  backgrounds have doggedly defied the numerous challenges on their ways like the embarrassing poor energy situation, decaying public utilities, non-existent infrastructures and high cost of doing business generally, to strive to carve a niche for themselves and leave a lasting legacy for their off springs. It was therefore not surprising that, the ugly happenings in the nation’s seat of power, the Aso Rock Villa and the different state houses, meant little or nothing to the average Nigerian who would prefer to be left alone to find ways of helping himself since nobody is really willing to take cognizance of his plight.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. There is no doubt that Nigerians are very innovative. You only have to look around you to know that God had so blessed this nation, not just with crude oil and other natural resources, but with abundance of talents whom, rather than carry placards to demonstrate against endemic poverty in the society, are showcasing divine endowments and are paying their bills and smiling to the banks.

One such Nigerian is Mr. Peter Chimaobi Odumuko who hails from Umuahia in Abia State. He is a little over 44 years old, married and has two children. When he arrived Lagos in 1981 with a very scanty briefcase, his ambition was to become one of the greatest commercial printers in the country and immediately went to train as one but after a long while it dawned on him that he was on a not-too-profitable voyage.

His next work plan, to his relations was, to say the least, crazy as some of them actually took some subterranean moves to have his head examined because they could not come to terms with how a commercial printer, used to wearing suits about town in the process of scouting for contracts, would make a u-turn and opt for bean cake (akara) making.

Today, fair complexioned Mr. Odumuko (Igbo word for ‘available even in scarcity’) has his operational base at Iyana Ipaja bus stop and two other outlets manned by two brothers who had earlier mocked at him. He has in his employment six able-bodied persons working at that location. They will not disclose their monthly income but merely admitted that it was juicy.

His intriguing story: “I started with printing apprenticeship for three years and when I became free, I did field work on printing for some years between 1989 and 1993. There came a time when I became worried about what to do that will give me constant daily income. So, it was the pursuit for a daily income that led me to akara business.”

Asked if printing was not rewarding enough, he said he was operating on a very low scale without much equipment. “You know then, when we go to our customers, they think that we were well equipped but we were not. At times, they give us a job and just call to say we want this job ready so and so time,” he explained, adding that it is only a man with sufficient printing equipment that can meet such tight deadlines.

In fact, he continued, you don’t get paid immediately for most of such printing jobs and in most cases you borrow money to execute such jobs. That was what led him to begin a hunt for an alternative that can fetch him daily income and by the grace of God, he found a way out. “One day, I was coming from a place where I went to make plates for a printing job when I saw one woman frying bean cake (akara) and it was very bulky and I asked her how much and she told me it was just N10.”

Odumuko immediately bought 10 balls which he shared among colleagues in his office. But before departing from the woman’s presence, he said, rather jokingly that he was going to come back to learn the trade and quite naturally the woman never took him serious until he came back and “so here we are today.”
That was way back in 1994. He paid N700 as sign on fees with the normal accompaniments like a crate of soft drinks, a bottle of hot drink and a bottle of wine. According to him, his trainer as at that time, had already built a 6-room apartment in her husband’s compound from the business and in blessing him, she prayed that he would certainly go places. Shortly after his apprenticeship, he began on his own with about N6,000.

That tiny step he took in 1994 has today grown to become a money spinner which has fetched him a 4-bedroom flat in Ayobo area and an Isuzu Rodeo. In addition, he is able to take adequate care of his nuclear family and more. He has trained so many people. “My immediate senior brother said I was not serious when I told him I wanted to train on how to fry akara. He said akara ke? But today he is the one managing our outlet at the Lagos Abeokuta Expressway. My younger brother, the last born of our family, said ‘look at my senior brother who came to Lagos who after going to school what he now does is riding okada. Chimaobi (that is me) who they think is intelligent what he is doing is frying akara.’ Now, he mans our Ogba outlet.”

There was a time when he had 12 employees in one of the three outlets but today because of low turnover, he had reduced that number to about 6. Though, he had suffered so much harassment in the hands of Lagos State environmental operatives but he had no regrets because the amiable governor of Lagos State is doing a wonderful job in the state and “I will not hesitate to vote for him if he runs for a second term in office.”
He said he once had about a dozen outlets scattered from Cele bus stop along Apapa-Oshodi Expressway to Oshodi but today he is managing just three due to the beautification programme of the state governor.

Mr. Odumuko traced his success in the business to commitment, saying that nobody can pull you down except yourself, especially when you are committed to what you are doing. “I believe that is exactly what saw us through,” he said “I used to carry a bag of beans into the market myself to
grind and will come here to turn same before frying the bean cakes. All those days of perseverance have been rewarded by heaven.

My secret is commitment.”
The business has expanded beyond akara to include buns, fried yam, and even meat pie, which is why Mr. Odumuko believes that in another five years, he would graduate to be competing with the big players in the confectionery industry. He is therefore soliciting funds from any quarters to
assist him develop the project and by so doing, help the government to employ some individuals out of the army of unemployed youths in the country.
Asked how the current economic meltdown has affected his business, the father of two said if his costumers are not making enough money for themselves, there is no way they would patronise him. “It is only when money is in your pocket that you will be able to buy. Time was when people were queuing while I was still frying and sometime helping me to serve themselves, but now it is different. But I am still happy.”

His clientele include the big, the small, the young, the old, the poor, the rich, as all kinds of people stop by to purchase his bean cake and from morning till sometimes late in the night.

Yet, another of those Nigerians who defied all odds to attain success and wealth is Comfort Ogo-Oluwa. When Comfort Ogo-Oluwa (the glory of God) was born in Iloro, Ekiti State some 55 years ago, nobody gave her the slightest chance of even making it to Lagos, let alone joining
the exclusive club of the nova riche.

She had no formal education and just 10 years after a marriage that produced four children, her husband died, leaving her the onerous responsibility of raising the kids alone. Confronted with debilitating hunger, the woman had no other alternative than to migrate to Lagos – a land presumed to be flowing with milk and honey. But that was not to be because, upon arrival, she discovered that just like her native homestead, she had to redouble her efforts to eke a living here.

She began by selling biscuits at Oshodi market where on a daily basis, fellow traders are confronted by council workers and in most cases they lose their wares and by implication, their hard earned capital.

While still on this cat-and-mouse game without any tangible results, God intervened in her life when one faithful day she was going home thinking of how she was going to feed her children when, according to her, the Spirit of God directed her to where an Igbo man was selling akara by the road side and asked her to consider doing same.

Strange as that suggestion sounded to her at that time, she ignored it for a while but the message kept coming and she approached a friend who encouraged her and even volunteered to team up with her for the business. That was how Madam Comfort started akara business in Ilupeju area
of Lagos but not without hitches here and there.

When she started, she had only N200 and the woman friend who volunteered to partner with her, later turned her back, but because the divine urge was coming stronger daily, she was able to buy half bag of beans, the needed ingredients but there was no money to buy groundnut oil.

Hear the story of the woman who today, cruises in her own oxblood Nissan Pathfinder, lives in her own duplex at Ijoko in  Ogun State and employs several persons working for her in her current place of operations, Ijegun in Igando-Local Council Development Area of Lagos.

“I started akara business in Ilupeju, Palmgrove here in Lagos. Before I started selling akara, I sold biscuits at Oshodi market by the road side. We were constantly disturbed by LG council officials. One day, I was going to church and I closed shop at about 10.00 a.m. because we had service at 12.00 p.m. I was trekking from Oshodi to Ilupeju when I saw some Igbo people selling akara, buns and puff-puff beside the road.

“I walked past but the Spirit of God told me to turn back, I did and He said I should start selling akara. I said but I do not know how to make akara. The following day, I went to my friend in Oshodi and confided in her that the Spirit of God told me to start akara business and I want her to join me in the business. My friend agreed that we would both start the business.

“I started the business with N200; a bag of beans was sold for N300. I bought half bag for N150 and with the remaining N50 I bought the remaining ingredients like pepper, onions etc. Meanwhile a 5-litre keg of groundnut oil was sold for N20 and there was no money left and my friend did not bother to join me in doing the business. I was worried because I did not know where to get money to buy groundnut oil.

“My instinct told me to go to Ojuwoye market in Mushin. I went there one Saturday morning because I had promised to supply some Igbo traders akara the following Monday and it will be a breach of trust to disappoint them.

“At Ojuwoye market I had no money on me but I turned back and saw a woman selling different food items. I approached her to give me groundnut oil on credit with a promise to bring the money on Monday. I was scared, but surprisingly she agreed and I wept because she did not know me or know where I lived. I bought N50 oil.

“On Monday, I managed to make the akara and when I got to Oshodi, the Igbo people had waited for me and had gone to other places to collect akara. They, however, collected some from me and told me to come back in the evening to collect my money. I started to supply them but sometimes, they will not collect and some will not even pay. I got depressed and started selling at home. Many people patronized me and the Lord ministered to me to put lots of onions and pepper to spice up my akara and make it neater. So from every part of Ilupeju, far and near, people came to buy my akara.

“God is merciful as people queue to buy my akara both in the morning and evening. That was how the business grew in leaps and bound,” she narrated while watching some of her workers busy frying more balls of the akara.

Mrs. Ogo-Oluwa, whose humble business started in 1990, has not only built a 4-bedroom apartment, she has also trained her children from the proceeds of the akara. Her clients range from students to the ubiquitous okada and danfo drivers to some high profile executives in the society.

The journey has not been that smooth though. “When I relocated to Ikotun, there was no business as it used to be. So, I changed to food – cooking and selling rice, beans, pounded yam etc at the Ikotun Garage and for seven years I did not achieve anything. I discovered that it was not the will of God and that I was wasting my time, energy and money. By the time I was getting frustrated, the Lord asked me to return to my akara business and that was in 2001.”
She has relocated from one point to another in the cause of time, all in an effort to find a suitable place of abode where nobody will distract her attention and where she would not be harassed by council officials.

Asked about their greatest challenge in the business, the twosome was unanimous in their call for improved infrastructure. Odumuko said: “As I mentioned before regarding the philosophy of Eko’oni baje which has adversely affected us, but thank God the way we held the bull by its horn and by the grace of God we are still here. So many did not believe we will be in this place but we are still here. So long as we are still here, that means we have won the hearts of people and Governor Fashola’s boys pass here and they say you people have tried. People say that even if Governor Fashola passes here, he may be tempted to buy akara from us. But there is still room for improvement in the area of infrastructure.”

Mrs. Ogo-Oluwa re-echoed the same sentiments, appealing to the Lagos State chief executive, Mr. Raji  Fashola for the provision of a transformer in the neighbourhood, provision of water, and access to funds to enable her expand her business and employ more people. She has plans to modernize her operations, open up more outlets in Ikotun Garage, Sango and other places and in the process take some more people off the streets.

“I appeal to Gov. Fashola to restore electricity in this area because we spend enormous amount of money to buy fuel for our generator daily, provide water because my employees trek long distances to buy water for our operations here as well as assist with funds to expand the business,” she added, pointing out that because of the current economic down turn which has reduced the level of patronage, she makes barely N200,000 to N300,000 monthly with substantial part of that amount going into operational cost.


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