…The woman behind LADY BENZ
By Jacob Ajom
Story of a former street-hawker, a girl from a deprived background, who surmounted all obstacles and climbed her way to the top of her profession. She owns a flourishing auto-mechanic workshop. She is Nigeria’s first female mechanic who specialises in Mercedes Benz.
She has won numerous awards both within and outside the country. Joy Obi Amuche is the Vice President of the Association of Africa Women Auto-mechanics. She tells her story in this conversation with Jacob Ajom. Excerpts:
Former Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, Kojo Wiliams loves good cars and when he buys one, he drives it himself”.
Having driven the Mercedes Benz brand for many years, changing from one to another Kojo said he had become too conversant with the workings of the Benz and knew how complicated it could be when a problem arises.
One day he had issues with his car, an electrical problem and someone referred him to a lady in Ajah, s specialist in Mercedes Benz cars. Said Kojo:
“ She is not your everyday roadside mechanic. She is very experienced, very exposed and she is diligent. What baffles me most is the fact that such a decent and beautiful lady, a mother, a woman her age, in a country like ours resolved to do a job which most ladies of her class would frown at, and won’t touch with a pole.
“I see her as the best technical lady in that field in Nigeria today; even among the men, she remains the best. She knows it, she knows her onions and very commited.
“Another thing is that, she is not just there trying to make her own money, she trains other young ladies for free. Infact, her daughter too is studying Engineering in the University. Those are the kind of people this country must support. That is why I called on Onochie, your editor and told him about her and he immediately said her story will be interesting to share. She is a source of inspiration to many ladies.”
That was how Kojo Williams told us about Joy Obi Amuche. It was so irresistible that we set out in search of this extra-ordinary lady. On reaching her workshop, located at Kilometre 41, Lekki-Epe Expressway, we discovered there was more about her than what Kojo knew.
In the beginning
The story of Joy Obi Amuche is a fairy tale that is still evolving. At 44, even as she believes that she still has a long way to go, Joy has already come a long way. From being a street hawker, a barber and a mechanich apprentice, the beautifully endowed Joy has grown to become an employer of labour and owns a flourishing mechanic workshop. Joy Obi Amuche is not just an automobile mechanic, she is a specialist in one of the world’s iconic auto brands, the Mercedes Benz.”I am Nigeria’s first female Mercedes Benz specialist,” she told this reporter, proudly.
How did Joy find herself in a male dominated profession like auto engineering?
She smiled. “It wasn’t easy,” she started. “It took a lot from me to convince my elder sister whom I was living with, to let me be an auto mechanic.
“I am the fourth in a family of five. We were four girls and one boy. We lost our dad when I was three. Because my mother was not educated she had to work at the farm(cocoa farm) to fend for us. As is common practice with our people, young girls from poor backgrounds were easily given out in marriage at early age. So because of lack of money, my elder sister was given out in marriage at a very young age, so she took me along to live with her in Bida, Niger state. She operated a restaurant near a mechanich workshop. I always watched them do what appeared then to me like magic. Someone would bring a car, they would dismatle it and in the twinkle of an eye, they would couple it back and it would start working again. Knowing that these vehicles were manufactured from far by white men, and seeing black men being able to do what the technicians were doing, it caught my fancy. Everyday after school, once I finished with my domestic chores, I would go to the workshop to look at what they were doing, work with them until they closed.
“At some point, my elder sister got angry, she would flog me and warn me never to go to that workshop again. The general belief then – though erronous – was that mechanical engineering or auto-mechanic was a male job and not for women. Indeed no lady should contemplate doing such.
“But the more she harrassed me, the more my interest in the job grew. In fact, because of her constant harrassment, there was a day I went on hunger strike to stress my point. As God would have it, at some point, she just had to let go her misgivings towards me becoming a mechanic.
After my primary school, things were so tough that I needed to work to get money to go to the secondary school. I had to hawk in the streets. I hawked a lot of things, palm oil, rice, garri and general provisions to train myself through the secondary school. I was also still doing my mechanic work and other menial jobs in order to have money for my education.
After my secondary school education, I decided to apply to do mechanical engineering at the Federal Polytechnic, Bida.
To fund my education, I worked in a shop where they rented and sold videos. It was just like a business centre. While there I also learned how to barb and I braided hair too, to make ends meet.That was an additional means of income for me because I was actually saving money to go to the university.
“Immediately I secured admission into the polytechnic, I stopped working and started the trade of buying and selling things. I would go to Kaduna, buy shoes, clothes and would go to offices, banks and sell. I did that until I finished my OND programme. I got admission for my HND but couldn’t continue because I had no money to continue, I dropped out. I also had my sibblings to take care off. I then started searching for work with my OND.”
Little joy then began her sojourn in the labour market. She moved to Abuja. Not long after arriving Abuja, she landed her first job at Ibro Hotel in the Engineering Department, where they fixed staff and customers’ vehicles. Not too satisfied with life in Abuja, she felt Lagos was it. She justified her decision to leave Abuja to Lagos for Greener Pasteures thus, “Abuja had very few companies and only government parastatals. There were fewer opportunities there, so I decided to move to Lagos.”
In Lagos, with no relatives, no contacts and not enough money to live a comfortable life, Joy Amuche lived with the children of “one woman who was working in Abuja.” She accommodated her in her apartment at Afromedia, Okokomaiko. She recalled, “since I had no job, I was just moving about with my certificate, searching for one. I had no money and I ate once a day. That was when I developed ulcer. Because I didn’t have much savings, the little money I saved while in Abuja was what I was taking from bit by bit. I really had it tough in Lagos as I slept on bare floor, no food.
“While searching for work, I had a friend called Jumai. We used to trek from Mile 2 to Iyana Oba because we could not afford transport fare. If we managed to board the then popular Molue bus we never sat down because in molue, the fare could be cheaper that way. . If we managed to sit, one would lap the other. We ate once a day and shared water tied in a nylon(not today’s sachet water they call pure water).”
Relief eventually came when she secured a job at International Tools, Iganmu and that was the beginning of her breakthrough in her chosen career. “It was a big relief indeed as my salary was N4,000 monthly. I worked there for a while before I got a job at Mercedes Benze Place where I started with N4,500 a month.
Joy then got married. Still bent on her education, she returned to the classroom, ten years after her OND to complete her HND at the same Polytechnic in Bida. I worked with Mercedes Benz Place for 18 years as their only female engineer. I resigned in 2016 and travelled to Germany where I attended courses and enhanced my knowledge. Now I am the first Nigerian female engineer that specialises on Mercedes Benz,” she said proudly.
Why Mercedez Benz? What caught Joy’s fancy about this particular brand of cars? Was it their technology? Her reasons.
“I love their technology. Their packaging is exceptional. It is a premium car. If you have driven other cars and you drive a Mercedes Bemz, you would notice the difference. Apart from my working background, I just love everything about the brand. So I told myself, stay with Benz and specialise on it,” she said expressively.
At Lady Benz they don’t accept other cars for maintenance. The CEO dismissed fears that concentrating on one brand might affect her business, saying her clientele cut across boundaries.
“We only accept other cars if they bring them for body work and tyre solutions. In terms of maintenance, mechanical, electrical works, spare parts or general servicing,we only fix Mercedes Benz. It does not in anyway affect my income because a lot of people use Benz. It is a popular brand and Nigerians love cars,” she said.
Having found herself in a man’s world, so to say, how did Joy cope with her male counterparts while working as a staff of Mercedes Place? Was she looked down upon in their midst?
Her beautiful face brightens with a genial smile. “I must admit, it was not easy working in the midst of guys. They welcomed me, anyway. Sometimes they wanted to bully me, often I fought back and once in a while, we competed through the tasks they gave us, where I proved that being a woman was in no way a handicap or a disadvantage. We had a lot of competition.
“Two weeks after I got the job, our MD called me to his office and asked how I was coping with the guys. I told him to ask them, how they were coping with me. And he laughed.”
“I must admit, it was a little bit challenging, but I adapted easily because even while I was in school, we were just about two girls in my class and the rest were guys. It had become a way of life for me.”
At present in her workshop, the men dominate her workforce, and as the boss she puts them in line.
“Having worked with men for 18 years(they were about 30 men or so while I was the only female), I should know how to handle them. And let me tell you, apart from the technical training, I have also attended series of courses like leadership training and management courses and how to handle human beings. Business is business. I don’t tolerate nonsense.”
Joy said the automobile industry in Nigeria was good and very lucrative. “Nigerians love cars. I continue to say it; for as long as people continue to move from one point to another, whether by air, land or sea, the automobile industry will continue to thrive and technicians will never go hungry. One must move from point A to point B
“It doesn’t stop there. One must know what one is doing. If you are good at what you are doing, people will continue to identify with you. For instance myself, even before I got my workshop, I had customers who were calling me from far and near. Some have stuck with me for years because they are satisfied with my services. One must know what one is doing.When you know your job people will always call you.
“Before I got a workshop, I used my car like a mobile workshop. Now I travel all over the country and have customers in many states of the federation. I also have corporate clients, so my job carries me to everywhere. I go to Ghana as well. In fact, one of the several awards I have received came from Ghana. That was in 2018 when I was honoured with The Impactful Women Award.”
In her determination to have more women in the technical field, one of her daughters( a year 4 student at the University of Nigeria, Nnsuka ), is also studying Mechanical Engineering.
Apart from her busy schedule at the mechanic workshop, Joy Obi Amuche is also actively engaged in women empowerment. She organises training sessions for young, aspiring lady engineers and also offers leadership training.”I am very much interested in girl child education. I train them for free. Even though I don’t have sponsors yet, I do the little I can to empower them. I have some of them working here with me.”
Often schools invite her as a resource person and she obliges them with joy. “I take delight in these activities because the kids need encouragement. They need role models and whatever they learn now goes a long way in their lives. When they invite me, I put them on my schedule and I go to give them the training they need”
She has some words of advise for ladies out there who are still looking for a headway. “What I want to tell ladies like me out there is that nothing good comes easy. Once you have passion for the job and remain focused, things will always turn around. You don’t go into any business or trade because others are in it. It has to come from the inside. Once you pursue your passion and you are good at it, you will see yourself growing steadily.
“People respect women who are in this field because their integrity and honesty and women are always articulate in whatever we do. Try as much as possible not to engage yourself in evil things. Odd jobs don’t pay. Just remain faithful in God, He is seeing your suffering and will never forsake you.
As a woman, people appreciate me, they love what I do, they encourage me; especially my clients who refer people to me. But when I started, some of my friends tried to discourage me because they felt it was a dirty job that was not meant for ladies. That I wouldn’t be able to do my nails, my hair, make up and all those ladies’ stuff. But I didn’t give a damn because it had always been my dream to own my own workshop. It’s my job first, any other thing can go. All those things don’t put money in my pocket.
Joy seems to have broken all barriers. What are the likely challenges for a starter who wants to follow her footsteps and go into the business?
“Most times, the biggest challenge is funding,” she said. “Setting up an ultramodern workshop requires funding. You can’t start like a roadside mechanic because you are fixing sophisticated cars that require special tools and equipment to ease the job. One needs to prepare well. But there is always a small beginning with your diognistic machines and other basic tools, one can start in a small way.”
After I resigned from Mercedes Place, I travelled to Germany for training. Shortly when I returned, I got this place but didn’t have money to pay for it. I sold my car and a few other things I had acquired. I also got a N10 million loan from BOI, the Bank of Industries. That was how I started.”
Lady Benze workshop and office occupy a plot of land and the annual rent is a handful. She said government can help the auto mechanics with funds or special land allocation at subsidised rates.
“Government can assist by providing funds or land. I pay heavily here as rent. I started with N1 million per annum. Now it has been increased to N2 million. When a landlord sees the type of cars coming and leaving your workshop everyday, they believe you are making all the money. Government should come to our aid.”
The value of a property is mostly determined by the location. The area Lady Benz Workshop is located is a prime area. A plot of land there goes for N70 million. “The least you can get is N50 million, and that is because the value of property has dropped due to the rippling effects of Covid-19 pandemic on property.” she said
“When you have your own property, it is totally a different ball game. You can channel the money for rent into other needs, like bringing in spare parts, attending training courses wherever and whenever they are holding and for the fact that I am an employer of labour and I organise training programmes as well, we need government support dearly. For instance the pandemic actually affected us as 99% of our business depends on daily income. We had to shut down this place during the lockdown and I must pay my staff because their families depend on this job. That is the extent to which the coronavirus affected our business.
If government’s support does come, Joy Obi Amuche hopes to also run an academy and acquire more equipment for enhanced service delivery. “Yes, that is one of my long term targets. The last time I went to Germany on a course, I saw a colleague from Italy with a machine that xrays car engine. It can show you how the entire engine runs. If you have that kind of machine here, it will improve our technology and one wouldn’t need to go outside the country to learn.”
Despite all this, Joy Obi Amuche said she is still not done yet with her academics. “I still want to further my education. Right now, I am still battling with accommodation problem and want to really establish myself very well before I go back to school.”
It’s not all work for Madam mechanic as she also creates time for leisure. “In my spare time I love reading, travelling and I do some sports too. I play table tennis, football, I run, basketball and snooker.”
Despite her busy schedule, Joy Amuche manages to balance her time engaging career with her domestic duties as a wife and mother? She said this of her husband.
“He knew me before we got married and I had told him that nothing can separate me from my job so he understands. We are used to each other. Everything is by planning. I don’t allow them (house duties and my work) to interfer. I have a schedule which I observe religiously. Though it is not very easy. But everything is by planning.”
My mission is to become a reference point in the automobile industry in Nigeria and beyond. I also want to train over 200 ladies across Africa and to be a direct dealer of Mercedes Benz from Daimler AG, Germany. My biggest dream is to own an assembly plant in order to assemble my first car in Nigeria by the year 2030.