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The Fishmongers of Makoko

The Women of Makoko Are often Their Family's Breadwinners

If you know where to look, you can get anything in Lagos. And at your price. Many of us pay a lot of Naira for exotic fish like yellowtail, red snapper and chinus at top restaurants on the Island. We casually assume that these delicacies are imported (especially because the restaurants are operated by foreigners). But guess what, if you have ever driven across the Third Mainland Bridge, then you know where you can buy these exotic fish. Makoko Fish Market is less than ten minutes if you make a detour to Yaba on the Third Mainland Bridge (driving from the Mainland). We arrived there around 6 am on a Friday to talk to the women who run the world in Lagos’ largest fish market.

They are mostly from fishing communities like Weke in neighbouring Benin Republic and Badagry. Not that borders mean anything to them; they see our side of West Africa as an open expanse of water to be navigated freely by boats and canoes. They work an average of 12 hours a day. All married, most of them play the role of breadwinners or, at least, active economic players in their households – virtually all of them mentioned paying children’s school fees as a priority. There are easily noticeable economic disparities. Some of the women invest over N2 million in their stock every week or so while others specialise in small fish, selling crabs, prawns, crayfish and lobsters.

We calculate that on average, they make 15 to 20 percent profit. They all take saving very seriously, making daily ajo contributions. They say the market is owned by the government so there is no rent, but everyone pays a monthly fee, for some as high as N10,000. As usual in Nigeria, there is zero evidence of this tax in sight. But what you always find in the market is a bewildering variety of the most delicious fish brought from the waters of Togo, Benin Republic, Badagry etc.


The Chef’s Wife Whose Daughter Wants to Become A Nurse

Many women in Makoko inherited the business from their mothers

I joined my mother in the trade in 2005 in this same market. I had always helped her in the market from around 8 years old. I took over from her when I finished secondary school. You have to be ready to do long days in this business. I wake up at 4 am every day and start work at the market at 5 am. Some customers, like supermarkets, arrive here as early as 4:30 am. It is a bit tough to get up so early every day, but you get used to it. The business is good especially when God blesses you with customers who pay well. When market is slow, we are sometimes forced to sell at a loss. So, you sell fish that you bought for N5,000 for N4,000. But when business is good, I sell a fish bought for N5,000 for N7,000. Festive seasons are the best – old customers buy more and there are also new customers.

I contribute N10,000 to ajo (rotating savings/credit scheme). I pay the children’s school fees and also meet minor expenses in the house. I go to buy stock once a week from the Badagry waterside; the fishermen go as far as Benin Republic and Togo looking for fish. Some of the catch can be very big. I sometimes buy fish that cost N15,000. Even N65,000. My customer base is 50-50, caterers, supermarkets, hotels and also individuals. Even some people call us on the phone to deliver. My husband is a cook in Victoria Island.  I want my children to go to school and choose their careers. I won’t ask them to join me in selling fish like I joined my mother. My eldest daughter wants to study nursing. I will be a very proud mother when she becomes a nurse. If I had a loan of N500,000, I would invest everything in my business, buying more fish and increasing my profit.

foreigners shopping in Makoko market
You will often find foreigners shopping in Makoko market



Also Read: Working Lives: The Fisherman Who Dreads Dangote Refinery


The Microeconomist Married to A Tailor

The women of Makoko provide most of the family's economic needs
The women of Makoko provide most of the family’s economic needs

I left school in primary 3. Even before leaving school, I was coming to this market with my mother. I am 43 years old and I can say I have been in this business for 35 years. I always try and leave the market by 6 pm. But sometimes, customers call me and tell me to wait for them, and that, of course, makes me stay longer in the market until like 8 pm. I get to the market at 6 am. You can see now that I practically spend the whole day in the market. I like my job. It may not bring big money but what we see is constant and grows small small.  If you are good at something and you work hard, God will continue to bless you.

The one thing I don’t like is the way customers price the fish. Imagine a customer pricing a fish from N15,000 to N2,000. That can be very annoying. And you know what they always say about customers being right, so all I do in such a situation is just persuade the customer and not let the anger in me ruin things. I sell between N50,000 and N100,000 daily. This is not a good season for us. Children just returned to school, and the priority for most people now is paying school fees. So, our market depends on the state of the economy and the flow of money in the country. I save money every day. So, what I save depends on the state of the economy and my sales. I sell mostly to caterers.

I buy fish around Ajah, Epe, Ikorodu and Lekki. We don’t buy from the fishermen. They give the fish to their wives. I spend between 2 and 2.5 million when I go to buy fish. It lasts for a week or two. It all depends on the state of the economy. The money includes the cost of transportation. Some of the big fish I sell cost between N35,000 and N50,000. If I sell a fish I buy for N18,000, I see at least a gain of N2,000 from it. By the time I deduct the expenses that cost me to buy ice block, what’s left is my gain. My husband is a tailor. I often help with the school fees. If someone gives me a N 500,000 loan, that means I can buy at least N 2.6 million worth of fish every one or two weeks. Of course, it depends on the state of the economy and demand. But I will have to save more every week so I can pay back the loan.


 The Fisherman’s Wife Who Would Never Take A Loan

a fisherman's wife selling fish in Makoko
Cutting fish for customers

I didn’t go to school at all. My mother wasn’t a fish trader. I got into the business through a friend who taught me everything I needed to start up. This was ten years ago. I work from 6 am to 6 pm every day. I love buying and selling fish. It is the only thing I know how to do to make a living. If the government has something better for me, I will take it. When the business is slow, I sell about N50,000 a day. But when it is good, I can sell more than N100,000. I make 10-15 percent gain on each fish. I spend my income on my children, paying school fees, uniform etc. I also pay rent and buy food in the house. I also do ajo, that is my saving. Our best period for market is December.

Customers come to the market from every part of Lagos. If you come in December, I will never have time to even talk to you. I like Badagry, that is where I buy fish from. My customers are mostly caterers who prepare food for parties and also hotels. I also sell to a lot of white people. My customers prefer big fish, so, the fish I sell is N40,000 to N50,000 each. My husband is a fisherman. I met him while doing this business. I was his customer. I didn’t have any education. Paying for my children’s education is an important priority for me. I want them to go as far as possible and have bigger opportunities and more options in life. I won’t take any loan. I don’t want to expire from high blood pressure. Let me just be praying that God continues to bless my business.

Deep freezers for the big fish sellers in Makoko
Deep freezers for the big fish sellers in Makoko

 Also Read: Working Lives: The Fisherman Who Left School for the Sea

The Big Sister

Women from the community buying fish in Makoko

I am a secondary school graduate. I have been selling fish in Makoko for 34 years. I was born into the business. My mother was also a fishmonger. So, I grew up selling fish. All my younger siblings are graduates. My mother and I worked to grow the business. So, we had more money to send them to school. I still work for 12 hours every day. I rest on Sundays. I still love the work, but every job has its challenges. Some customers see us as just market women and they talk to us anyhow. But we have to overlook this and focus on persuading them to buy.

I make about N500,000 a day. When it is not so busy, I make about N300,000. I pay the fishermen and keep my profit. I save N50,000 every month. The market is not coming like before. Four or five years ago, there was no day when I didn’t sell more than N500,000 worth of fish. I used to come here on Sundays and easily make over N100,000. I buy from fishermen in Lekki and Ajah. My customers are mostly caterers and white people. I recognise that fingers are not equal. So, fish that I normally sell for N15,000, I can let someone have it for N12,000 if I think they really can’t afford to pay more. My husband is a fashion designer. My children are in school and I encourage them to work hard. I don’t think any of them will take over from me. If I had a loan of N500,000, I would join the money to my business. If you pay the fishermen cash, you get a better bargain.


The Stepdaughter

Haggling is a favourite sport in Makoko

I am 35 years old. I was a child when I started. I was so young that I can’t even remember when. I was coming to the market with my stepmother. I lost my mum when I was very young. My father remarried. The woman who became a mother to me sold fish. That was how I also started selling fish. I work every day from 6am. I am in the market till 7pm because the customers keep coming. I need to buy a bus to carry fish to the market. I buy from Epe, Badary or Lekki. I always rotate. I currently hire buses and they charge a lot. When business is very good, I make up to N300,000 a day. My husband pays the children’s school fees. What I take care of is food and other minor things in the house.

Yes, I save. My goal is to save enough to buy a bus this year by the grace of God. My sale is really tied to festive seasons. I sell to rich people having parties. I don’t really know them. I mean I sell to their caterers. You always have parties in Lagos. These caterers also get contracts to cook for the government and big firms. Those rich people from Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Lekki also come to buy from me to cook in their homes. I sell only big fish. The really big ones are about N65,000. The smallest one is N35,000.

If I sell big fish, my gain will increase. My husband is a driver. He got his current job through one of my long-time customers. She came to me one day to buy fish and just casually mentioned that she needed a driver. I told her my husband is a driver. She asked him to come and see her to discuss and offered him employment. I won’t force my children to study any course or go into a particular business. They should choose whatever interests them and focus on it. I pray the good Lord blesses them. If someone offers me a loan of N500,000, I will use the money to buy a bus. This will make my business run smoothly and will also save me a lot of stress.

Tables heaving with fish

Oluwatomi Otuyemi

Oluwatomi Otuyemi, a Geology graduate from Crawford University, has 5 years experience in corporate corporate communications. He has a passion for storytelling, and investigative reporting.

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