Working Lives – The Okrika Sellers of Katangua
Katangua is a market in the suburbs of Lagos. It is regarded as the biggest market for secondhand clothes, aka okrika, in Nigeria. This WLS series offers a glimpse into the trade- capital required, profit margins, etc. But what is perhaps most revealing is how the extortion that trails the trade, from clearing the “bales” of okrika at the ports to passing through police checkpoints, adds to the modest price of secondhand clothes. No matter how modest, no business can escape the itchy fingers of Nigerian officials.
I attended Lagos State Model College and finished in 2004. I was supposed to further my education but one thing led to another and I couldn’t anymore. I got pregnant, my parents lashed out at me, then I got married to the father of my son. That was how the dream to continue school ended.”
Where are you from?
I am from Delta state but was born in Lagos. My parents have been in Lagos since the early 90s.
How about your education?
I attended Lagos State Model College and left secondary school in 2004. I was supposed to further my education but one thing led to another and I couldn’t anymore.
Can you tell me more about what happened?
Actually, I got pregnant, and my parents lashed out at me. Then I got married to the father of my son just immediately and that was how the dream to continue school ended. He said I could not go to school anymore because I had to take care of the kids.
I am really sorry that happened. So how did you get into the okrika business?
No, it’s okay. So after about two years of being a stay-at-home mom, I had to find something to do as it was getting tiring. I didn’t like the idea of just being idle but couldn’t start selling okrika right away because there was no capital to start with. So, I got a cleaning job at a private school and was paid N40,000 monthly.
Then how did you finally get into the business?
I had a church member that was already into it, she just told me how lucrative the business was and how I could conveniently take care of my kids from the profit. Then I saved for a year and some months, quit my job at the school, and started selling right away. Though my husband thought I was crazy, leaving a N40,000 job to be selling clothes. He didn’t think the business was going to be profitable, but I am happy he sees it now. Now I help with major expenses in the house.
How much did you spend setting up?
I saved up to N300,000 as I wasn’t spending so much from my salary. The school where I worked was very close to where I stayed. So that helped a lot, and it was really easy to save.
Where do you get your wares from?
Our dealer brings them from overseas to the market warehouse and sells them to those of us that can’t afford to ship directly. We buy them in bales. Bales are those largely tied sacks that they import the items in.
How do you get them to sell here?
Not all dealers have a warehouse here in the market. Some have in areas far from here like Iyana Ipaja. They bring them down here very early on market days, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We just pay as low as N1,000 or N1,500 for logistics. They are the ones that must have paid the heavy fees to the police, customs, and the rest.
What kind of people buy the different types of levels of Okrika?
It’s so easy to picture who buys what. People like you, the alakowes buy the grade 1 clothes. While other low-income earners manage to buy grade 1 sometimes, they mostly buy grade 2. And then those that buy grade 3 are those that are really less privileged, sorry, I hate to use that word. These are people that come to the market with N2,000 and buy items of N200-N300, which are mostly children’s clothes.
Are there people that sell the different types of grades?
Yes sure, people that can’t afford to buy grade 1 or 2 from their dealers. Everyone here knows their budget and they also have their target customers.
Do you get more customers when times are hard – e.g when naira loses value and there is a recession?
The only time this whole naira devaluation of a thing really had a big effect on us was during the lockdown. It made everything worse. I don’t know about others, but I didn’t really get customers compared to before Covid-19.
How did you get through the period?
It was really hard for me, honestly. We were not allowed to go to the market and risked facing task force officials if we went near the market at all. We even had to start bribing them at a point just so we could go to our stores to pick one or two that we could sell in the neighborhood. I was always hawking in the evening with my first daughter in the neighborhood just so we could get money to eat because my husband wasn’t even paid at all at his place of work.
Where does your husband work?
He works as a truck driver for one of these manufacturing companies that produce consumer goods. I don’t want to mention the name.
Okay, that’s fine. Who are your main customers?
I don’t really have any particular category of people that patronise me. If you have money just come and buy, old, young, man or woman. You are all welcome.
Haha. So what are your most expensive items?
Gowns and jackets. Grade 1 for these items could go for as much as N3,000-N5,000.
Is it true that big boys and girls (from universities and banks) sneak here to buy from you?
Yes, this is also one of the things that have changed since I started selling. Back then, you hardly saw these sets of people come to the market to buy clothes as everyone believed coming to Katangua to buy okrika meant you were poor and you couldn’t afford to go to the boutique. But that is a lie, these days you see really nice dresses sold here, and they are all okrika clothes.
Please, tell us about the most interesting experiences or customers you have met while doing this business.
The one I will never forget is when one lady came to buy from me. I could tell that she was well learned from the way she spoke to me while trying to buy. The transaction went well and we took off from there. Whenever I go and get my bales, she puts a call across to me and tells me to bring the grade 1 gowns, jackets, and jumpsuits to her office. I package very well and sell for a more reasonable price to them. Without her, I would not have access to this opportunity. Something similar also happened with someone else, I also go to schools around and sell to their teachers.
Do you have loyal customers or people move on when they are better off?
Well, some are consistent and others just come once in a while to buy from me. It’s not like they buy from me all the time. And then, there’s also the passersby that buy once and never come again.
How much do you make in a week?
I make an average of N10,000 weekly or more. But I am very sure of always making N10,000 every week.
How much gain do you get on each commodity?
Within the range of N500-N3,000. Depending on what I sell. I make N500 on blouses, for the gowns and jackets, I make N1,000 upward.
What about savings?
I do the weekly ajo (contribution) of N5,000 in the market and I also save N10,000 personally every month.
Do you have other investments or businesses?
I make chin-chin and deliver to schools in my neighborhood. That brings a reasonable amount of money to me monthly. So, that is the only side business I have.
Wow. So how do you balance that with your thrift business?
Now that school has resumed, I wake up as early as 5:30 just so I could mix the flour and other ingredients to start making the chin-chin. And then by 7 o’clock on the dot, I am out of the house headed to the market. My eldest son helps me deliver to those schools, just so I can’t meet up with my potential customers at the market.
How much do you spend in a day on food and transport fare to the market daily?
I set my daily budget at N1,000. I know that no matter what happens, I wouldn’t spend more than that. Well, except if an emergency comes up, maybe I have to buy medicine for pain relievers or buy foodstuff while going home for the weekend.
What other things do you spend money on?
Just like I said earlier, medicine for pain relief. I get stressed out a lot from running around in the market, bending up and down is not easy. I also try to assist my husband with some expenses in the house.
Have you ever heard of medical insurance or buying?
Yes, I have. But what is the point of paying for insurance when I am still trying to survive? Plus, I hardly even fall so sick that requires me to insure my health, apart from just minor body pains. The annoying thing is that these firms just collect money and if we eventually don’t fall sick, the money is gone, isn’t it?
Hmm. For how long have you been doing this, selling in this market?
I have been in the business for almost 15 years now.
Do you have plans to venture into something else apart from selling okrika in the market?
Not really though. The only prayer is just to get more money and be able to expand my business, that’s just it.