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.
My husband is late and I have been the only one catering for 3 kids. Two of them are in the university already. The last born is in junior secondary school. I know God will continue to see me through.”
Where are you from?
I am from Okpella in Edo state. I left for Lagos to join my aunt after secondary school.
When did you leave school?
I finished secondary school in 1985, from Anglican Grammar School, Igarra.
So, you came to Lagos in 1986. When did you start selling okrika?
Yes. I started selling okrika in 2001 here in Katangua market. While living with my aunt in Oshodi, I was always coming down from there to the market in Abule Egba every day apart from Sundays.
What were you doing between 86 and 01, before getting into the trade?
My aunt sold fabrics, so I helped her out with that. I used to go to the store in Eko Idumota and was paid N2,000 monthly.
Okay. How then did you get into selling Okrika?
After working for my aunt for some years, I was able to save from my monthly salary. She also helped me with some money, about N20,000, as a parting gift.
How much did you first invest?
When I started back then in 2001, the Nigerian economy was still good. I started off with just N10,000, which was a lot of money back then. With that money, I was able to buy two bales of women’s wear. The clothes are packaged in bales and sent down here from abroad. So, we really don’t know what to expect in terms of quality. It is until we open the bales we know what is inside. Although the bad clothes aren’t many most of the time.
How has the market changed now compared with when you started, for instance, people who come to buy?
It has changed a lot. Back then, people saw buying okrika as clothes for the poor, but now you see learned people coming to buy from us. Some even buy in bulk, then re-package and resell to their friends or families. Then in terms of the pricing, that has also changed a lot. In those days you could buy a really nice t-shirt for N200-400, but now it costs N700, N1,000 or more.
Where do you source your wares from?
We have plugs that ship them in from different European countries and even America. They all come in seasons. For instance, when the summer is over in the U.S., their citizens buy new clothes for winter. You know how oyinbo people are, they dispose of clothes worn in summer. So, some of our plugs in those countries pick them from warehouses and then send them down here for us to resell. When I say plugs, I mean the okrika sellers that sell in bulk. And it happens like that too when winter is over, you see a lot of us selling cardigans and sweatshirts in such period.
How do the bales get here, to the market?
Once the big sellers clear the shipment, we go to buy from them at the port. We usually contribute money to buy a full truck. Because just one trader can’t afford a full truck loaded with clothes. We also save money because the truck brings everything to Katangua for the group.
What’s the price of a full truck?
It varies and depends on the type of grade that is in the truck. It could cost as much as N1 million. The highest my group and I have bought is N850,000.
Okay. While moving them, are you usually stopped on the road by the police, customs officers, or other forces?
Yes, of course. Is it not this same Nigeria? The dealers even bribe them at the port for fast clearance because if you don’t, your shipment will spend months there.
How many police stops do you experience from Apapa to Katangua and how much does it cost to settle them?
We encounter as many as six police checkpoints on our way. Big trucks usually attract them and they obviously know what we are carrying, so they ask for bribes at every checkpoint. We don’t have a choice other than to settle the different law enforcement agencies with money. And by the time we calculate everything spent on bribery, it’s as much as amounts to almost N70,000 for a truck or more.
So how much do you pay every time the police stop you?
Sometimes we pay N7,000 or more. It depends on how we relate with them; some can be very greedy and stubborn, and they know that these goods are contraband, but this is Nigeria. We always find a way around it.
People say okrika get level. Please tell us about the grades?
Haha. Yes, okrika get grades oh. There is the one we call grade 1, which is still looking very new as those that wore them over there probably did like twice or thrice, then they dispose of it. And then there is grade 2, worn a couple of times but still looks neat and wearable. And then finally there is the third grade – the majority of these ones are probably stained or torn a little bit from moving them down here, so we sell those ones cheaper.
Do you get more customers during hard economic times?
Well yes. So here is the thing, no matter the situation of the economy, I still get customers. Clothing is a necessity; people can’t walk naked. But the only difference is that I just might not sell out fast as I used to, compared to when the naira was not as weak, though I still sell very well.
How did you manage during the coronavirus lockdown?
It was really hard for me, actually for everyone in the market. It got to a point I had to start hawking on the street around where I stay. I was able to sell one or two and use that money to sustain myself and my kids.
Prices have risen over the past 12 months or so. How has that affected your sales and profits? Are people buying less than before?
Like I mentioned earlier, sales dropped as of last year, around May until the end of the year or so. But this new year has been good. People are now coming in to buy. Sales are better now, as schools have resumed and people are back to work.
What about the things you order, did the rise in prices change or affect that?
Yes sure. More or less almost double the previous price. For instance, I used to buy a bale for N200,000 but now I buy it for N250,000-400,000.
What’s the average price of a bale or what accounts for the wide variation (250-400k)?
There are always different grades and the types of clothes in the bales also determines the price. Prices for jeans for instance can’t be the same as the price for t-shirts. So, that’s why the variation is so wide. The average price for a bale is N50,000, but as I said earlier it all depends on the type of product that is in the bale and the grade too.
Who are your main customers?
Everybody is my customer, learned people that work in banks and the like, and then the average Nigerian too.
Is it true that big boys and girls (from universities and banks) sneak here to buy from you?
Haha. Yes o, they are even my biggest customers. Whenever they come to buy from me, they buy a lot and don’t even stress me out with pricing here and there. I always prefer those people coming to buy from me.
Okay. So who are the biggest Okrika dealers?
Those that buy clothes and load them in a full container and ship to Nigeria. They don’t come here in the market and sit with us to sell. When their goods are delivered, they sell at the ports or bring down to the market and sell to those that can’t afford to ship themselves.
What does it take to become a big dealer?
If you want to become a big dealer in this business, you need to have enough money so you can consistently ship clothes into the country, unlike those of us who buy from the dealers. Big dealers get their shipment at the port almost every week.
Okay. What are your most expensive items?
The females’ skirt and blouse, grade 1. I sell for like N1,500-N3,000. Sometimes I sell for more, it just depends on how good the customer is good at bargaining.
Please, tell us about the most interesting experiences or customers you have met while doing this business.
So, there was this lady I met sometime in 2019. She came to buy a jumpsuit from me. Apparently, she just got a job and needed nice fits for work. So she selected her clothes and after that, it turned out that the money with her wasn’t enough but she needed clothes for work. She pleaded with me to pay half and that she would come back to balance me. I understood her situation because I am a woman and I also have a daughter too, so I allowed her to take the clothes. When the month ended, she came back to not only pay her balance but gave me an extra N10,000. I was wowed at her faithfulness; people rarely do that.
Interesting. Do you have loyal customers or people move on when they are better off?
The lady I spoke about just now is the definition of a loyal customer, ever since that day, she’s been always coming to buy from me, and she also brings her friends too. There are even times when I don’t have what she wants to buy, she will tell me to call her when I get it and then come back to buy from me. And then of course there are the one-time customers, those ones might just be in the market, passing by. They buy once and that’s it.
How much do you make in a week?
I make an average of about N30,000 in a week, and this is when things go slow in the market. But when everywhere is rosy, I make more, about N50,000-N100,000.
And how much gain do you get on each item?
I make a gain of N500-N1,500. It all just depends on how good the customer is at bargaining.
What about savings?
I save weekly. We have the weekly ajo we do at the market, I save N10,000 every week. And then I also have my own personal savings of N40,000 monthly.
How many hours do you work in a day?
I get to the market as early as 5:30 am on market days, which are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But on every other day, I get here by 7 am.
How much does it cost you to feed and come to the market daily?
I don’t live far from here, so I just spend N200 on my transport fare to and fro. And then for feeding, I spend about N500. Sometimes I bring food from my house, so I do not spend any money on feeding.
What other things do you spend money on?
My husband is late and I have been the only one catering for 3 kids. So, I spend a whole lot of money on not just school fees, but other basic necessities that are needed at home like foodstuff, paying NEPA bills, house rent, and so on.
I am really sorry about your husband, are you looking forward to remarrying?
No, I don’t think so. All I care about right now is just taking care of my kids, two of them are in the university already. The last born is in junior secondary school. I know God will continue to see me through.
Do you have other investments or businesses?
Not at all. This is the only business I run.