The Itinerant Herbal Doctors of Lagos
The women selling agbo (medicinal herbal mixtures) divide opinion. Some, including professionals, swear by their skills in curing a variety of ailments, from piles to baby rashes, able to deliver almost instant relief where orthodox western medicines fail. Many others regard them as quacks who supply powerful substances without dosage, often damaging the livers of their patrons. Their no-frills remedy is indeed uncomplicated- lightening-speed diagnosis, no vitals (temperature, blood pressure etc.) taken. The truth may lie in between the extremes; with standardization and regulation of training and practice, they may offer better and safer services to the people, mainly poorer Nigerians, they serve, better complementing the orthodox healthcare system. We talk to four agbo sellers, including an old woman who has a fairly large store, not about regulation but the trade and their lives.
Working Lives: The Agbo Seller Hustling for Uni Fees in Lagos but found a Husband
I had a shop where I was selling wine, beer and other soft drinks. But the government under Fashola demolished my store in Oshodi. I had to look for another source of income since there was no capital to open another shop and continue selling wines and beers.
Where are you from?
I am from Ogun State, Ago Iwoye to be precise.
When did you arrive in Lagos?
I have been in Lagos for a very long time. I arrived in Lagos about 8 years ago.
What inspired you to come to Lagos?
I came in search for greener pastures. I was done with secondary school and nothing was really going on over there in Ago Iwoye. I then decided to come down to Lagos. The initial plan was to come and hustle for money so I could further my education. But it didn’t work out that way. I met the love of my life who is my husband today. I got pregnant for him. He was ready to put a ring on it so he asked to meet parents. So we traveled down to Ago Iwoye and he met my parents. And that was how this phase of my life started.
Where do you live?
I live with my husband and 3 kids in Ikorodu. We have 2 boys and a girl. We live in a 1-room self-contained apartment. We pay N4000 monthly.
Did you know you will be in this trade when you decided to come to Lagos?
Not at all. I was into another business entirely; condition made me started selling agbo.
I had a shop where I was selling wine, beer and other soft drinks, not until Fashola came to demolish my shop. That was how I resulted into selling agbo.
Where did you get the capital to establish your first business-the wines and beer shop?
From my husband, and also little savings that I had right from time. I normally do this ajo thing with my neighbours. So the money was about N200,000 in total. And then my husband also supported me. That was how I got the money to establish my first business.
Did you lose money when your shop was demolished?
Yes. I lost about N100,000:00. Because as at when the demolition happened, I had just paid for the rent. I went to the owner of the shop and explained things to him. He said there was nothing he could do. It was just a month after I had renewed payment for the year that the shop was demolished. Then apart from the N100,000 rent money, I also lost another N60,000:00. Most of the drinks in the shop that I had taken home started getting expired. Rats were even chilling with the Chivita drinks.
How did you get into the agbo business?
I started selling agbo in 2014. I had a shop where I was selling wine, beer and other soft drinks. But the government under Fashola demolished my store in Oshodi. I had to look for another source of income since there was no capital to open another shop and continue selling wines and beers. And that was how it all started, I am thankful to God that I have been able to feed my kids and pay for minor bills at home from the agbo business.
Where did you train and for how long?
When I came to Lagos I was staying with a childhood friend. We go way back in Ago Iwoye. She was dealing in agbo. We used to hawk agbo together for about a year. I was understudying her. I made sure I was always noting down everything she taught me. And here I am today, also teaching other people.
When my shop was demolished, I then decided to face the agbo trade squarely.
How much does it cost to set up an agbo business?
Nothing much really. If you have N20,000, you are good to go for a start. Then if you really want to start on a big scale, like selling to offices and all that. You will need more, maybe N50,000.
The agbo you sell, what ailments are they for?
There are different ones for different ailments. I have the one for pile, malaria, typhoid, and I also have the ones I also mix with gin. It all depends on how the customer wants it.
Which is the most expensive?
All of them are actually expensive, but the most expensive one I have right now goes for N1500. Customers buy in bits and they also buy in bulk. I sell some for N100, N150 or N200. It all depends on what I mix together for the customer.
What do your customers complain of most, which is the fastest selling agbo?
Majority of my customers complain of malaria. I know what to mix once they tell me the symptoms.
But my customers actually buy everything consistently so I can hardly say which agbo they buy the most. They buy the one for pile and they also buy the one for malaria too.
Where do you get the raw materials?
I have a supplier that brings the raw materials from a village in Abeokuta. They always come to Lagos, so I get regular supply. Once I am in need of any raw material, all I do is put a call through to them. And they will deliver in 2-3 days.
Who are your customers?
I have a lot of customers o. Apart from the regular keke napep riders and bike men, well-to-do people also patronize me regularly. In fact, there is a doctor that comes to buy agbo from me regularly. I always make jest of him and tell him why can’t he use the oyinbo medicine. He just laughs it off and says he has been drinking agbo since he was a kid in Ibadan, right before he even thought about being a doctor. This tells you how effective agbo is.
Do you consult more learned people to treat people with agbo?
Yes, I do. That’s what majority of the agbo sellers do whenever they need help. We have an association and we hold regular meetings. During meetings, we rub minds together and discuss about new techniques. But today, the meeting can’t hold because the government has banned any form of social gathering. So the only thing we just do is consult each other on the phone.
How much do you make in a day?
Hahaha… It’s all on God, whatever God says I will make in a day. But on an average, I make at least N4000-N5000 a day.
How much do you spend in a day?
I actually spend a lot daily. I come all the way from Ikorodu to this place (Meiran). Let’s say on a good day I decide to manage myself in this Buhari’s regime, I spend nothing less than N4000. You know how Lagos is, sometimes the fares are normal and sometimes they are not. So on a normal day when there’s no rushing or any type of surge, I spend N2000.
I give my kids money before I leave the house daily, I give them N1000 to buy whatever they want to eat during the day. And sometimes I give more , like N2000 when I know I won’t be coming back early so they will cook just before I get back home.
Why are you coming all the way from Ikorodu to Meiran to sell agbo?
I was living in Meiran before I got married. My husband lives in Ikorodu. So I have to be coming here every day, my customer base is here. People around here have known me for a long time. I just gave it a deep thought that rather than settle down with the business in Ikorodu were there are hundreds of agbo sellers competing to sell around me, why not just stay in Meiran where I have a customer base already? So that’s why I always come here daily. I don’t mind the stress, as long as I am making enough profit in the business.
Do you have a bank account?
Yes, I have a bank account with FirstBank. I always save my money in the account weekly. I go to the bank first thing every Friday morning to deposit my gain for the week. One has to be very smart in doing business.
Has the Coronavirus pandemic affected your business?
Yes, it has affected my business. There’s no money flowing in the economy, and that has not allowed businesses to move. But those that know my agbo is the only way for their ailment still patronize me regularly. So it’s like only the loyal customers are the ones still patronizing me regularly.