Working Lives: The Agbo Seller Whose First Son is a Medical Doctor
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 Whose First Son is a Medical Doctor
All my children are professionals in different fields. Two of them are abroad. And they all send me money frequently…I spend about N3,000 daily feeding poor children”.
Where are you from?
I am a native of Ota in Ogun State. My mother is from Ondo State.
When did you arrive in Lagos?
I came to Lagos in the early 1960s. My father was a trader, and my mom was also a trader. So my parents gave birth to me and my siblings in Ota. Then my dad was a member of the St John African church. May his soul rest in peace. My mom used to sell bitter kola and agbo back in the days at the market. She sold pepper and other things too. So when my mother died, I took over the business.
I was still at little girl when we arrived in Lagos. My dad moved to Lagos from Ota because of his business. He was selling fabrics in Lagos Island.
Where do you live?
I live alone in our family house, since my husband died. My children come over to pay a visit once in a while. As you can see it is a very big house, there are about 8 rooms here. I had to rent out the other rooms so I won’t be feeling lonely in this big house. This is a family house so I don’t pay any rent. I had 6 kids with my late husband. May his gentle soul rest in peace. My children are all doing very well.
What are your children doing?
My first child is a Doctor. The second-born works with an auditing firm, she studied Accounting in school. The third and fourth are both lecturers at Osun State University. While the last two are nurses in America.
Did you train them with the money from selling agbo?
Well, I would say yes. Because I can remember vividly that when their dad wasn’t around most of the time I would send them money for textbooks, and other minor things they needed money for in school. For the first two, their dad did most of the sponsoring. But ever since he died, I took over. I paid for their fees with the money realized from agbo business.
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What was your husband doing before he died?
He sold fabrics in Lagos Island. He had 5 shops where he sold all sorts of fabrics. Very expensive fabrics. He was so blessed in the business that he had customers abroad. When Nigerians over there wanted to do party abroad they would always tell him to send fabrics over to them. They sometimes even told him to get a tailor to sew it for them. All they had to do was send their measurements. Boy, things were smooth in the good old days, unlike now.
When and how did you decide to set up in the agbo business?
When my mother came to Lagos, she never knew she would be selling agbo. She had a beer parlor where she sold different types of beer to entertain her customers. She was also selling agbo but mainly as a side hustle. It was about 25 years old when my mother passed away. I didn’t want the business to collapse, so I took over running it. The herbs my mom was selling were very real. By the time she died, she had developed a large customer base.
She could treat all sorts of ailments. It’s not chemical like what those oyinbos are producing for us these days. So I am still keeping up with the business. I am progressing in it. if I die today, I don’t know who will take over the business as I did from my mom. All my children are alakowes. They have no interest in the business. My children keep asking me to stop selling agbo. They are always sending money to me so they know I don’t need the money. What they do not understand is that it is a passion for me.
For how long did you train under your mother?
When one’s parents run a company and they carry one along, one would definitely know one or two things about how certain things are done. So that was how I learnt from my mom. I was always staying with her at the beer parlor and serving customers. In the process she was always sending me to Lagos Island to buy raw materials for the agbo, so she was always putting me through in those days. So I really can’t say for how long I trained. Let’s just say I trained throughout my life as a kid.
What ailments are the agbo for?
Different ailments. I am sure you would have been hearing of the popular one, agbo jedi. There is also agbo for for malaria. I also have the one for body pains amongst others. The agbo jedi is very real, it won’t send you to the loo but anything that is dirty in your system, the agbo jedi will wash it out.
Which is the most expensive of your agbos?
All are actually very expensive because I am not selling ethanol. I sell the real deal. The most expensive is the bottle that costs N5000 but it is now N7000. Raw materials are now expensive now that there is no interstate travelling. It has not been easy for my supplier to come down to Lagos. And those that have them in stock already are increasing the prices because they know people are demanding for it a lot. I also sell in bits too- N100, N150, like that and like that. It all depends on the customer’s pocket.
Which is the fastest selling agbo?
Many people come to me and complain of piles. You know people always eat sugary things daily. Those that are always cautious of that will always run to me and say mama I am here again o, I don’t want my wife to say I am a weak man when we are in the other room. So I give them the agbo for that function. Agbo jedi has to be the fastest-selling agbo. Some people also like mixing the agbo jedi with agbo iba, the one for malaria, so it all works together.
Where do you get the raw materials?
I have a supplier like I said. He comes all the way from a village in Abeokuta to supply me in Lagos. I also have one from Ondo. So whenever I need any material, all I do is just put a call through. So whenever they come over and deliver, I pay for their delivery service. You know it’s not easy coming all the way from Ondo just to deliver the raw materials.
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Who are your customers?
A lot of people. I can’t even start counting. Thanks to God, I even export my herbs out of the country. I have a customer base in Kenya and South-Africa.
Do you consult more learned people to treat people with agbo?
I don’t consult anybody, I know every detail about making any type of agbo. As I said, I have been in the business with my mom since the early 1960s. And I am very sure you can see grey hairs on my head. I am not a small girl in this business. In fact, other people that sell agbo around always come to me for guidance on things they are not sure about.
How much do you make in a day?
I really don’t even keep track of how much I make in a day honestly. This business for me is just to keep myself busy around the house so when customers come we can at least gist. You know I told you earlier that I live alone. All my children are professionals in different fields. Two of them are abroad. And they all send me money frequently hoping I stop this business. But you know what? I won’t stop! So now that you are asking me how much I make, let me just give you a rough figure of say N4000. And then for my customers outside Nigeria, I make about N20,000 each from a transaction. The packaging and the delivery service costs extra.
How much do you spend in a day?
I actually spend a lot but not on myself. How much food am I even eating in a day? But you know what they say about givers never lack, so I tend to give these little kids around money daily to eat. Most of them always come around to keep me company during the day and I know that their parents are not really well to do, they are only managing. Especially now that coronavirus has even scattered people’s income one way or the other.
Things will be so hard for them. So I spend about N2000-N3000 daily. Money is really not a problem for me. I am thankful to God that I have children that are caring. Sometimes when customers come, I always overhear them saying, why is mama even selling agbo? She lives in a big house like this, so she should not be selling agbo. I just look at them and laugh it off. Only if they know this trade is a passion for me.
How has the Coronavirus pandemic changed affected your business?
People are still coming to patronize though, but it is no longer like before. The whole coronavirus saga just made things somehow. Everyone is keeping their head low. Customers that would always come and sit with me in the evening to drink one or two agbo stopped coming because of the government’s restriction on any social gathering. So only those that stop by to buy are the ones still coming.
There’s no business that is not affected, all businesses are affected.
Do you have a bank account?
Yes, I have been banking with First Bank for a very long time. My kids send money to my bank account steadily. And I also save my money there too.