Working Lives: The Wood Seller Who Inherited His Father’s Business
“Some individuals die, sustain injuries from saws, and suffer amputation from having logs of wood fall on their hand or leg. Others have died on the spot from being crushed by logs of wood while a few have lost their sight as a result of the sawdust. There are a thousand and one dangers in the sawmill business but we continue to push ahead because man must chop.”
If you’ve crossed the Third Mainland Bridge, you may have seen well-arranged floating logs of wood on the water. To the newbies who don’t know anything, they may wonder who it’s for and why it’s there. We visited the legendary Makoko Wood Market to explore the working life of one of the numerous merchants there.
Where are you from?
My name is Mr Abayomi. I am from Idanre Local Government Area, Ondo State.
Tell us about your family. What was it like growing up? How many kids did your parents have?
I grew up in a family of 4. My parents had 2 children. Growing up in this area exposed me to a lot of things. Makoko is a ghetto. You can’t compare life here to life in Banana Island or Magodo. We grew up living rough; so much so that we were out of our parents’ control. As a young boy, I would go swimming with my friends instead of going to school. It was a Friday tradition.
On other days, I would visit my dad at the sawmill after school. My dad owns a sawmill close to the riverbank, making it easy for the boys who push log wood from the water into our shop. My work at the sawmill was to take a daily record of the number of log woods the workers would saw. The business was flourishing and my father was able to build a flat in his hometown in Ondo State. My dad never considered building a house in Lagos. The major reason was that he couldn’t tolerate omo onile. He is 82 years old now.
Are you married?
Yes. I am married with 3 children. My wife is a fashion designer. She owns a shop nearby and pays N3500:00 monthly as rent. She is very skilled and so, receives a lot of patronage. She also has apprentices. We are well-known in this community.
Tell us about your education. What did you dream of becoming as a young person?
I attended Anglican Primary School and Adekunle Secondary School, both at Aiyetoro. After I graduated from school, I joined my father at the sawmill to help him monitor his store. I also served as the storekeeper.
As a child, I wanted to be an actor in Yoruba movies, and become famous. I was not thinking of the financial benefits of acting. However, my father didn’t let that dream come to pass. He would forbid me from following them to their locations. Instead, I was instructed to join him in the sawmill after school instead. That’s how I gained knowledge in this business and it’s what I have been doing since secondary school.
Where were you born? When did you come to Lagos?
I was born here, in Aiyetoro, Lagos State. Though my parents are from Ondo State, I sometimes claim to be a Lagosian. Don’t be surprised when you see a poster of me running for the post of Lagos State Governor.
Where do you live and how much is your rent?
I live in a room and parlour self-contain in Makoko. Makoko is a rough area so most houses here are one-room apartments. In recent years though, some landlords have been selling their lands to developers while others put theirs on lease. As a result, you’d see some nice buildings in Makoko. They are not close to the river though.
I stay in an apartment in one of the buildings. I pay N150,000:00 yearly. Recently, we were informed our rent would be increased. If the rent is too expensive for me to afford, I may have to move out of the community to somewhere else like Mowe.
How did you get into this work? Do you work for yourself or under somebody?
It was formerly my father’s business, and I just took over from him. I own it now and have been in it for more than 30 years. In the time I spent working for my dad, I learned the different types of woods and the business operation. Some wood types include mahogany, iroko, cherry, oak, maple and many more. The time I spent visiting my dad’s shop after school was a period of learning even though I did not take it seriously. During that time, I also learnt how to operate the saw machines and others in the workshop.
I am now the owner with 7 workers under me. These workers are usually referred to as carriers and loaders. The loaders push wood logs from the water to the workshop where it is cut into several pieces. I pay them immediately after they are done with the work because it’s not a daily job. I only call them when I need their services. The carriers package the final result. While others operate the cutting machines and I pay them weekly.
How much did you start with?
You don’t need a large amount of money to start a sawmill business. With N100,000:00, you’re good to go. You don’t have to wait until you have all the machines before you start. There are people who don’t handle wood logs directly. Instead, they rent out their machines to people and charge per wood you cut. This is usually around N200:00 to N300:00.
With N100,000:000, you can concentrate on buying log wood from sellers. A log of wood costs N2,000:00. The major thing is to focus on one aspect of the business. You can decide to invest in machines and rent them out or do both. Bear in mind that these machines are expensive.
How much does the machine cost?
The price fluctuates and increases anytime I go to the market. As of 4 to 5 years ago, it cost 6 million naira. Presently, a circular saw should cost between 10 and 11 million naira. I bought the one I use in my shop from a colleague for 1.5 million naira. That was 10 years ago. I’m sure my colleague also bought it from someone else. It’s currently very old and develops faults daily. I don’t have the money to buy a new one. Hopefully, Nigeria will be better and our government will remember to empower us with all the machines we need.
How much money were you making daily or weekly when you started the business?
Income was initially unstable. But with time, I started earning up to N200,000:00 weekly or more depending on our working and delivery speed. My daily income is about N50,000:00 or more. We receive customers from all parts of Lagos. We do wholesale distribution so we supply to a lot of retailers weekly.
Who are your customers and how do you source wood for them?
We have numerous customers. They come from Yaba, Lagos Island, Ajah and Ikorodu. Our major customers are carpenters and furniture makers. Engineers also patronize us with specifics. If we don’t have them, we source for them so they can return.
Do government officials or local community leaders try to disturb you when sourcing wood?
I don’t know much about this. If there’s anything like this, the woodcutters must have handled it. The wood here is from trees planted by the great-grandparents of some individuals. Landowners sell the wood to the wood-cutters. It’s impossible to just enter any land and cut wood. There are people who do that. Our job is to travel down to pick up our purchase. We source wood from Ijebu in Ogun State, Delta, Edo and Ondo states.
So, we don’t receive disturbance from anyone.
How much do the boats for transporting wood cost?
We make use of a tugboat. It is owned by somebody else. Whenever we have to transport our produce, we meet him. To transport a log of wood costs N300:00. All we do is ensure the wood is properly arranged to prevent losing wood during a storm. Aside from that, freely floating wood on the water isn’t safe for any incoming boat behind as it can cause capsizing.
I do not know how much the tugboat costs.
How do you operate?
Transporting wood on the water is risky and difficult. We transport wood from Ondo to Lagos State. One of the risks we face is the possibility of the boat sinking in windy conditions. This translates to a loss for the owner. Sometimes, the wood may break and get lost in the water. Obviously, the tugboat cannot make a U-turn to retrieve it so that’s another loss.
Aside from the people who bring in the wood, there are others who stay on top of the wood controlling and supporting the tugboat. Sometimes, they spend up to six months on the water before getting to Lagos, especially during the rainy season.
Which is safer for transporting wood? Road or water?
Transporting by road comes with several risks from accidents arising from brake failures to trailer containers falling on the road. When compared to the trailers we used in the past, tugboats have reduced the incidence of accidents. That is why we prefer tugboats. The only disadvantage is its slow speed. Since we plan ahead, we have not had any issues with the tugboat being slow. Since we started using tugboats, we have not experienced accidents, thanks to God.
Do you encounter any dangers in this business?
This business comes with several dangers. Some individuals die, sustain injuries from saws, and suffer amputation from having logs of wood fall on their hands or legs. Others have died on the spot from being crushed by logs of wood while a few have lost their sight as a result of the sawdust.
There are a thousand and one dangers in the sawmill business but we continue to push ahead because man must chop
How much do you spend on healthcare?
I rarely fall sick. I only do health checkups occasionally.
How can you make a profit in this business?
There’s barely any profit in this business. Just like any business, we experience profit and loss. I do this job so as not to be idle. Sometimes, we buy a log of wood for N2,000:00 but on cutting it; we realize it is bad. As a result, we sell it at a loss for N1,000:00. On days we have bulk sales, we may add bad wood to their order to make a profit. If we resort to this method, we may discover too late that our business is running at a loss.
As a businessperson, there’s every need to be street-smart, if not, you may be forced to close down your business.
Have you ever had any crazy incidents while moving the woods?
I had one as a newbie in the business. We almost lost our woods to the water while transporting them. There was a windstorm, and the cables used in tying them came loose. We had no choice but to swim and retrieve the woods lost. It was a learning experience though.
Are your children involved in this business?
Not yet. I’ll introduce them to it at the right time. For now, I want them to focus on their education. Children love money a lot, even more than we, their parents. Maybe after my first son is done with his university education, I will introduce him to the business. I don’t want him to be enticed by money and forget schooling.
How does your union work and what are the advantages of being a member?
There’s a union of sawmill owners and you must become a member before you can work in this line of business. As members of the union, we provide financial assistance to each other. The union also provides an orientation to new members.
In cases of emergency, the union supports members. We hold regular meetings where the chairman addresses everyone in the market, especially as regards safety.
If I want to start the trade today, what do I have to do?
There’s a due process to follow. For starters, you would have to select a good spot for your business. Next, the chairman would inspect it and inform you of the expected yearly rent. After payment, you would need to buy some specified drinks for the market elders who would speak blessings on you.
How long have you been doing this and how much longer do you see yourself doing it?
I have been doing this for over 30 years. I grew up here and I only earn money from the sale of wood. My father did this before he retired and I also plan on retiring when it is time. I have not decided what I would do after now. I need to do careful planning before venturing into any business.
What do you plan or dream of venturing into?
I would love to do a different kind of joy because of the high risks of this business. I am still young and active. If we were in the days of good governance, things would have been different. I would have left this job for something better as it isn’t high-paying. If I get another job, I would gladly leave this business.
What type of work would you like to venture into?
If given the opportunity, I would like to be a developer or politician. I could also get a job in an oil company and earn in dollars or naira. The most important thing is to earn good money.