Lagos' Market Hustlers: These young men will show you how to make it in the city of dreams

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In markets like Aswani, young informal traders sniff out every chance to earn a living, a few hundred naira at a time.

In the bustling metropolis of Lagos with its 18 million people constantly in motion, blaring horns and high-rise buildings, many things stand out; the most present yet overlooked of these is the city’s energy.

You notice it from the moment you cross the state border or open your eyes in an apartment or one of the city’s many hotels.

The easiest way to describe this energy is an ever-present “busy-ness”, so to speak. It is that unexplainable feeling that something big is always happening or about to happen.

Nowhere is this more so than in the markets where every day, billions of Naira are exchanged for everything from clothing to electronics.

Most times, the markets can appear chaotic, yet so much value is created that it is easy to ignore that fact that everything is not as it should be.

On Lagos Island, in popular markets like Aswani and Tinubu, there are young men who depend on this chaos for a living; let’s call them Lagos’ market hustlers.

A walk along Tinubu Road will take you to one of the busiest markets in Lagos; Mandillas, where clothing is the product of choice and accessories from cufflinks to sunglasses are on sale at discount prices.

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In markets like this all around Lagos Island, small makeshift stalls cover as much as half of the road or more.

These stalls, made of large polythene sheets spread on the ground, display shoes, clothes and more. It is from this illegal trade that many of Lagos’ market hustlers earn a living.

Many of these hustlers are young men from around the country faced with grim economic realities and the challenges posed by their low education. To make something of themselves, they head to Lagos, the city that never sleeps and hardly parts with money, for a shot at the hustle.

 

It usually begins with meeting friends or acquaintances who are involved in the trade. This friend teaches the newbie the ropes for a week or two.

He also shares his connections and helps him build important relationships with the other market people. Soon, the newbie is ready to find a place on their own.

Spmetimes, that place involves moving goods for bigger traders, finding customers for these traders or starting off on their own.

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When I started raising money, I went to the importers”, says Agunye Peter Onyebuchi who has been trading in Lagos Island for some time.

I started buying from them. I may have money for one pair, I’ll buy the pair. I bring the wares out and display. When the customer wants a bigger or smaller size, I go to the customer to get the size they want…”, he continues.

Just tell me what you want and I’ll get it

Looking from an outsider’s perspective, this arrangement won’t earn the market hustler much money.

He depends on keeping the buyer as far as he can from the people who actually sell these products, with the aim of getting his own profit. Most times, this is usually only as much as 50 naira or 100 naira per product.

 

Still, put together over the course of a day, a week, a month, it becomes something.

From here, I have sent about two  to three of my younger ones to school.”, Onyebuchi says, “In this business, I pay my rent and in no time, I will be a landlord of myself”.

Big dreams, but for all his optimism, the market hustlers are some of the least loved people in Lagos. The less refined of them are notorious for harassing female patrons, often hassling them to the point of grabbing body parts and insulting those who have their eyes set on other products.

In a bid to ensure that the streets of Lagos are kept clean and orderly, the Lagos State government has outlawed street trading, rendering this “market hustle” illegal. A task force is specially assigned to ensure there is no street trading or hustling.

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Their job involves seizing defaulters’ goods and in some cases, arresting them. But while these young men are mortally scared of the task force and their white vans, all it takes is the sight of their tail lights leaving in the distance and everyone resumes their posts. Life returns to normal.

 

Some would say illegality is a social construct. Who should the government frustrate the activities of young men who have created a place for themselves in one of the most profitable value chains in the world when there is no viable alternative in the offing?

Others would refer to the effects of such activities; the long crowded streets that we have come to associate with trading in Lagos, the sexual harassment and pilfering that happens under its covers.

Still, like the tag we have given them, these young men endure life in one of the rowdiest parts of Lagos for meagre earnings when easier and more dangerous options glimmer before them.

In the end, Onyebuchi is a market hustler who just wants to make a living. If that isn’t the spirit of Lagos, what is?



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