His name is Anthony Adah and he cuts hair on the sidewalk on Kofo Abayomi Street, a quiet, almost residential street in Victoria Island, Lagos.
A typical Nigerian barber’s salon is a small shop, with walls adorned with mirrors, glass sliding doors covered with posters of famous American superstars like Ludacris and R Kelly, and surfaces littered with various tools of the trade.
On this day, I passed Kofo Abayomi and saw Anthony’s ‘shop’. It was made up of a wooden table mounted above a gutter with an unseemly fluid flowing through it. Nestled on the table was a mirror chipped at each end. A brush, clippers, a pack of ‘Tony Montana’ powder and two cosmetic jars were neatly arranged on the table. Not too far from this table was a small 0.9kva generator popular known as ‘I-beta-pass-my-neighbour’. There were all sorts of traders and even a small mechanic’s shed next to him.
The scene before me was a masterclass in making the best out of whatever one had. Life had given them lemons, and they were making lemonade. Needless to say, these conditions were far from glamorous. They are a far cry from the ambitions this young man born and bred in Benue state had when he first arrived in Lagos four years ago.
With laughter, he explained:
“I didn’t relocate immediately to Lagos. I was going and coming. I was in school in Federal Polytechnic, Benue State and while I was there, I wrote an exam for School of Oceanography and they called me so I abandoned the school in Benue and came to Lagos.”
He studied Marine Engineering but like many young Nigerians after graduation, he has been in the job market for since then. He has sent out countless CVs but his efforts to secure a job have remained futile. He lives with his sister and did not want to be fully dependent on her seeing as she also lives hand-to-mouth.
“Hmm… the thought to learn some type of skill came to me one day in the bus when I was very depressed because of my dwindling finances. I thought of learning how to repair phones and computers but along the line a friend of mine suggested barbing salon.”
This is how the roadside barber shop was born. He learned the art of barbing somewhere in Obalende and when he was satisfied with his skills, he set up his business. With little or no help from his mum – his only surviving parent – and his sister, I wondered how he was able to raise the funds required for this.
“Before I set up my salon, I was already barbing while I was in the School of Oceanography. I did it in front of my room with just clippers connected to the light in my room in the hostel and I was charging 100 naira. With that, I was able to take care of my handouts and some minor bills in school.
When I graduated, I started waiting tables at a restaurant because the profit from barbing in school wasn’t enough to set up shop outside so I had to get a job. I used the savings from waiting tables to set up my own barbing salon.”
He resumes everyday between 7.30am and 8am and closes by 9pm on most days. Mondays and Wednesdays are the exception, when he closes early around 6pm to attend mid-week church services. He charges 200 naira per customer and gets an average of 10 customers a day.
The limitations of his business affect his revenue as his lack of facilities restricts him from charging customers more.
“It is more expensive in Obalende because those ones have normal shops and are not road side. In fact you will only find road side barbers in V/I and Ikoyi in this axis.”
In spite of these restrictions, he chose Kofo Abayomi because he saw an opportunity. There was no competition. The entire street had no barbers. Despite being the only provider in the area, Anthony prides himself on great customer service both in his salon and during home visits. He sees this as the reason he gains new customers and retains old ones.
Anthony now faces a challenge many young people know too well. The need to gain work experience in his field. He needs an internship which will not only give him this much needed experience but also some income he can save towards the costs of professional exams and his dream of holding a B.Sc.
“I really want to get a B.Sc in Marine Technology and it is only the University of Technology in Rivers State that offers it.”
His current inability to pursue this dream has made Anthony’s roadside shop his reality. This reality comes with numerous challenges. Harassment from Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) officials is a major one. As a result of this, fear and insecurity is practically woven into the DNA of businesses like Anthony’s. Their work could literally be wiped away in one afternoon, on a whim. Anthony learned this the hard way on his first day working on this street when his generator – the lifeblood of his business – was seized because he had not bribed the officials inspecting the area. He has since made amends.
“Weekly, I pay 500 naira to KAI as a bribe so they won’t harass me. I initially gave them 4,000 naira when I started.”
Still, bribes don’t guarantee peace of mind in this precarious arrangement between patrolling inspectors and sidewalk entrepreneurs.
“Sometimes, paying doesn’t guarantee your stay because when they are coming, we still pack our things and run. I pick up my gen and clipper and run. That is why sometimes, the barbers, especially the ones around Eko Hotel come out only in the night so that the KAI people won’t disturb them.”
In a nutshell, Anthony and others like him face a curious balance which they strive to strike everyday: maintaining a business that is established enough to provide required services but nimble enough to literally pack up and move at any time.
In addition to the fear of KAI, theft is also a serious concern. Since he lives in Ajah and works in Victoria Island, Anthony has taken measures to safeguard his equipment which eats further into his meagre earnings.
“I keep it with the security guard of a company near this place and give him something. After paying all these people, what I’m making isn’t enough but it is manageable.”
One might expect living in such circumstances – relentless apprehension and financial difficulty – to be exhausting at the very least. Yet, Anthony shows little sign of weariness.
He was very cheerful and jovial while talking to me. He was also very polite and even offered me a drink. After speaking with me, he said he had to get to the park and board a bus to Port Harcourt because he had a job interview there. His eyes shone with confidence and determination and I have no doubt in my mind that he is going to make it someday.
People Like Us is an exclusive column created by TNC to document the lives of everyday Nigerians.
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