In 2013, Shadare wanted to upgrade his Blackberry Torch to the latest Z10. He had dreamt about this new toy for a while and imagined that the new phone would upgrade his status. He emptied his savings and some change and strolled into Computer Village, the phone headquarters of Nigeria. As he entered the famous Otigba street, someone approached him and asked, “you wan buy phone? We get the latest: Samsung Galaxy S4, S6, HTC phones, Z10, iPhone 5s.”
“As soon as he mentioned my dream phone, the Z10, I told him, oya bros, let’s go to your shop,” Shadare recalls.
When they got to the ‘shop’, which was buzzing with people, his escort went to talk to some guys, behind the counter. They exchanged a few words and he returned with the phone. The escort wasted no time in starting his sales pitch.
“This is the phone, original, wey go last till you wan troway am. Na ₦80,000, see am”.
Shadare was mesmerised by the sight of the black phone, however, he felt that the price was outrageous so he haggled with the escort and they finally agreed on ₦75,000. The phone was tested in his presence and it was repackaged, payment was made and the phone was handed over to him.
However, he recalls that the escort gave him a parting warning: “Oga, no open your phone here o, they fit snatch am, so hol’am well.”
He heeded the advice, clutched the bag tightly till he got into his bedroom. Shadare had the shock of his life when he realised that the phone package contained a green bar of soap and a frayed charger with a few instructional leaflets.
“I cried when I got back to the store and the real owners told me that they couldn’t accept responsibility for the ‘phone’, they were not the ones that sold it to me. I checked the receipt I was given, indeed it was different from the name of the shop. Since then I have been very careful of buying things at Computer Village”
Shadare’s experience is just one of many that go on at Computer Village. When you are going there, you receive a lot of advice: Keep your eyes straight, walk briskly with pursed lips, game-face on and clutch your bag tightly. You should have a general ‘no-shaking’ stance as you approach the Village. While stories of unpleasant experiences in the market abound, it is still the one-stop shop for all things tech in Nigeria.
The advent and evolution of Computer Village
Before Otigba street and its environs became the marketplace for phones, laptop repairs, sundry items and general hustling, it was a wide expanse of farmlands in the 60s. A report by Temitayo Olofinlua shows how in the 70s, the local government constructed the roads in Ikeja which attracted artisans to the area. The establishment of the old secretariat building heralded the commercialization of the area. Offices spaces (which were mainly occupied by lawyers) sprang up quickly. By 1979, Murtala Mohammed Airport was commissioned and along came the ‘warehousing trend.’
“Soon, clearing and forwarding agents chose the place as
a perfect location for their goods because of its proximity
to the Airport. Fashion designers followed suit soon after” – Temitayo Olofinlua
Mr. Muyiwa Matuluko (Snr), a veteran journalist, remembers the old Ikeja with fondness.
“From inception in 1967, Lagos was split into 5 regions, Ikorodu, Badagry, Ikeja, Lagos and Epe also known as IBILE- a Yoruba word for local. So Ikeja was just one of the regions, but it was not made the capital until 1976. But Ikeja has always been commercialised. The government of the day (Action Group) had a progressive plan for the area.”
Although Matuluko grew up in Shomolu, he started working in Ikeja in 1990.
“I started my sojourn in Ikeja at Rosabel Advertising, Obafemi Awolowo house. There were tailors, barbers and all sorts then, but there was no ‘Computer Village.'” Matuluko recollects.
However, things changed in the lead up to the introduction of Global System for Mobile (GSM) into the country in 2001. The artisan-ridden street quickly evolved into a market for phone repairs, software downloads, unlocking, memory cards and batteries. Matuluko speculates that the Village must have started between 1998 and 2000.
“Before 1998, there were several mobile and makeshift shops who found it convenient to ‘pack and go’ when local government officials come to harass them.”
Before long, it became the full-blown technology hub which generates an estimated yearly revenue of $2 billion. Shops were fragmented and it became the go-to area for mobile phones, computers, faulty gadgets and its inhabitants became wizards (of some sort).
“The traders there are the closest to the pulse of the Nigerian technology product consumer, and that is why the Asian technology Majors do not joke with that market. Otigba is the gateway into the mind of the average Nigerian technology product consumer.” – Victor Asemota
There is no doubt that the Ikeja Computer Village has grown exponentially and this increase can be attributed to what could be termed the collaboration and apprenticeship culture. From the first three shops, others came to learn and after a period of time, they gained independence and went ahead to set up their own shops and train other people.
The destruction of relationships, memories and a certain tech cluster
On the 25th of April, 2017, the Lagos state government announced its intentions to relocate Computer Village to the ICT park, Katangowa in Agbado. The government claims that the relocation will “curb environmental degradation, housing stock deficit and traffic congestion in Ikeja.” This is a part of collective efforts to transform Lagos into a mega city. This announcement has been received with mixed feelings.
For Ben who has been in Computer Village for 15 years, the government’s decision is devastating. “There is no place that can be compared to Computer Village. It is an institution, how do you expect the traders to survive?”
There are a lot of factors to be considered regarding the government’s decision. Chief among them is its relocation plan. It would be a tad unwise for an administration to uproot a community and shove them off to another location without a concrete plan. However, the Lagos commissioner for physical and urban development, Wasiu Anifowose clarifies that the relocation notice is not a sudden move.
“It is a done deal; we have held a stakeholders’ meeting with the traders and they agreed to the relocation plan. It is an 11-year project that different administrations attempted to undertake but the present governor is a go getter. The relocation will deliver a world class computer and allied activities park. The process leading to the commencement of the development is in the concluding phase.”
According to Ben, there is no future for Computer Village at Kantangowa. “Second-hand cloth sellers have already dominated that place, so where do we start from?”
Computer Village, with all its faults, has become a necessity. It has provided employment for so many youths, graduates and the uneducated alike. One of such is Lazarus, a phone engineer who is also a Political Science student at the University of Lagos. He shares a shop with Ben and works after school hours and weekends. Lazarus thinks that if Ikeja ceases to be a hub, there will be a rise in robbery, thuggery and all other unlawful acts.
“Most people have not become armed robbers because they can still hustle honestly here (computer village). If the government succeeds this time, then they should expect a terrible repercussion.”
The name, Computer Village is apt for this community. They know each other, they can tell the street boys from the shop owners and there is a camaraderie even in the midst of the chaos, sweat and grind. They work hand-in-hand and ensure that the street boys make their own cut even though they do not own shops.
Temitayo shares some insight into this phenomenon. “Although some of those boys are dishonest, it is a normal practice. When street boys bring in a customer (also called ‘aboki’) the shop owners discreetly tell them the original price, so they can add their own cut. That is how the street boys make money.”
For Ben, that is what makes it dear. “I did my apprenticeship and worked my way up from here. I made some of my truest friends here. Most importantly I met my wife here, so this place has given me a lot.” he says with a smile.
The cost of building a megacity
Bola Tinubu and Babatunde Fashola’s administrations have attempted to relocate the village in the past, but they were unsuccessful. What may be different this time? Quite a number of people suggest that Governor Akinwunmi Ambode seems stubborn; he will do whatever he sets his heart to.
Described as a go-getter, Akinwunmi Ambode seems determined to birth the decade-long dream of transforming Lagos State into a megacity. Yes, it is a laudable and progressive dream, but a number of measures have to be put into place to ensure that commercial hubs are not stifled and people are not adversely affected.
Nigeria is not an enabling environment for entrepreneurs, but many have struggled against all odds to keep their heads above the harmful waters of corruption and the high cost of everything. With the relocation of the ‘village’, many fear that sales and patronage may never be the same as more people will find it easier to shop online, than brave the journey to the new destination. The resultant effect will definitely be an increase in unemployment. There will be a massive addition to the unemployed pool of 23 million people.
In the spirit of diversification, shouldn’t the government invest in the development of SME clusters such as the computer village rather than destroying it?
Featured image credit: Nifemi Akinwamide