“Hafa, you free today?” I asked Ifeanyi on Whatsapp. “Yea, I am.” he replied. “Abeg, I need your help with my ‘Changing Lenses’” “I know.” About 30 minutes later, he knocked on my door. “When do you want to go?” he asked. “I’m ready whenever you are.” I replied.
After another hour of looking for the right clothes to wear, I finally settled on a sky blue T shirt which I had got for the 2016 ‘Out on a Limb’ walk by the Irede foundation and an old pair of blue ripped shorts. The shirt was now about 2 sizes too small and the ‘Out on a Limb’ printed across the chest was already peeling off while the shorts had one cut belt hook. As we set out, I made a mental note to myself, smiling, “At this rate, I would soon run out of old clothes to wear on my expeditions.” The time was a few minutes past 1pm.
We got to National Stadium just before 2pm. I parked about 250 meters away, at Shitta, and we walked the rest of the way, camera in tow. When we got under the flyover bridge at Stadium, I took a moment to take in the beautiful artworks on the pillars. The works are paintings of various Nigerian sporting greats with small chronicles of their achievements.
It was quite a stunning view; the artist had done an amazing job. After a few minutes of admiring the view, we walked up to a group of kids huddled together with various products on the floor in front of them. They were hawkers apparently taking a break. They seemed between the ages of 10 and 16 and had an array of products including slippers, rat poison and glue, plantain chips, etc. “Una well done o,” I started. “Abeg, e get one project wey we dey try do; I wan sell something for that hold-up make this my friend snap me” I explained.
I had subconsciously turned to face Obi, who seemed like the oldest, as I was talking. “He no dey hear you o.” Ugo said, motioning to Obi as he came 3 steps closer to me. I repeated myself and he translated to Obi in a very strange Igbo dialect. I would later find out that Ugo was simply teasing Obi and they were from Abakaliki, in Ebonyi state.
After a few minutes of explanations and answering their questions, they agreed. I asked what they would let me sell; they said, “Anything” so I chose to sell rat glue & poison. “You go just dey smell rat, rat. Make Scoff them (my dogs) no go chop you o.” Ifeanyi said, laughing. They started explaining the prices to me. “This one na 200 but you fit sell am 3 for 500; these ones na 100 100 naira…” But the pricing of one product in particular really fascinated me: on the pack of rat poison, was written 750 naira.
However, the boys said, “This one, you fit sell am for any price.If them give you 200, 500, 150,or that 750. Any price, sell am but make e pass 100 naira sha.” “Why dis one price come dey scatter scatter like that?” I asked. “Na so we see am o.” Ugo replied “Just sell am any price”. Just as I was about to commence my sales, 2 louts approached us, apparently sensing a racketeering opportunity. “Who una be?” they asked.
We gave them the same explanations: “We dey do research. I just need sell small for this traffic make him snap me.” “You no come know say you go come see us first?” He asked. “I no even know say una dey this side.” I replied. “Oya go bring 10k”. What is it with all these Agberos and demanding for outrageous sums? I laughed and turned him down, “Egbon, where we wan see that kind money na?” then I continued in Yoruba, “We just wan do one experiment like that.” After about 5 minutes of back and forth, they let us go without collecting a dime. With that, I walked to the built up traffic and commenced my hawking experience.
My first lesson was heart-wrenching in its starkness. As I was standing on the curb, with my hands full of rat glue and poisons for sale, I noticed a sort of sad happiness etched on the faces of the many hawkers along the road. You could tell that they hated, yet loved their hustle. I would later find out that this is because although hawking is stressful, there is a certain sense of fulfilment you get whenever someone calls to patronize you.
There were mothers, kids, young adults selling everything from rat glue to cotton buds, biscuits, bread, groundnuts (peanuts), plantain chips, drinks, fruits, etc. I stood on the curb for a little longer, taking it all in, suppressing the final feelings of shyness I felt; with renewed resolve, I stepped out onto the road. Hawking at traffic lights is such that you only have the one or two minutes before the lights turn green to identify potential customers, make eye contact, market your goods (“Rat glue, rat poison!”) negotiate price, deliver the product and provide change. You also have to do this as often as possible to maximize revenue. Needless to say, this is no easy task.
It took me well over 15 minutes to get my first call from a customer. He was an elderly man seated at the back of a Keke (Tricycle). He had turned to look at me and as soon as our eyes made contact, I shouted out to him, “Rat glue, rat poison!” “How much?” He mouthed. “200 Naira,” I responded, pointing at the rat glue. He made to look away when I quickly added, “But you fit take 3 for 500.”
Just as he turned back to me, seemingly interested again, the light turned green and the Keke drove off. That turned out to be the closest I got to a sale. After a while, I went to one of the boys and asked him how I could increase my chances of a sale, and if I was doing anything wrong. He replied, “Na for that middle you go stay now, make customer fit call you.” I moved to the middle of the 2 lanes, but the only thing that increased was the risk. It seemed like as soon as the light turned green, the drivers simply put their feet down on their accelerators, not caring about anything else. We, the hawkers were left dodging speeding vehicles Matrix style. After a while, I asked another boy what to do. “Na women dey always buy am pass,” he replied.
I focused more on women, going ahead to announce “Rat glue, rat poison!” to them even if we didn’t make eye contact. Nothing changed. About 2 hours later, Obi came to me asking that I return his merchandise, “We wan go back yard. Market no dey today”. In all, I had got just 3 more enquires but they all simply nodded their heads and looked away as soon as I responded with the product features or price. These were some of the best reactions I got. Many others looked at me with disgust or contempt as if to say, “Do I look like someone with rats in my house?”
As I handed the products back to Obi, I decided to use the opportunity to ask a few questions. “Abeg, how I for do make I fit sell?” I started as we were walking back under the flyover bridge. “You no dey run follow the motor na. You dey do Ajebo. Even when the hold-up start to dey move, you suppose…” “No mind am!” Onyeka interjected. He was carrying a bag full of plantain chips and had made the most sales from my observation. “Na lucky o. Na wetin God say you go sell you go sell.” he continued. “So e no get wetin I fit do to sell plenty?” I asked again. “Ask am na. Him never sell anything since morning.”
Onyeka said, motioning to Obi. At this point, Obi jumped in, “All these rat poison no dey move market now sha.” This was a surprise to me. I had no idea there was also seasonality in merchandise sold in traffic. “So when e dey move market?” I asked him. “During rainy season. Na that time rats dey run enter house pass so people dey buy rat poison well well to kill the rats. If na rainy season, I no fit sell this one 150 na.” He replied, referring to the pack of rat poison with 750 Naira written on it. “So which one come dey move market now?” I asked. “Na all these biscuits and plantain chips. People dey like am.” He said waving his left hand in a wide arc covering Onyeka’s bag of plantain chips and another hawker carrying a carton full of Pure Bliss biscuits. “Why una come dey carry the rat poison if e no dey move market?” I asked. At this point, we were already at the spot, under the bridge, where I met them earlier and more kids had joined us. Onyeka replied, “Na wetin them give us for yard o. Na anything wey them give you na him you go sell” “Ok. What time una dey come out for morning and when una dey close?” I asked. A younger boy replied, “From around 6 we don come, stay reach like 8, 9.” “Shut up!” Obi interrupted him “You don ever come here by 6 in the morning before?” He turned to face me now, “No mind am. Na around 8 [am] we dey come out. But we dey stay reach 8, 9 [pm] sometimes sha” “So why una come dey go early today?” I asked them. “Market no dey today na!” Obi and Onyeka almost seemed to chorus it. “If say market dey now, we for stay reach night when the hold-up dey plenty.” Onyeka finished.
With this, we thanked them and wished them better luck next time while they wished us good luck with the project. We took a few pictures of the artworks on the pillars holding up the bridge before leaving. I thanked Ifeanyi for his help and he took a Keke home while I changed into fresh clothes in the back seat of my car and drove to Unilag. I had promised some junior colleagues to help them prepare for a business simulation competition they had entered.
Being a hawker is physically, mentally and psychologically tasking as you have to run after vehicles, dodge speeding vehicles and do so much sales and marketing in less than a minute while enduring all kinds of condescending looks from pity to disgust, contempt, even disappointment (maybe at me, maybe at the economy; I would never know). However, it taught me the following lessons:
1. Love what you do. Find fulfilment in the little things. That way, you can live through its more difficult moments. Hawkers have a single minded focus on making a sale and derive so much joy when a sale is completed that they can overlook the psychological assaults they regularly receive.
2. Simplify! They have such a short time before the light turns green again to do so much marketing and sales that everything is simplified to the barest minimum actions and cues: Eye contact, facial expressions, body language, reading lips, etc.
3. Understand your business holistically. They seemed to have a full grasp of the rat poison market including the target market (women), right product placement (stay in the middle of the 2 lanes), seasonality (rat poison sells better in rainy season than dry) and even when to call it a day.
4. Speak up! Don’t just accept everything handed to you even if from a supposed higher authority. Obi knows he will make more sales selling biscuits or plantain chips as selling rat poison during the dry season is much less effective. Yet he hawks the rat poison because, “na anything wey them give you [for yard] na him you go sell.”
5. Never look down on people. So many motorists, and passengers met us with different kinds of condescending looks without understanding the hustle or our stories. After being on the receiving end of those looks and listening to a few of those stories, I resolved to consciously control how I regard others and spread love and understanding rather than disdain and disrespect. I hope you do too.
All the names in this piece have been changed and are not the real names of the people involved.