The tribe of Nigerian mechanics is under the threat of extinction. Because the mecho group appears not so articulate and unable to project itself, the society seems not to realize this progressive extinction. For any close observer, this genre of artisans and the mecho business they superintendent over, in their present profile and with their current business model, are fast ageing, getting dislocated, disillusioned and are disappearing.
The frustration of the good old mechanic is with both self and the society. It is time we all woke up to this reality. The present culture, structure and reward system of the Nigerian mecho workshop is simply outdated and is at loggerhead with modern trend and requirements. The business requires re-orientation, restructuring and massive investment. The situation is calling for the intervention of the smart investor who should see how much return could be generated through investment and revaluation of this highly undervalued and under priced business sector.
The other time I was at the mechanic village, all four apprentices of my good old mechanic had abandoned the calling and left the old man to keep plying his trade alone, while the young Turks had gone after other pursuits. The man remarked that these days, apprentices have fallen for the allure of commercial motor cycling, better known as okada business. The lamentation, according to the old man, is not just because of what had befallen this one time thriving trade he had known all his life, but that these fleeing youths were regrettably droning into uncertainties, because the okada business they are drifting into could be so volatile and unpredictable. It is an attraction which in itself had turned, for many youths, the beginning of more frustrations. The veteran mechanic however refused to blame the fleeing youths, remarking that if he also knew what else to do, why would he continue in a career that has brought him poverty, non recognition and more frustration than satisfaction.
It is lamentable that hard times have befallen this critical sector in the Nigerian automobile industry, in spite of its laudable contribution to the economy over the ages. Many of us would recollect that the Nigerian mechanic has been the principal reason why many Nigerians are able to ride a car of any worth and why many cars are still cruising on the road, well beyond their stipulated life-time. Besides, the mechanic village has been at the back of the Tokunbo phenomenon, which has been the fall back for the so called middle class, many of whom would have had no experience of owning or driving a car of their own, following the massive devaluation of the Naira in the 80s, which took the price of new cars and other items of living, out of the reach of the average individual.
Many of the so called elites would have been left at the mercy of the incredible public transport system or resorted to the foot-wagon option. The Nigerian mechanic is equally at the heart of a thriving spare parts industry, which is providing employment for millions of Nigerians and contributing so significantly to the wealth of the nation. It is noteworthy that the Nigerian spare parts market is one of the biggest in the world.
The mechanic has demonstrated so much resilience and contribution over the ages, but he has so little to show for it in terms of quality of life, sustainability of existence and job satisfaction. This artisan performs all manner of tasks to keep the Nigerian automobile industry going. The tasks include, but are not limited to, general servicing, cleaning, parts-replacement, greasing, oiling, dismemberment, coupling, wielding, drilling, forging, fabricating, building, etc to keep vehicle owners smiling. The Nigerian mechanic village overhauls engines and body structures, replaces engines, converts right hand drive to the left hand, adapts cars from the temperate regions to the Nigerian tropical environment, and fabricates body structures of cars and haulages, among other feats.
Yet, this industry is largely ignored from mainstream attention. The practitioners are ageing and the tradition of apprenticeship, which has sustained it overtime, is dying. Majority of the mechanics are illiterate or semi-literate. Their work environment is sub-standard – dirty, smeared and black with grease, while the business setting has become archaic, dysfunctional and disoriented with the technological age. The business model is virtually sole ownership, micro, traditional and subsistent. The tools are scanty, old and behind time. Most tasks are still done manually. Common and basic work aids, like overall, boots, engine lifters, visor for the wielder/panel, etc, are missing in most cases. Members are exposed to work hazards, nature and an unfriendly environment. There is no form of insurance back-up.
The reward system is uninspiring, either. There are no standard charges for services across board. Where there is some claim to standard charges, members do not comply or enforce it. A lot of mechanics simply asks the motorist to pay anything he wanted for services rendered. Where the mechanic charges, the fees are subjected to hard haggling which does not have a minimum limit. The motorist who did not hesitate to pay premium price for spare parts would suddenly turn broke when it comes to paying for the mechanic service. At the end of the day, the poor mecho receives only a token for his service, which may have taken hours to deliver.
Invariably, he lives from hand to mouth – no savings, no sufficient fund to send children to good schools or live in habitable accommodation, much less drive a decent automobile. More often than not, even the workshop he is using is at the mercy of the landlord, who accommodated the mechanic village on his land in the first instance, as a form of effecting physical possession over the land, to help preserve his title to the property. This arrangement would naturally last only until when the landlord chooses to develop or dispose of the land. The Nigerian mechanic is thus essentially an itinerant artisan. The situation is worsened by poor sales these days.
This scenario, coupled with age and misalignment with modern trend is what is threatening the existence of this vital support system. It is time therefore for a sound framework for the automobile industry and the creation of an enabling environment which will give life and direction to this critical industry.
Non-investors may see the situation as hopeless. Smart investors and financiers will however see vast potentials and opportunities in this down stream business, worth putting their money on, to bring about depth and modernization while being reassured of return on their investment, given good management. For a long time the Nigerian business environment has been largely individualistic and typified by tradition and illiteracy/semi-literacy. It is time for graduates and experienced businessmen, with creativity and valve, seeking investment destination to discover the fortune in this business line.
Certainly, the industry needs more of new ideas and fresh breath, like the recent lady mechanic phenomenon. The mechanics themselves need to wake up from their slumber and challenge themselves with training and re-training, re-tooling and re-organization of themselves and their work-practice to form a critical mass that would articulate their views, present their case and facilitate access to funding from banks and other financial bodies, to save their means of livelihood.
The industry is calling for a discovery by smart investors. There are vast investment opportunities across the value chain of the mechanic business. Overall, we all have responsibility to keep the concept of the Nigerian mechanic alive and thriving, because we all depend on it one way or the other.