BusinessDay

Inside Computer Village, Nigeria’s largest phone hub

It was the usual hurly-burly life of a mega city in Ikeja, the Lagos State capital, on Tuesday, November 3.

The Ikeja Along Bus Stop on the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway was filled with roadside traders and their customers haggling prices of items from clothes to shoes.

Beside the railway line was the pathway to the Computer Village, touted as West Africa’s largest phone and gadgets hub. This hub produces N1 billion daily for the Nigerian economy and pays millions in taxes monthly to Lagos State and federal governments.

It was as usual bubbling with activities, with passers-by dodging tricycles or stray punches from ever-running traders. A local government headquarters, characterised by in and out movements of members of the Nigerian Youth Service Corps, welcomes visitors to Computer Village, also known as Otigba Cluster.

Cars were parked on one side of the road with loud speakers on the roof advertising various items from phones, to wristwatches and medications.

Going further down was the bus terminal filled with people and buses, followed by a stretch of eight different shops marking the beginning of the cluster.

Located formerly in Surulere, before being moved to Ikeja, Computer Village is considered as the Silicon Valley of West Africa, with the largest market for information and communications technology (ICT) products in the region.

It is also a force in the tech market with over 5,000 vendors providing a wide variety of services ranging from sale, swap and repair of phones; sales of phone accessories, laptops, and computer accessories; and phone assembly, among others.

The hub hosts up to 2,000 visitors and buyers daily, including vendors and investors as well, according to official estimates.

The buyer and the seller

“Hello, lady, I have what you are looking for,” Femi, a twenty-something-year old man, said in the most friendly voice.
“Phone? Laptop? Repairs?” he asked, almost in succession.

I was at the Computer Village to do my job as a journalist, but I needed to play along with Femi. He took me a shop which in reality was a passage in-between different shops in a building that was quite rowdy. At Computer Village, each shop belongs to every trader in the cluster. Once you make your request as a buyer, you are taken to a shop to have a look at what you want. The original owner of the shop makes way for the trader, who is possibly a middle-man.

I had told Femi that I sold phones in wholesale. So, he took me to a shop and gave me a pricelist of items. Few minutes later, his co-trader started to gather around me. Sensing uncertainty, I got his contact and promised to call him whenever I was ready.

At Computer Village, phones go as low as N20,000 but as high as N500,000. However, they all differ in quality. Popular brands are more expensive, but newer or unpopular brands are much cheaper. From Nokia to Samsung, Infinix, and Tecno, down to Huawei, Apple and iTel, all phone brands are found at the hub. With N50,000, anyone can buy a durable phone that can browse the Internet and accommodate most applications.

Money-making machine for middle-men

As I left Femi’s ‘shop’, I met Victor who claimed to sell flash drives, ear phones, memory cards, USB cords, key rings and other phone and laptop accessories. Like Femi, Victor took me to another shop that was not his. I asked for a 32gb memory card and haggled prices with him before eventually settling for N4,000 for each. I pretended that I wanted to pay and asked if he could get 10 pieces of the flash drives for me, and he replied in the affirmative.

“How can you get me 10 flash drives seeing that this is not your shop?” I asked.
“Ah!” he exclaimed.
“I will get them from my suppliers,” he assured.
“So, tell me, why don’t you rent a shop here?” I asked.
“Shops are quite expensive here,” he replied.
“Besides, why get a shop when I can sell more moving up and down?” he asked, almost in amazement.
“Instead of paying almost N200,000 annually as rent, I can pay N500 per day and sell without being harassed,” he explained.

On good days, Victor said he would make N5, 000 to N10, 000 every day. Those who had shops would make more money than that. Others outside the shop could make as much more as Victor but they were often harassed by touts who would collect money without receipts.

At Ogunbiyi Community Development Association, touts collect N1,800 from traders without issuing receipts.

“This is one way of killing businesses in Lagos. Apart from the corruption side of it, the effect on small businesses is enormous,” Victor said.

The inside view of Computer Village

Economic contribution

BusinessDay found, in line with the e-commerce trend, that some of the vendors had online presence where they carried out their daily activities, gaining wider market reach. One example is Blessing Okunnu, a 27-year-old graduate selling different brands of London-used and new phones. She had an online platform named Phone Box. Okunnu said she made more sales online using social media platforms and also e-commerce platforms, selling at least 10 phones online daily.

Computer Village is a popular name in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. According to the Ministry of Communication Technology, the hub generates N366 billion annually—N1 billion in 24 hours.

Ojikutu Adeniyi, president of the Computer and Allied Products Dealers Association of Nigeria (CAPDAN), said that the ICT-focused commercial hub generated N1.5 Billion daily with over 3,500 companies and multinationals from within and outside the country registered under the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).

In view of the daily business transactions and popularity of the hub, it has attracted a number of investors including Google, and ICT dealers and brands, across and beyond Africa thereby expanding the market size and population with profound effect on Lagos State economy.

At the hub, there is a bilateral partnership known as Nigeria Economic Development Incorporation, a platform establishing a strategic, bilateral economic relationship between Silicon Valley and Nigeria.

Apart from being a large market for technology-related items, the hub provides a market for e-commerce merchants, commercial banks, restaurants, cloth sellers, bag sellers, food sellers, among many other businesses.

Timi David Famoroti, president of the Coalition of Associations in Computer village and vice chairman of Ogunbiyi Community CDA, while speaking with BusinessDay, said the presence of the largest ICT hub in Nigeria was significant and wielded so much importance to economic growth and development of Nigeria. Famoroti said it generated employment, establishing partnership with international organizations, with about five thousand vendors generating billions annually.

“On the average, not less than 20,000 people earn their daily living in the hub. In addition, all the vendors pay no less than twenty different taxes daily, monthly and annually to the federal, state and local governments, banks, private pockets, including VAT, utility bills,” Famoroti said.

Government indifference

He further said that despite the business activities going on in the hub, the challenges affecting the hub were many, degrading the hub for what it represented, which was the future. He pointed out that poor regulations permitting roadside selling despite abundance of shops, noise and air pollution were downsides. He noted that the presence of touts disrupting business activities, overcrowding which shielded thieves and fraudsters, and insecurity were driving customers away.

“We suffer from unhealthy competition with our suppliers who also sell in the same market,” he said.

“Poor regulation of the hub’s activities, ethnic and tribal differences, harmful government policies, poor exposure to global development, unwanted interference and imposition of people are key issues we are battling with,” he revealed.

Speaking on government’s response to the challenges, Famoroti said, “The government is not addressing anything. Despite the number of taxes we pay, we do not have any government interventions. Even when we have challenges and report to them, they just look the other way,” he said.

He noted that the associations and governing bodies were trying their best to retain sanity and regulate the hub, but the imposition of ‘Iyaloja’ and ‘Babaloja,’—an unwelcome development—had further degraded the market. ‘Iyaloja’ is the woman head of the market while ‘Babaloja’ is the male counterpart. These heads of markets are imposed on Lagos markets by the state government and their local government counterparts. These market heads, like politician, collect their own fees and issue their own receipts in Lagos markets.

“It is unconstitutional, unlawful and unwelcome development to impose an Iyaloja over a registered body. This is adding insult to injury for the vendors and associations,” he noted.

“Beyond being unresponsive to the plight of the hub, the government is killing the aspiration to be the best through its harmful policies. They have promoted unhealthy competition by allowing the Chinese and Lebanese to come in and sell despite the fact that we are still importing from them. How do you expect the local market to survive if the suppliers are also trading in the same market?” he asked, rhetorically.

Entrance to Computer Village via Ikeja Along

He said that Computer Village is a solution hub for all kinds of technical faults, having brilliant minds that can repair, build and invent anything, but lack the necessary support from government to actualise its potential.

“We need a conducive business operation environment. Government policy is killing us. Instead of encouraging import of phones, laptops, and its other accessories, let those suppliers build their assembly plants and factories here. Also, employ local hands because we should develop ourselves too.

“Also, we want to grow and be like any other international market. Our people are creative, but they need the right amount of exposure, knowledge and experience to become a much more powerful hub able to compete with other tech hubs worldwide,” Famoroti said.

In 2017, the government announced plans to move the market down to Katangora Market along the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway. This was not accepted by the operators, vendors and customers who felt it was unnecessary and would only cause avoidable problems.

Famoroti said the move might not be necessary because people were already established at the present location, adding the contract was carried out by private organisations, meaning that shops would be leased at exorbitant rates.

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