Lagos, Africa's Mega-City

Tinkerer's Paradise
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 3 2009 6:59 AM

Lagos, Africa's Mega-City

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LAGOS, Nigeria—Did you ever wonder what happened to that clunky 12-inch television you used to watch Seinfeld on? Or to that old CD player you wore out in the '90s listening to Pearl Jam and P.M. Dawn? There's a decent chance it ended up here, on the western outskirts of Lagos, in West Africa's biggest electronics market, Alaba International.

Franklin Azubuike wants you to know that your old appliances are doing fine. And, by the way, thank you.

According to Azubuike, public affairs officer for the Alaba secretariat, the market's 3,000 shops sell "anything electronic within the imagination of any man" to more than 300,000 people every single day. During the holiday season, the numbers are much, much higher.

Azubuike was coy about the amount of money that passes through Alaba in a typical day, but stall owners said they usually earned at least several hundred thousand naira a month and can make as much as several million naira per month. That's only five figures in dollars, but in a country where the average person makes around $2 a day, it's a fantastic living.

Marketers estimate that at least 500 40-foot containers arrive in Lagos each month, and that's just the computer and TV monitors. A 2004 report estimated that as much as 75 percent of the goods that enter the city—most of them bound for Alaba—is junk, neither marketable nor repairable. Environmentalists call this e-waste or techno-trash and have tried to stop Western countries from exporting their used computers and televisions to developing countries.

Despite potentially hazardous environmental issues, Alaba is still a success story in a country with far too few. The same entrepreneurial spirit that led to Nigeria's industrious, tireless e-mail scammers also created dynamic markets like Alaba.

Until recently, the market was chaotic, riddled with pirated goods and beset by crime, with few controls and little order. Armed robbers entered the market almost every night to make off with as much merchandise as they could carry. Bootleg movies, knockoff televisions, and stereos were standard fare. My friend Raymond, a lifelong Lagosian, warned me that if I went to Alaba, I would probably be accosted; he told me not to take any valuables.

His advice turned out to be unnecessary. The market is still a crazy place, but it buzzed not with menace but with a vibrant energy. I didn't feel threatened in Alaba, but if you're not a businessman or a prospective buyer, you're wasting their time.

Alaba is not exempt from the problems plaguing the rest of Lagos. Due to years of corruption and mismanagement, many neighborhoods go weeks without electricity. Most of the country runs on diesel-powered generators. So does Alaba. Even the section of the market that sells generators runs on generators.

Azubuike and I walked down hundreds of narrow paths filled with equipment and salesmen and repairmen. We had to leap out of the way as boys carrying massive televisions on their heads hustled by. One man saw me taking pictures and grabbed my arm.

"What kind of business are you going to get for me, taking these pictures?" he asked, sticking his smiling face close to mine. "I have stuff from Italy, England, just in today. Where are you from? America, England, Germany? I love America! We have anything you could want here, and good prices!"

Actually, I'm just a writer; I don't think I can get you any business. But a story about Alaba might be good publicity for you and your—

"Forget it." His smile immediately faded, and he dropped the pose. "You can do nothing for me. This stuff is all second-hand. Nobody from America is gonna buy this junk."

Azubuike is vying for my attention. He wants to make sure I've understood that the piracy and counterfeit goods problem, once rampant, is now under control. His hands chop the air while he's talking, making him seem better suited to being behind a pulpit or a podium. In fact, he ran for public office in recent local elections. He lost, but not for lack of charisma.

"Piracy is a cankerworm!" he said, eyes twinkling. "It is a sin against not only humanity but God. It is a wind that blows no good. It kills the man with creativity to do new work. It touches every strata of the economy."

At the end of my day in Alaba, I stopped to buy some classic Nigerian afro-funk and high-life CDs. While bargaining with the vendor, I noticed that the young man next to me had bought hundreds of hip-hop mixes and pirated Hollywood DVDs. His name was Aliyu. I asked him what he would do with them.

"I'll take them up to Kano," he said.

Kano is a city in Nigeria's majority-Muslim north, where a fairly docile version of Sharia law is practiced. Since there are no nightclubs or movie houses in Kano, most people listen to CDs and watch DVDs in their homes.

"I buy them here for 100 naira and sell them for 150 naira in Kano," Aliyu said. "Mostly hip-hop CDs and every kind of movie. Hollywood stuff, Chinese action pics, Indian movies."

Alaba not only supplies almost all of Lagos with televisions, refrigerators, and generators; it also supplies huge chunks of the rest of Nigeria and West Africa with goods that would otherwise be difficult to gather.

Azubuike suggests I leave the market by 3 p.m. to beat traffic. After a quick negotiation over how much I should pay him for showing me around (Azubuike: "You can spare something. You're a big man." Me: "How about my appreciation and thanks?"), I walk toward the public buses, known as danfos. I had taken a danfo out to Alaba in the morning, squashed with 18 passengers on a mini-bus meant for 12, but going back in one would mean several hours stuck in gridlock.

Instead, I find an okada, or motorcycle taxi, willing to take me all the way to my house. It's not the safest way to ride (hospital emergency rooms in Lagos are often called okada wards), but because it can weave in and out of traffic, it's faster than waiting for a danfo. David, the driver, urges me to buy a pair of cheap sunglasses from a nearby street vendor so the dirt and rock shards won't get in my eyes on the way home. The only ones that fit my face are large, oval-shaped, and purple.

I tell David I have to live. I'm going home soon.

"I have to live, too," he says. "I have a 4-month-old baby."

Thirty minutes later, my knees and back sore, my face grimy with soot, I hold tight as the traffic begins to thicken and downtown Lagos comes into view.

There are the familiar billboards. The tall bank buildings and fancy hotels where consultants and oil workers gather. The policemen are shaking down passers-by for small bribes.

At one such checkpoint, we wait while three Mercedes-Benz jeeps maneuver into narrow parking spaces. Taut-armed boys dripping with sweat walk between the cars and okadas, selling bottles of water and the evening papers. One boy is selling plantain chips, my favorite.

I buy a bag and lean back on the beat-up motorbike. The plantains are crisp and spicy, just the way I like them.

Will Connors is the Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones Newswires correspondent in Nigeria.