The Wood Merchants

If you were asked to name a major market in Lagos (Nigeria), which one would come to mind first?
Alaba? Balogun? Computer village? Tejuosho? You’d be right of course.
Each of these markets are huge in their own right, known by Lagosians and beyond for employing hundreds,
or in some cases, thousands, and pumping millions of naira into the economy.
There’s another market in the heart of Lagos doing the same thing, one that you've probably never heard of.

The Guardian visits the Wood Merchants of Ebute Metta

The Makoko - Oko Baba wood market that abuts Ebute Metta (loosely translated from Yoruba as “the three islands”) is part of an expansive trade and business operation, mostly hidden from a public that only sees its edges. You may have purchased a piece of furniture and argued with a carpenter over its price, only to be told that good wood is expensive. If you’ve crossed the Third Mainland bridge, you may have seen geometrically arranged logs of wood floating on the water and wondered why they are there, who they belong to and how they stay afloat. In this feature, The Guardian visits the Makoko wood market, an industry with impact that stretches far beyond the borders of Lagos state and employs thousands. It is a market that has made millionaires out of people who stepped into the business “without one kobo.”

The business of wood

The logs belong to different groups of people, each marked differently for identification. They are sectioned into rafts by wires and timber dogs and are sitting on the water because they’re waiting to be sold. The female logs float and the male, sink, and one raft could cost anywhere between N250,000 and N500,000. The logs mark one of the entrance points of Oko Baba market in Ebute Metta, a sprawling space that deals in every aspect of the business of wood: rolling, chopping, buying and selling.

According to the wood merchants, the market has been around since the 1930s and despite little to no government support, has expanded exponentially. Now, it employs thousands and supplies wood for use in places as far away as Nigeria’s capital, Abuja - 533 Kilometres away. The merchants say it’s a “good business” for anyone who is honest and patient enough to stick it out. Or at least, it was. Now, rising costs, the absence of infrastructure, and deforestation threaten the survival of this bustling hub of activity and commerce, say the key players of the business.

“Without the sawyers, this business will not exist”

Goodluck Pemi knows wood. He’s been in this business for over a decade. But before him, and like many others that work in Oko Baba, his grandfathers were in the business, so were his uncles, his father and older brothers. So, it was probably inevitable that he would follow in their footsteps and become a sawyer - the engines of the entire operation.

Meet the Wood Merchants

“This business employs many people,” he says. “I can tell you authoritatively that this business [in Oko Baba] employs more than 10,000 persons and economically it is doing a lot in Lagos, even in Nigeria as a whole. They come from Abuja to buy these logs to build houses, from [the] East, they come here. They depend on us here,” Pemi explains.

Sawyers finance bush contractors, who go into the forests of Bayelsa, Cross Rivers, Ondo and Delta to fell wood. It’s their money that makes the whole system work. On average, it costs around three million naira to send a group of eight bush contractors into the forest. Some sawyers spend more because they send multiple groups into the forest at once to maximise profit.

“Without the sawyers, this business will not exist,” says Pemi. “The sawyers take the risks in this business by bringing out their money to send people to the forest. If you have just one group coming in this big river and [a] storm just blows them away, everything is gone. Your money is gone and you can’t hold anyone responsible for that. But if you have seven or eight groups, even if there’s a natural disaster, there will be survivors.”

It can take between three months and a year to complete the process of felling trees and transporting the logs to the Lagos market. At roughly three million naira for each investment, it’s a lot of money to have out there. Pemi says that returns on the initial investment can take up to another year.

After the wood is taken out of the forest, it’s transported to Lagos by towing boats. The journey is a long one. Towers (as they’re called) battle against the elements, the tide, militants and other life-threatening danger, in their small but sturdy tug boats, that can take up to 2,500 logs of wood lifted at I,500 naira each. Sometimes, they are in transit for three months, using up to 92 drums of diesel and feeding on fried beef, dried fish, soup, rice, beans and cassava flour stored apart from the wood before departure and prepared periodically. These old tug boats are very mechanical and often develop engine trouble which the crew members, usually four, rally to fix. The boats are locally constructed with wood by builders, and then a second-hand trailer engine, sourced from any of the automobile parts’ markets in Lagos, is installed. On one trip, expenses could average between three and a half and four million naira.

“When the wood gets to the bridge, we that have sponsored them start to celebrate,‘Yes millions have come to my market!” - Alhaji Taiwo Quadri

If everything goes according to plan, the boats berth in Lagos at a bridge opposite Oko Baba to the relief of the sawyers who have waited anxiously for their arrival. The sawyers then go to the bridge, to see the wood and measure it to determine its worth.

“When the wood gets to the bridge, we that have sponsored them start to celebrate. ‘Yes, millions have come to my market!’” says Alhaji Taiwo Quadri, another sawyer at Oko Baba. “If you’ve sponsored [with] N10 million, after all is said and done that 10 can become 15, 20, (or) 30 million. Many of us have built houses, sent kids to universities, have jeeps,” he continues.

The consignment is now divided into rafts. A raft consists of 36 or 42 pieces of wood and can be sold for anywhere between N250,000 and N500,000. But after deducting the money for the various services; towers, pullers (who pull the wood from the berthing point to Oko Baba), carriers (who carry the wood into and around the market), the rollers (who roll the wood to the machines), the cost of using the machines, the cross cutters (who cut the wood down to size) and many other expenses, sawyers are left with 40 to 50,000 naira profit, per raft. It might sound like a lot of money, but it isn’t. If a tug boat can take 2,500 pieces of wood and a raft is made up of 36 pieces of wood, that makes roughly 69 rafts. If you make 50,000 naira in profit per raft, that equals roughly 3.5 million naira per boat, per trip. Recall that the sawyers originally commissioned the bush contractors with three million naira, so how much really is the profit per trip?

Once a carrier, now a sawmill owner

“You don’t need a lot of money to do [this work],” explains Quadri. “I started this in 1995 with only N34,000. I can point [to] three or four persons that came here starting as loaders and carriers but are now millionaires.”

It sounds like a movie plot but it’s the story of Bamidele Akolo, who started coming to Oko Baba as a JSS3 student. “When I wanted to pay for my Junior WAEC exams, I was looking for money. Then, a friend told me about Oko Baba. He said if I could carry some little wood, I’d make money. The next day I followed him and after two or three weeks, I gathered the money for my exams and I’ve been coming here since then.”

Bamidele eventually dropped out of school in SS2 to join the business full time. He went from carrying planks of wood to selling it, and now he owns his own sawmill and employs roughly 20 people.

Women in wood business

“It’s not only illiterates that do this work,” says Jadesola Jide, who also owns a sawmill in Oko Baba. “If you’re educated you can still go into the work, it depends on your own mind and motive.”

Jide became involved in the business when her parents couldn’t afford her university fees. She got a job as a secretary at a mill and became interested in the business. After going back to school and getting her Higher Diploma certificate, she came back to the mill and eventually became a sawmiller.

“We have a lot of women [involved in the business], even at the top. At the grassroots, we have a lot of women, in the middle we have a lot of women. It’s when I joined this business fully that I met other young ladies. A lot of sawmillers are women.’’

A threatened future?

“Somewhere near Ijebu-ode, around ‘81, 82, 83, when I had the opportunity to be there, you would see seeders planted by the Europeans. But today, that place has been destroyed completely,’’ - Bamidele Akolo

Adapting local supplies for productivity

But in the midst of the rags-to-riches stories lies something more troubling - the growing number of issues that threaten the very survival of the business. The rise of the cost of business is squeezing profit margins at all levels, with the sawyers who invest the money to finance the operations especially feeling the pinch.

‘’Economically, things are not the same in Nigeria again,’’ says Goodluck Pemi. “Everybody is complaining about one thing or another and the cost of the business is higher. Even feeding is expensive and wood workers can finish a bag of garri in a week because we eat a lot of eba.”

Bad roads, poor infrastructure and little governmental support also don’t create the best environment for the market to continue growing, as well as outdated machines.

“You can’t go out of it (leave the job). It is better to stick to it and manage what you have in your hand than staying idle.” - Goodluck Pemi

‘’Look at these machines now. They call them CD4, CD6. These are outdated machines produced in France in the 60s. These are the machines we still rely on. You push them before they move, before they can saw, but we have no choice than to use what is available for us to saw our logs.’’

But perhaps the biggest concern lies with the wood origins. ‘’Somewhere near Ijebu-ode, around ‘81, 82, 83, when I had the opportunity to be there, you would see seeders planted by the Europeans. But today, that place has been destroyed completely,’’ Akolo shares.

Deforestation in Nigeria is a serious problem with the UN reporting that Nigeria is one of the top ten countries in the world with the highest rates of deforestation. As a nation, Nigeria relies heavily on wood, particularly for energy, but loses about 350,000 to 400,000 hectares of land a year, to deforestation. Further rapid deforestation could prove devastating. “Government says ‘to cut one tree, you plant three’ but we don’t do that. We only cut and we don’t plant. Our forests are going.” While Akolo worries, Pemi says, “You can’t go out of it (leave the job). It is better to stick to it and manage what you have in your hand than staying idle.” But for how much longer will this business survive?

When one considers the high-risks and intense manual labour involved in conveying one consignment of wood from faraway forests to the Makoko - Oko Baba market, one cannot but think about the many ways this process could be simplified, made safer and ultimately, more financially rewarding. Fast trains, mechanized boats, up-to-date heavy machines, better infrastructure and a standardized operating system will not only ease transportation, sectioning and processing of wood, but reduce accidents, equip players with scalable skills and expand the business. Safer practices will birth a safer coastal environment – one whose shores aren’t receding daily and filled with sawdust and countless unclaimed logs.