Despite feeding ‘hungry’ Lagosians, ‘area boys,’ others make our lives difficult –Mobile canteen operators

Ojoi Igajah and Toluwalope Kareem

Chinedu Asomougha sells second-hand clothes in the ever busy Computer Village in Ikeja, Lagos. Just like every other trader in the area, he leaves his house very early in the morning in a bid to make enough sales and profit for the day. From the moment he displays his wares in the morning till evening when trading activities gradually wind to a close; there is hardly time for him to rest. The nature of his schedule also means that the time to cook his meals is mostly not there.

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However, luckily for him, the presence of a woman, who operates a mobile food canteen on a cart, affords him the opportunity to attend to his hunger needs while also attending to customers.

Loaded in different coolers and arranged carefully inside the cart, the young woman navigates through different sections of the market from morning till evening, looking for the next customer to satisfy. Inside the cart also is a gallon of water, a stove, two medium-sized pots, food ingredients, a bag of disposable plates and some rubber plates. Pulling up by the side of Asomougha’s wares, Faith David, as the woman later introduced herself to be, went about advertising her delicacies to the people around the place.

While serving a plate of nkwobi and abacha, a local delicacy, the mother of two told Saturday PUNCH that she came into the business four years ago in order to provide financial assistance to her husband.

According to her, the experience has been a mixed bag especially with louts popularly known as ‘area boys’ in Lagos making life difficult for many street traders like her.

“I sell food to support my husband and children,” she began. “I decided to make my service special by moving about with a stove and food ingredients in a cart. Sometimes, I run out of stew and I quickly buy meat and cook a fresh one on the move.

“There are times customers may tell you that they want their food very hot, so I have to put it on fire again.

“There are many mobile canteen operators like me in this market but I service not just those selling here but also commuters who are trapped in traffic and are hungry. Most of the customers don’t have time to waste, they are rushing to get to their workplaces early, so I serve them ready-made food while they move,” she added.

Interesting as it appears, running a mobile canteen business in Lagos comes with plenty of challenges, our correspondents discovered while moving round town recently. Though a law banning street trading currently exists in the state, the high cost of renting shops has continued to push many into operating all sorts of mobile businesses including selling of cooked foods all across the city. The situation has opened a window of opportunity for a handful of persons to extort operators of such canteens as Mrs. David.

“There is no day that I don’t part with at least N500 as settlement fee to ‘area boys’ around Computer Village where I operate,” the woman said. “Even though they know you very well, if you refuse to pay them for doing your business, they could throw all your items on the road and put you into loss.

“Law enforcement agents usually arrest us, but we do settle them before they let us go. We also pay for other things like money for Iyaloja (female market leader) and environmental levy every Tuesday and Thursday.

“Different people usually come to extort us claiming all sorts of things. Despite feeding many hungry mouths every day, these people are making life tough for us. It has been very tough operating in this type of environment, it is the grace of God that has been helping some of us,” David explained before turning to attend to another customer, a tall, light-complexioned man in whose eyes hunger could be seen screaming.

Also in the business of selling cooked food to customers on the go, Mercy Laoye, 33, has tasted the good and dark side of the vocation over the years. Since beginning the journey around the Sabo market area of Yaba, a sprawling suburb in the heart of Lagos, it has been a twisted experience for her. Having all necessary items needed to deliver tasty meals to customers including a stove and other relevant items inside her cart, she is a tested hand in the mobile canteen business of Lagos.

“This business is very profitable but ‘area boys’ and task force officials disturb us a lot despite the fact that we provide a very essential service,” Laoye said during a chat with Saturday PUNCH. “They are making life difficult for us,” she added quickly. “We pay them every day and sometimes they even request that you fix a hot meal for them as bribe before you can operate.

“We also settle some law enforcement officials through our association. They don’t come to us directly; we settle them through our excos. Without the food we provide, many people would go hungry but nobody cares about this. It has been quite tough coping especially with the prices of things in the market today,” she said.

Akeem Adigun, a school certificate holder, who operates a mobile fruit juice business in the city, has also had his own fair share of harassment from ‘area boys’ and government officials desperate to use their positions to get ‘something’ from him. While pouring out his frustration during a chat with our correspondents, the young man said that he is sad at the way many people in the society treat people like him

“As a result of the high cost of items in the market, I hardly make up to N1000 as profit these days. But even at that, much of that amount goes into the hands of ‘area boys’ and task force officials who constantly harass us for settlement.

“Apart from that, the way members of the society also look down on us is annoying. Two days ago, I got hit by a car, which deflated two of my cart’s tyres and the driver of that vehicle didn’t stop. People around were even blaming me for pushing my “nonsense” on the road.

“This is really sad. If I had the funds to rent a shop, I wouldn’t have been risking my life and enduring all sorts of insults while trying to eke out a living. The cost of renting a shop is high and I can’t afford that now. That’s why I am doing this. It is not fair for anybody to capitalise on our condition to humiliate us. The suffering is just too much,” the embittered young man said.

While the busy schedule of many of Lagos’ residents has left them with only little choice but patronising food offered on the go, there have been concerns as to the hygienic nature of such and its implication for the health of its consumers. According to a medical doctor, Bamidele Akintola, eating food prepared under unsafe environment could pose grave risk for the health of individuals.

“I’m always surprised when I see people patronising these food hawkers all around town. Why should anybody buy ready-made food from someone they barely know?

“As far as I am concerned, such could have been prepared in a very dirty environment without consideration for its implication on the health of consumers.

“Those engaged in this type of business just want to make profit regardless of whether they endanger people’s lives or not.

“Therefore, people should be more conscious of their health and this goes beyond just going to the hospital when you fall sick. It also involves staying away from things that can get you sick too,” he said.

But despite such warning, 35-year-old Asomougha told Saturday PUNCH that mobile food canteens like the one operated by David and Laoye have been a part of his life for several years and would continue to do so regardless of any associated health risk.

“I know there are health risks but that does not mean I should starve myself,” he said. “I spend virtually my entire day in this market, so cooking is not what I can do when I get home late in the night.

“Sometimes, you see people driving big cars alight just to buy from these sellers, it doesn’t mean they can’t drive to a nearby restaurant and have a good time. It’s just because these women hawking food sometimes have better meals than those big eateries.

“I surely would love to cook a very good meal in the comfort of my house but where is the time? I go straight to bed immediately after having a bath after returning home from work. This has been a part of my life for several years and I don’t see this changing anytime soon,” he added.

Priced beyond the reach of many of the city’s residents, shops especially those in strategic areas, are a big deal in a lot of places in Lagos. Apart from the monthly fee, which could hover between N10, 000 and N15, 000 in less developed sections depending on size and other important factors, the outrageous fees demanded as ‘agreement’ and ‘commission’ make it almost impossible for low-income earners like Adigun to afford it. As a result, individuals like him are condemned to operate in the open, scavenging for prospective customers, some of them unfriendly and violent, while pushing their heavy and energy-sapping mobile food carts all about the place – often times under Lagos’ sweltering heat.

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