Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Business Insight from a Rare Source


In the days of El-Rufai, the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, no mallam* dared start a roadside business in any of the residential or business areas of Abuja metropolis. However, with his exit came a steady decline in environmental standards and services and the mallams took advantage of this and sprang back to business. 

Known for their wide range of services such as shoe repairs, mobile tailoring, local manicure and pedicure and sale of household items, mallams actually play an essential role in middle class and high brow residential areas. In my opinion, those who sell household items do the most good. They are saviours to the neighbour who mistakenly leaves out an important item from his/her shopping list or runs out of it. Their N20 groundnut has not and might never lose its glorious position as the best accompaniment for sour Ijebu gari on days when you seek to treat yourself to a delightful gari soaking experience.

Luckily enough for me, one mallam was bold enough to open shop on the adjacent street and he enjoyed patronage from all and sundry in the area. His customers included big men who stop by in the 4x4s and housewives who stroll down to pick their house needs and also catch up on the latest area gist. He served the area from his trodden down black umbrella, a wobbly table and another wobbly bench but he served diligently and faithfully.

I remember one day, many months into my first pregnancy, I walked down to his stall to buy eggs but he didn’t have and instead of closing the transaction there, he asked me to sit so he could go help me buy the eggs from elsewhere. I tried to settle down on the bench but realised I was on my way to the floor. With the help of God, I was able to lift myself up, look for the pivot position on the bench and balance there. The mallam went for a long time but he did return with my eggs. That was how nice he was and how diligently he served.

Three years later, a new provision and toiletries store opened two houses next to the mallam. The shop was nicely decorated, well arranged and pleasant to the shopping eye. I tried, I really tried not to defect to the new shop but the array of wares displayed and the intellectual parley I enjoyed with the owner overrode my determination.

Following the time proven trend of business competition, the mallam kept losing market share as the new elegant shop enjoyed increased patronage. At a point, he stopped putting up his umbrella and no longer needed to rest his table against any support because the items on it had dwindled. Sadly, as time went on, he became a regular among the other mallams working as gatemen but waste most of their lives away in idle chit chat.

However, six months ago I noticed a dramatic turnaround in his outlook and his stall. The wobbly bench was gone and had been replaced with a less wobbly iron wrought three seater chair. He also had a cooking stove close to the wall and had reset the position of his table to face the new chair. Empty wrappers of indomie noodles and egg shells could be seen scattered around the floor. And as I walked past on another day, I saw one of the other mallams enjoying a meal of indomie and eggs. When he was done, he pushed his plate aside, rose up, removed money from his pocket and placed it on the table. Now, I got the new picture, the mallam had started a new business!

It also dawned on me that this was his response to the business threat he encountered. He roused himself up and stopped his business from dying an imminent natural death. He must have resolved within himself that it was no use trying to beat a better competitor so he went for a new strategy. He must have put in hours of meditation to arrive at his new business strategy and those hours served him well since he arrived at an excellent decision to change his target market. The market he formerly serviced, the elite in the neighbourhood ditched him when they saw their own and now he chose to ditch us too to go serve his own class.

Today, the mallam’s business is thriving and he has employed two additional hands but the new store didn’t survive. The shop was under lock for about two months and when it reopened, it evolved into a boutique run by a new owner.

*- Most Nigerians living in the western part of the country refer to low income class Hausa men as 'mallam'.

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