Time was 7.30am, Tuesday, February 4, 2014, and Bose Ogunlana, 34, had just finished preparing her three children for school. She too was getting ready to leave the house for her business. But Ogunlana, unlike most women, earns a living in a man’s world – operating a commercial tricycle, popularly called keke Marwa. The mother of three, who plies the Fagba–Iju–Ishaga–College Road route, in Ifako-Ijaye Local Government, Lagos State, is coping well even with the physical demands of the job.
“I started out as a fashion designer shortly after dropping out of school. I was into the business until I got married, but after having three kids, I realised that my meagre earnings as a fashion designer could hardly sustain my family, so I started thinking of an alternative,” she said. But Ogunlana was still undecided until her husband lost his job and the burden of paying their children’s school fees and running their home fell on her. So when she learnt of the tricycle business, she went for it. Thereafter, she attended a three-month training after which she commenced the job. That was last year and since then, she has never looked back.
Ogunlana is just one of the few women in Lagos operating keke Marwa for a living. Like her, Oluwakemi Idowu also abandoned her business of selling noodles for keke business, which she considers more lucrative. “I needed to make more money, and since I was not ready to engage in prostitution or any illicit business, I made enquiries on the kind of business one could do to earn a decent living and someone introduced me to keke Marwa business,” she said. Idowu, who is in her early 30s, eventually started the business in March 2013, after undergoing training for two weeks. She has since remained a regular face along the Agege–Pen Cinema–Ogba route.
Women outside Lagos are not left out of the fray as the economic situation has forced many of them to embrace commercial tricycle business to cushion the effect of poverty ravaging the nation. Chidimma Uwabunkeonye, for instance, plies her trade in Owerri, the Imo State capital. The ‘Lady Pilot’, as she is fondly called by her admirers, had to quit her job as a clerk with a private firm to go into tricycle business because she was not earning enough to take care of herself and support her siblings. The Isiala-Ngwa, Abia State-born ‘Lady Pilot’ eventually commenced the business in 2011.
That much, and even more, could also be said of Kehinde Agboola, who appears to be the youngest among the ladies on three wheelers. In her early 20s, Agboola is tomboyish and could be mistaken for a man but for her feminine physique. But unlike her other colleagues who took to the profession due to financial constraints, Agboola has a different reason. “I grew up in the midst of boys, being the only daughter of my parents. When I was in school, I only craved for activities that were strictly cut out for the boys. As I grew up, I found myself inclined to doing things reserved for men. So to me, riding keke Marwa is no big deal,” she intoned.
But it was a big deal for her mother when she learnt of her daughter’s decision to become a commercial tricyclist. For several months, her mother could not comprehend her choice of profession, but knowing how adamant Agboola could be when fixated on a particular thing, she reluctantly succumbed. Now, she is the happier for it, as the young lady has been helping her in fending for the home. Yet her happiness is nothing compared with that of her daughter: “I don’t seem to have a care in the world when I’m on duty; I always feel at peace with myself and very comfortable,” said Agboola, who sees her vocation as a worthy venture.
And a worthy venture it truly is. Agboola makes between N5,000 and N7,000 daily and after deductions to settle union bills, council fees and others totalling N1,050, as well as setting aside some amount to pay for the hire purchase instalment at the end of the week, she takes home between N3,000 and N4,000. Agboola also makes extra cash in the form of “freebies” from passengers who appreciate her work and “dash” from her fellow tricycle operators.
Like her, Ogunlana makes between N3,000 and N5,000 on a daily basis, as her take-home pay, after all expenses associated with the profession, such as buying petrol, paying dues, repairs of the tricycle when faulty, and some other expenses have been deducted. She also saves for the payment of her keke Marwa. She has been able to maintain her family with the proceeds from her business. “My husband is still out of job, and I am the breadwinner of the house. My children are well taken care of. To prove how lucrative the business is, I even employed the services of a home teacher and I pay up to N20,000 per month to her,” she said. For Idowu, her response is similar. And because she works round the clock, even as late as 9 pm, she earns more.
Unlike her other colleagues who have spent barely one year in the business, Bisola Osimosu joined the business in 2008 when she was an undergraduate of the Lagos State University, LASU. Osimosu who holds a BSc in Marketing had earlier acquired screen printing skills, with which she established her first business before taking to commercial tricycle business. “What prompted the idea was my quest to invest the money I made from screen printing. I did not want to put it in the bank because the interest rate was very low. So I opted for tricycle business. I went for training and bought my own tricycle worth N320,000 to start the business in 2008,” Osimosu revealed.
Osimosu’s tricycling business has a romantic flavour as she met her fashion-designer husband on the job and he has been supportive of her choice of business from which she derives fulfilment. “I find pleasure in doing this job. It is a good profession and it is lucrative. It is a job that you can take home N4,000 a day, depending on your area of operation and the flow of passengers. The money I get from this business saw me through school and built me a two-bedroom bungalow where I live with my husband,” she said, adding that she combines her transport business with sales of tricycle spare parts and screen printing services whenever she is offered a business.
Osimosu is very proud to be a commercial tricyclist as, according to her, the transport sector plays an important role in the country’s economy. “I am into transport business, which is a vital sector of the economy; we move the economy,” she declared with an air of satisfaction. Osimosu is also one of the few female tricycle operators who have not only made a success of their business venture, but have also assumed leadership positions in their different trade associations. For instance, she is the chairman of Arobaba Egbeda unit of Tricycle Operators Association and also the secretary of Alimosho/Akowonjo branch.
Starting the business requires substantial capital as the tricycles are expensive. But Osimosu had made enough savings from her screen printing business and so she was able to buy a tricycle worth N320,000 with which she started the business. Female tricyclists who cannot afford full payment have the option of renting or acquiring keke through hire purchase. Ogunlana, for instance, started with the renting option. “I started by renting keke for some hours. Sometimes I did shift with some of the operators and I managed to save enough money to buy my own keke,” she explained, adding that she would soon complete the payment. She plans to acquire more kekes in the future so she could offer them on rent to other operators who would then make weekly remittances to her. Like Ogunlana, Idowu also started by renting. “I started by renting keke from its owner who lived in Ojodu. When it needed repairs, the owner asked me to use it for some time so that we could use the proceeds to repair it. I did that for two weeks after which the owner asked me to buy it for N230,000. I have been remitting N10,000 per week for it. Uwabunkeonye also acquired her tricycle through hire purchase at the cost of about N680,000. Though she was allowed 18 months to complete the payment, the “Lady Pilot” completed the payment in 14 months, much to the amazement of the seller.
Riding a tricycle for a living, to these women, is a worthy venture, but the challenges they face are daunting. Aside from having to convince their family and friends on why they have to do such a “demeaning” job, they have to cope with jibes from people who misjudge them. When Ogunlana commenced the tricycle business, her neighbour and confidant wanted to know what level of suffering led her to riding keke Marwa, because she believed only touts and never-do-wells engage in such a business. It took a while before she was able to change her friends opinion about tricycle operators, particularly the female ones. Idowu’s battle, on the other hand, began at the home front as her husband was totally against her going into the business. It took the intervention of relatives and her stout determination to forge ahead before he finally succumbed, and that took almost seven months.
Although many of these courageous female tricyclists now enjoy the support of their family and friends, they still have to contend with people, especially their fellow women, who sneer and jeer at them. According to Idowu, “Most women see us as touts. Some even say we are not different from the men who smoke, drink or even engage in illicit affairs. But I can state categorically that we are women of integrity.” Female tricyclists also have to contend with surviving in a profession perceived as the preserve of men. Ogunlana noted that “transportation business is seen as a job for men in this part of the world, so when a woman goes into it, she is despised as rubbing shoulders with men. Some of your male colleagues will accept you while some will feel threatened and even plan for your downfall.” Like many others, Uwabunkeonye was not readily accepted in the profession at inception as she was taunted by her male colleagues. But Uwabunkeonye has proved to be a winner as she has since made a success of the business and is now admired by all for her industry and doggedness.
The admiration notwithstanding, the female commercial tricyclists are not exempt from harassment by policemen, touts and other social miscreants, and in the case of Lagos by officials of the Lagos State Transport Management Authority, LASTMA. “Some of these touts harass us a lot. Some of them will claim they are representing a particular union or local government council. Before you start explaining yourself, they would have removed something from your keke or send your passengers away, thereby making you incur losses. Some will even deflate your tyres,” Ogunlana alleged. Osimosu recalls an awful incident at Gate Baruwa when she and one of her colleagues were beaten up by a policeman over N50 due.
Being women does not also confer on them special benefits or privileges. According to Idowu, “We buy the keke at the same price offered to the men. Those of us who acquired the keke on hire purchase make weekly payments just like the men do. We are not given any preferential treatment, and I am comfortable with that.” She is also comfortable with the fact that the rules of engagement that apply to the men are also extended to the women. “We are encouraged to pay all our dues, especially to the union and local authority, as and when due. We are also forewarned of engaging in unruly behaviour that may bring our profession into disrepute,” Idowu said.
However, it appears these courageous women are highly regarded by stakeholders. Olaniyi Kehinde, welfare officer, Three-wheelers Operators Association of Nigeria, Ojodu Local Council Development Authority, LCDA, said that they have brought dignity to the profession because “women are more conscious of their reputation and usually do not foment trouble. We have about three women in our unit, and since they started operating, they have been of good behaviour and invaluable to our unit.”
Abdullahi Akeem, secretary, National Union of Tricycle Owners/Operators, Lagos State council, disclosed that there are about 200 women operating commercial tricycles in Lagos and that their involvement has helped to improve the reputation of the operators. “These women have demonstrated that what a man can do, a woman can do also, if not better; and for them to engage in commercial tricycle business shows that there is dignity in the profession. They also make positive contributions to the union,” he said.
Tricycles have become one of the popular means of transportation in the country. Its origin could be traced to Lagos when Buba Marwa, as military administrator of the state between 1996 and 1999, introduced the yellow three-wheeler for commercial transportation. This explains why Lagosians refer to the tricycle as keke Marwa, which means Marwa’s tricycle. This initiative has since become an integral part of the poverty alleviation schemes of state governors and other top politicians in the country. As the use of keke Marwa became prevalent in the country, the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo subsequently flooded the country with its own brand of green tricycles to boost its National Poverty Eradication Programme, NAPEP, which explains why they are called keke NAPEP (NAPEP’s tricycle). With the growing popularity of keke, and the pioneering efforts of the female riders who have braved all odds to stamp their foothold in the business, it is clear that the number of female keke operators may increase significantly in years to come.