Poverty: Nigeria’s biggest loan shark

What I mostly remember is how completely exposed I felt the night it happened.

One night in 2019, I was going from Ikoyi to my office in Ogba, before an evening work session after spending the day battling deadlines and presenting my radio show.

In my mind, the fact that I had to work so hard and move so much to earn a living was proof that I was “hustling”. Yes, Nigeria is tough and the economy isn’t great, but even within those constraints, I would never be the one to fail because of a lack of graft, of all things.

Then my clutch shaft snapped along WEMCO Road, less than 2km from my office, and the events that followed gave me a new perspective on how ‘failure’ is. is not necessarily due to lack of effort.

The interactions that would ensue marked me enough to speak about it publicly. What I was about to discover, however, was new insight into how poverty can severely limit an individual’s future prospects and access to opportunity through something as simple as lack of mobility.

The next nine days I spent trying to navigate the process of earning a living without access to my car taught me two important lessons about poverty.

Poverty is expensive!

It seems counterintuitive to suggest that the state of having little is a more demanding way of life than having more, but that’s exactly what I discovered over the next week.

Do you want to go to the studio in Ikoyi to present your show? Spend N3,500 with carpool app. Do you want to go eat something? I have to call them to make a delivery, which costs more, or use the time that could be spent earning money to walk to and from. Yes

ou could also waste several minutes waiting for a bus or a kéké that agrees to go in the general direction you want. Or you could, you know, spend 1,000 naira you never expected on an Uber.

“Just manage public transport”, is the natural response to this, but what no one tells you is that public transport in Lagos is horribly inadequate and inefficient.

If you’re heading to a particular destination, the danfo or keke can drop you off within a mile if you’re lucky. What used to be a simple 35 minute ride from Ikeja to Ikoyi becomes a complicated 2 hour hellscape involving at least three bus changes, a kabu kabu and a keke.

Which drops you about 500 meters from your actual destination. If you had seven productive hours in a day when you had a car, just not having one reduces your productive hours to five – because you now spend so much useful time walking and waiting at bus stops.

Unless of course you book an Uber.

The problem is that if you do this three or four times a day, you are spending at least 3,000 Naira extra per day, as I found out to my dismay. It was then that I discovered that Uber, Bolt, ORide and the many similar services were not a suitable alternative to efficient and affordable public transport.

All they offer is comfort and convenience. In the long run, for the typical office assistant or fast food worker earning N35,000 per month, this is simply not a realistic option. I spent nothing less than N38,000 on carpooling apps in a single week without my car.

For reference, when I had my car, I usually made all these weekly journeys with a single full tank worth only N5,800. Not having a car resulted in a six-fold increase in my weekly transport costs – it is a stark and blatant example of poverty that literally costs a lot.

It is not, however, the financial expense that is damaging for most people who do not have access to cheap private transport in Lagos. As I mentioned before, someone earning N35,000 a month just won’t book an Uber worth N3,200 from WEMCO Road in Ogba to Milverton Road in Ikoyi.

They will do one or the other of two things. On the one hand, they can use public transport and waste a lot of economically productive time waiting for buses and tricycles, waiting for said buses and tricycles to fill up before the journey can begin, walking from one stop badly located to another, or just hiking period.

This clearly puts them at a disadvantage when competing with people who have access to fast private transport. In my daily productive 9 or 10 hours, I could do five or six jobs for which I will be paid.

My ability to make money is directly tied to my production and consistency, so my editors reward me for consistently fast turnarounds, which directly penalizes those whose circumstances don’t allow it. I work from an office with a generator and an inverter that lasts 12 hours.

Even without my car, I can still limit the productive time lost in transit by paying for car or bike rental services. It gives me the right environment to constantly create value and get paid for it, while building economically beneficial relationships.
Those who do not have access to these privileges are effectively excluded from this virtuous circle.

That’s what it means that poverty is expensive – either you spend money you don’t need to improve your productivity, or you’re constantly at a disadvantage compared to those who aren’t encumbered by poverty. If one does not want to play this effectively rigged game, there is only one other option.

It’s not just what you don’t have, it’s also what you can’t have

Thus, public transport in Lagos is not only uncomfortable and dangerous, but also horribly inadequate and infrequent. Its use involves large amounts of walking, waiting, and then walking again.

Those with private transportation are better able to engage in the economy due to more productive time and relative comfort, compared to those doomed to the world of dented yellow vehicles. Not having a vehicle can even put someone at physical risk, especially if one has to travel to remote areas at night.

How exactly do you win such a game that seems to be rigged against the poor and underfunded at every turn?

This is why some decide to stop playing the game and accept that they are an economic underclass.

Also Read: Nigeria @62: The Paradox of Poverty Amid Plenty

Tunde and his friend from my twitter feed might have been willing to walk 7km from Ishaga to Agidingbi to earn a few thousand naira overnight but that’s because they were pretty sure they would do something thing.

Would Tunde be willing to take a job as an office assistant for N30,000 in Gbagada when the cost of travel home and back, even with the inadequate and awful yellow buses, approaches N1,000 a day? In his situation, is there even an interest in wanting to engage the economy as I do? Does it pay it?

For me, it was my biggest lesson of my week of amateur anthropology without my car.

I’ve learned that something as basic as not having a car can severely limit one’s economic options and access to opportunities simply by geographic immobility.

Ideally, rapid transit systems like suburban railways would solve this problem to a large extent, which is how cities like London can exist, despite huge concentrations of extreme wealth and shocking poverty alongside others – the poor of London have real hope.

A poor immigrant child growing up in Lewisham across the Thames from Canary Wharf – arguably the most expensive business district in the world – does not see Canary Wharf the way a child growing up in Ikorodu sees Victoria Island – also just across the water.

The Lewisham child can see rail bridges and catamaran services linking Lewisham directly to Canary Wharf and he knows the only obstacle to ever getting there is education and hard work.

The children of Ikorodu, meanwhile, can study and work as hard as they want, but as long as they remain physically located in Ikorodu, Victoria Island and its economic opportunities are simply not geographically accessible.

By the time I gratefully collected my car from the mechanic, it was clear to me that poverty is a much bigger issue than just access to opportunities and skills. In Lagos, poverty does not content itself with complicating the lives of its victims.

It also charges them a premium on simple day-to-day activities like travel, in the form of money and productive time. Worst of all, he takes post-dated checks against their future economic and social prospects.

Poverty is Nigeria’s ultimate loan shark.

About Kevin Strickland

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