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In Nigeria, Poverty Charges Interest: What I Learnt From a Week Without a Car

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What I especially remember is how utterly exposed I felt the night it happened. 

I was on my way from Ikoyi to my office in Ogba, ahead of a late night work session after spending the day fighting deadlines and presenting my radio show. To my mind, the fact that I had to work so hard and move around so much to make a living was proof that I was “hustling.” Yes Nigeria is hard and the economy is not great, but even within these constraints, I would never be the one to fail because of a lack of graft, of all things. Then my clutch shaft broke along WEMCO Road, less than 2km from my office, and the ensuing events gave me a fresh perspective on how “failure” is not necessarily down to lack of effort.

I wrote here about my encounter with Tunde and his friend, the two street hustlers who helped me push my car off the road and secure it for the night. That interaction made enough of an impression on me for me to speak publicly about it. What I was about to discover, however, was a new insight into how poverty can severely limit an individual’s future prospects and access to opportunities through something as simple as lack of mobility. The ensuing nine days I spent trying to navigate the process of making a living without my access to my car taught me two important lessons about poverty.

Poverty is Expensive!

It sounds counter-intuitive to suggest that the state of having little is a higher maintenance lifestyle than having more, but that is exactly what I discovered over the ensuing week. Wanna go to the studio in Ikoyi to present your show? Spend N3,500 with a ride-hailing app. Wanna go get something to eat? Gotta call them to make a delivery, which costs more, or use time that could be spent making money to walk there and back. You could also waste several minutes waiting for a bus or a keke that agrees to go in your desired general direction. Or you could, you know, spend N1,000 you never planned for on an Uber. 

“Just manage public transport,” is the natural riposte to this, but what nobody tells you is that public transport in Lagos is horribly inadequate and inefficient. If you are heading to a particular destination, the danfo or keke might drop you within a kilometer of it if you are lucky. What used to be a straightforward 35-minute journey 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 off about 500 meters from your actual destination. If you had seven productive hours in a day when you had a car, the simple fact of not having one reduces your productive hours to five – because you now spend so much useful time walking and waiting at bus stops.

Except of course, you book an Uber. 

The problem is if you do that three or four times everyday, you’re spending at least N3,000 extra daily as I found out to my mounting consternation. This was when I found out that Uber, Bolt, ORide and the many similar services are 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 making N35,000 a month, they are simply not a realistic option. I spent nothing less than N38,000 on ride-hailing apps during the course of just one week without my car. For reference, when I had my car, I typically made all these journeys weekly on a single full tank worth just N5,800. Not having a car resulted in a sixfold increase in my weekly transport costs – that is a stark and egregious example of poverty being literally expensive.

It’s not the financial expense however, that is damaging for most people who have no access to cheap private transportation in Lagos. As I mentioned previously, someone earning N35,000 a month will simply not book an Uber worth N3,200 from WEMCO Road in Ogba to Milverton Road in Ikoyi. They will do either of two things. On the one hand, they may go with public transport and lose vast amounts of economically productive time waiting for buses and tricycles, waiting for said buses and tricycles to fill before the journey can begin, trekking from one inconveniently located stop to another, or just trekking period. 

This puts them at a clear disadvantage when competing with people who have access to fast private transportation. In my 9 or 10 daily productive hours, I might push out five or six pieces of work that I will get paid for. My ability to make money is directly tied to my output and consistency, so my editors reward me for having consistently quick turnaround times, which directly penalises those whose circumstances do not permit it. I work from an office with a generator and an inverter that lasts for 12 hours. Even without my car, I can still limit the productive time wasted in transit by paying for car or bike-hailing services. This gives me an enabling environment to consistently create value and get paid for it, while building economically beneficial relationships.

Those who do not have access to these privileges are effectively locked out of this virtuous cycle. This is what it means for poverty to be expensive – one either spends money one does not have to improve one’s productivity, or competes at a constant disadvantage compared to those who are unencumbered 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

So public transport in Lagos is not just uncomfortable and unsafe, but also horribly inadequate and infrequent. Using it involves copious amounts of walking, waiting and then walking again. Those who have private transportation are better able to engage with the economy as a direct result of having more productive time and relative comfort, compared to those condemned to the world of dented yellow vehicles. Not having a vehicle may even put one at risk of physical harm, especially if one has to move around in isolated areas at night. How exactly does one win such a game that appears to be rigged against the poor and under resourced at every turn?

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

Tunde and his friend from my Twitter thread may have been willing to trek 7KM from Ishaga to Agidingbi to make a couple thousand naira on the night, but that is because they were fairly certain that they would make something. Would Tunde be willing to take an office assistant job for N30,000 in Gbagada when the cost of commuting to and from home even with the inadequate and awful yellow buses approaches N1,000 daily? In his situation is there even any point in wanting to engage the economy in the way that I do? Does it pay him?

That for me, was my biggest takeaway from my week of amateur anthropology without my car. I learned that something as basic as not having a car can severely limit one’s economic options and access to opportunities through simple geographical immobility. Ideally, rapid mass transit systems like commuter railways would solve this problem to a large degree, which is how come cities like London can exist, despite having huge concentrations of extreme wealth and shocking poverty alongside each other – the poor in London have genuine hope.

A poor immigrant kid growing up in Lewisham across the Thames from Canary Wharf – arguably the world’s most expensive business district – does not see Canary Wharf the way a kid growing up in Ikorodu sees Victoria Island – also just across the water. The Lewisham kid can see rail bridges and catamaran services linking Lewisham directly to Canary Wharf and he or she knows that the only barrier to getting there someday is education and hard work. Ikorodu kid on the other hand, 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 back from the mechanic, it was clear to me that poverty is a much bigger problem than simply access to opportunity and skills. In Lagos, poverty does not satisfy itself with merely making life difficult for its victims. It also charges them a premium on simple daily activities like commuting, in the form of money and productive time. Worst of all, it takes out post-dated cheques against their future economic and social prospects.

Poverty is the ultimate loan shark.

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