For over 18 years Hausa traders have dominated the 'money changing' business in Abuja, but they say despite its lucrativeness, it has its own inherent downturn.
Alhaji Isa Mohammed has been in the capital city for over 10 years. In this long period of time, he has tried his hands in only one type of business, and it has yielded appreciable benefits for him over time. At present he cannot think of delving into any other kind of business. The indigene of Yobe State says that the change industry in the country is a largely untapped gold mine for anyone willing to make the necessary sacrifices. With the profit made on a daily basis from the 'money changing' business, the septuagenarian has been able to make the proverbial hay while the sun shines: feeding a large family of two wives and 5 children. And that is not including a much larger extended family, who view this senior citizen as a meal ticket.
On a typical day, alongside hundreds of other operators, he practices his trade along the snaking Ladi Kwali street in High brow Wuse zone 4 district, which hosts a large number of 'bureau de change businesses'. This is the central hub of activities for money changers in the FCT. With the large number of operators that ply their trade in the area, it is a miracle that fisticuffs and arguments do not erupt over ownership of patronage or customers.
But the area, according to observers, is one of the most peaceful business areas of the growing city despite the tenseness of competition amongst the operators. The presence of the Sheraton Towers like a magnet attracts business to the area in massive volume. A few meters away is the Central Business District (CBD) which also brings in its own share of patronage from those out to change from a few dollars to a large case of Euros, or to a handful of Pounds sterling.
A bureau de change makes profit and competes by manipulating two variables: the exchange rate they use to calculate transactions, and an explicit commission for their service. The exchange rates charged at bureaux are generally related to the spot prices available for large interbank transactions, and are adjusted to guarantee a profit. The rate at which a bureau will buy currency differs from that at which it will sell it; for every currency it trades both will be on display, generally in the shop window.
Youthful Anwal Sanni, a business studies graduate says that despite the general perception that the business is run by uneducated persons, who just do the business to make ends meet, majority of those that engage in the currency transaction are actually well-educated and learned.
"There are very many people like me in this business, who are well-educated, enlightened and highly articulate. For one you cannot do this business successfully if you are not educated and numerate. That means you must be current with the situation in the money market, for instance, and also keep tabs on the economy of many countries. Without certain skills, especially numeracy, you are bound to fail in the business.
"Here, for instance, we deal with all the major currencies and a few more. You as an operator must not be caught napping, so you must be current as per the state of things globally. Here we are also civil. Fights do not happen at all. We all take turns at the business. When you come in the morning, you go and register first. So it is always at the 'turn by turn' basis that we approach customers. If it is not your turn then you give way to another, even if it is your customer that is coming into the area to transact business. We do not fight over, as we are all bound by specific rules and regulations. When frictions arise, like it is bound to in every human situation, we have officials who wade into the matter before it degenerates further. We are a peaceful lot," enthuses the youth.
One fact that easily comes plainly to the observer is the fact that the business is largely dominated by many individuals who hail from the north. Our correspondent tried to find out if this was just a figment of imagination or was what actually held sway. Sanni laughs briefly all the while nodding his head in tune with the gale of good-natured mirth.
"Your observations are right. This is a business operated solely by northerners, especially the Hausas.
"Here, for instance, in zone 4, we only have one Igbo man operating amongst us. I cannot say precisely why. But all I can say is that this business is built on the principles of faith and fate. You come into this business holding tightly to your faith and expecting that by fate that you will profit by engaging in it.
"It is a risky business that can lead to massive losses if you are not careful. The least amount you can use as starting capital in this business is N500,000. And the funny thing is that you can lose all your capital in one fell swoop... or you can make millions on a weekly basis depending on Divine providence. A typical northerner has both virtues in abundance."
Another operator, Malam Isa [real name withheld] says the business in Abuja has blossomed over the last 18 years, and is still in its green era.
"I remember when we started initially at Sheraton bus stop. Just a few of us then. But today it has spread like wild fire all over the city. From Sheraton then we moved to the Corner shop which was later demolished by the el-Rufai administration. From there we started operating in the plazas. Today, we have many of us operating in different plazas across the city, such as the Zone 4 axis, Papdal plaza, Rahama plaza and the Alnasera ventures to mention a few. And that is not to mention many of us operating along the streets of Abuja especially the hub in zone 4..."
But Alhaji Lawal Danlami, chairman of the Zone 4 Bureau De Change operators, who spoke on behalf of the national chairman who was unavailable, says it is not all smiles for operators. He noted that the operators live daily with challenges which dampen their morale.
"We have the issue of armed robbery. Many of our members have lost their monies to armed bandits who monitor our movements daily. It is a risk we have to live with as our business has to do with cash. We are grateful to the police who have agreed to provide us with security coverage. But this has not made us totally immune to such attacks. We are still attacked sporadically by men of the underworld."
He adds other challenges: "There is also the case of fraudulent activities by some customers who bring along fake currency that eventually puts our members in trouble. We are however weathering the storm. There is also the major challenge of inadequate space for the operation of our members on a day to day basis. The space we have is presently overstretched, that is why you see many of our members on the streets doing their business. Only a few can afford to get office spaces in the plazas. Since the corner shop where we began , was destroyed by the authorities, our requests that they provide us with alternative has been denied."
But it is not all tears, he says, as he agrees that the business is lucrative: "For over 18 years it has brought smiles to the faces of operators who feed their families from proceeds. We are one big family here, and that is not just because most of us are from different parts of the north. We welcome other groups too, but we always insist that they come through an established member, so that we can be sure of their antecedents, because we do not want to attract criminals. Apart from that we make sure we have personal details of members such as addresses, guarantors, phone numbers, contacts and other relevant documentation. A typical Hausa man is honest and trustworthy, so we espouse such virtues in our members and kick against the entry of people with suspicious motives..."