GSM village: Inside Abuja’s thriving gadgets hub

IN the heart of Nigeria’s capital city, a small, bustling hub for gadget sales and rehabilitation flourishes due to high demand for phone repairs and a growing smartphone market. IJEOMA OPARA reports how the GSM Village thrives amidst challenges facing SMEs in the country.


Daily, hundreds of customers troop in to the famous Abuja GSM Village in the Wuse area of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT),  hoping to acquire new gadgets or seeking to repair a faulty device.

As early as 8.30 a.m. every day except Sundays, Chukwuemeka Okeke stands in front of his shop, rag in hand, cleaning and displaying phone accessories in a transparent show glass to attract potential buyers.

Like most others in the market, his shop is made of shipping containers used initially for importing or moving goods.

A standard shop in the market is tiny, with barely enough space for more than two people to sit in.

Although shop owners arbitrarily fix rent, which can fall around N100,000, N200,000 or more annually, traders are sometimes forced to pay for two adjoining shops and merge them to get more space.

A shop at the GSM Village market, Wuse. Photo: The ICIR/IJeoma Opara./April 2023
A shop at the GSM Village market, Wuse. Photo: The ICIR/IJeoma Opara./April 2023

Like Okeke, other traders spend the mornings cleaning, shelving and calling out to passers-by whom they suspect might require their services.

He describes the market as a meeting point for both the rich and poor due to the range of customers it attracts each day.

“Whether rich or poor, everybody comes here for one thing or the other,” he said.

There is easy access to a wide variety of gadgets, used high-end phones which cost less than the new, and generally low prices of items compared to many locations in the FCT where such goods are sold, Okeke explained. 

In Nigeria, 63 per cent of the population live in poverty, according to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS), and high-end phones are a luxury to many.

Therefore, swapping and purchasing used high-end phones at affordable rates characterise the market and is a significant attraction for FCT residents.

A thriving hub for phone repair

But beyond lower prices, Okeke identifies the concentration of technicians, generally called engineers, who repair gadgets in the market as a significant reason the GSM Village thrives.

“What makes customers show up steadily is: there are many engineers here that fix devices. Other places be focused on sales, but here, we have a lot of repairers,” Okeke said.

A short distance from Okeke’s shop, one of such technicians examines a Nyne bass speaker as the owner explains the fault it has developed.

“I can fix it for you, but if it works, you will pay five thousand naira,” he tells the customer.

Although several gadgets get fixed at the GSM Village, mobile phones are the most commonly repaired items.

Phone repair includes multiple steps, as technicians specialise in various aspects of the craft and depend on each other to get their work done.

While loosening a faulty phone, a technician Sadiq Isiaka, says the process is not a one-person job.

“In this job, you cannot specialise in everything. It will seem as though you want to kill yourself,” Sadiq explains as he separates the phone’s screen from the rest of the device.

He spends several minutes picking at tiny screws with a screwdriver and replaces the calibrator, melting off unwanted leather with a rework station.

A food vendor stops in front of his shop with a plate of boiled yam and sauce. He hands her some money and continues with work.

In the shop next to his, a young man struggles to replace the faulty charging port of an Infinix phone.

Sadiq Isiaka working on a faulty phone. Photo: The ICIR/IJeoma Opara/April 2023
Sadiq Isiaka working on a faulty phone. Photo: The ICIR/IJeoma Opara/April 2023

“There are various stages to the job. Your expertise and specialisation will determine how much you can make as an engineer,” Isiaka further explains.

Melting adhesive with a soldering iron, he glues the phone together. He sends it to another technician who, for N1,000, will ensure that the screen sticks firmly to the other part of the device, a process Isiaka describes as lamination.

A temporary arrangement

Until 2010, the GSM village was located under a bridge in the Central Business District (CBD) of Abuja.

In 2009, the then Abuja Metropolitan Management Agency (AMMA), under the Department of Development Control, announced that the GSM village would be moved from CBD to another location.

Subsequently, the market was moved to the Zone 1 area of Wuse, with about 350 shops, after a demolition exercise. However, some traders could not secure spots at the new site due to heavy losses recorded during the demolition.

While phone technicians and vendors occupy a significant part of the market, it also provides opportunities for other businesses beyond gadget sales and repairs to grow.

On the other side of the market lies a row of shops, where mainly food vendors are located.

Food shop at the Abuja GSM Village. Photo: The ICIR/Ijeoma Opara/April 2023
Food shop at the Abuja GSM Village. Photo: The ICIR/Ijeoma Opara/April 2023

Others who transact business in the area include hawkers of various items ranging from fruits to beauty products.

The market is also littered with several point-of-sale (POS) vendors, which suggests steady financial transactions in the area.

With Nigeria’s youth unemployment rate at 42.5 per cent, more young people are turning to businesses to earn a living.

Due to rising poverty, many are unable to afford rent at the market. However, there are employment opportunities for such people, who act as middlemen between customers and business owners, taking a small percentage out of every deal successfully brokered.

Although the market has grown in the years since its relocation, traders say the new location is yet another temporary site.

Despite existing for about a decade, entrepreneurs like Gladys, who runs a POS business at the GSM village, are still sceptical about how long until the demolition vans show up again.

“You know Abuja is developing every day. Any day the government decides, they can still come and chase us out of here. If we could get a permanent place, it would be better,” she said.

However, the global dependence on mobile phones and other technological devices motivates entrepreneurs in the market.

According to data by Statista, the number of mobile cellular subscriptions in Nigeria was 204 million as of 2020, suggesting a high number of phone users in the country.

Although the percentage of smartphone users is much less, the market in Nigeria is also one of the fastest growing globally. 

Based on available data, Statista predicts a strong indication of growth for the smartphone market in Nigeria, as the number of users is expected to exceed 140 million by 2025.

This implies that the phone sales and repair business is also fast growing and can contribute immensely to the country’s revenue.

Already, the Computer Village market in Lagos, a much bigger version of the Abuja GSM Village, generates at least N1 billion daily and a total of N366bn annually, with millions being paid as taxes to the state, according to Nigeria’s Ministry of Communication Technology.

Traders at the FCT GSM village say they pay regular monthly dues of N1000 per occupant to the Abuja Municipal Area Council(AMAC).

This means the GSM village, which has about 350 shops, already generates an estimated N4.2m annually for the council, a figure that might be higher, as there is often more than one occupant per shop in some cases.

The ICIR reached out to the Market Chairman, McDonald, for a definite figure, but he declined to comment.

“I am not willing to divulge any information at this time because many estate developers are trying to lobby the government, buy this place, develop and then sell it more expensive to us, even though we got here first.

“We will not allow that to happen, and based on that, I cannot give you such information,” he said.

A host of other challenges

Unlike Gladys, the Assistant Secretary of the market union, Chidozie Igwemezie, is more hopeful of a continued stay at the market.

“For now, there is no threat yet from the government. They are even considering making here a permanent place because we do not have anything like Computer Village; this is the only one we have in the FCT.

“You know times are changing now, and technology has come to stay. In a city like FCT, at least this kind of market is needed to drive the economy,” he said.

However, he noted that trading at a temporary site comes with attendant challenges, including the inability of traders to access certain infrastructure that would be beneficial to their businesses.

“We need boreholes here, because there is no water. We need adequate security, a police post, even banks. Banks will not come here since it is not a permanent place, and security is not guaranteed,” Igwemezie noted.

For vendors at the GSM Village, these issues compound the challenges associated with entrepreneurship in Nigeria, one of the most difficult places to do business globally.

Ranking 131st on the Ease of Doing Business (EDB) index out of 190 global economies rated by the World Bank in 2020, several unfavourable factors affect entrepreneurship in Nigeria.

Thus, despite the large number of customers that troop into the market daily, many vendors, including Vincent Okemefula, a technician at the GSM Village, barely manage to make enough profit to get by.

For Okemefula, the devaluation of the naira against the dollar has adverse effects on his business.

“The dollar rate affects us, because we pay for our software in dollars. If I want to unlock a phone, I have to pay in dollars for the software. One has to keep charging more money, based on the rates, so that you can get some change,” he said.

He also identified the inadequate power supply as another issue affecting business in the market.

In April 2021, the World Bank described Nigeria as the country with the least access to electricity globally, having dropped below the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite an estimated population of 200 million, Nigeria distributes only about 4000MWs of electricity instead of at least 200,000MWs based on global best practices.

Over 92 million Nigerians lack access to electricity, according to the Energy Progress Report, by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2022.

Some entrepreneurs like Okemefula rely on fuel-powered generator sets to back up electricity supply for their businesses, which spikes the cost of services.

Johnson Simon, who works as an attendant in one of the food shops at the market, also spoke on the inadequate power supply.

“Before, we were using one Mikano generator set. People were contributing money weekly. But now, the generator for our line is spoilt, so unless you buy your own generator, you have to depend on NEPA light,” he said, referring to the electricity distribution company.

He said a minimum of N3,000 is usually spent on fuel weekly, which amounts to N12,000 a month and N144,000 annually.

A 2021 report by the World Bank estimated the economic cost of power shortages in Nigeria to be $28 billion, about 2 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).






     

     

    Oftentimes, getting petrol is an arduous task for entrepreneurs, as the country suffers from recurrent episodes of fuel scarcity, due to dysfunctional refineries and a heavy dependence on imported fuel, despite being one of the largest oil-producing states globally.

    However, Isiaka thinks that business generally thrives in the market, and though operating a different line of the same business, Okeke shares similar sentiments with him.

    After over five years spent selling phone accessories at the Zone 1 GSM Village, Okeke argues that business is good, as one could make at least N5,000 in profit from selling phone accessories on a bad market day.

    But as he locks up every evening, the aluminium door of his mobile container shop is a constant reminder that the market is yet another temporary settlement.

    Ijeoma Opara is a journalist with The ICIR. Reach her via [email protected] or @ije_le on Twitter.

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