Chinenye has an accountancy degree from the University of Abuja. But rather than pound the streets and knock on doors seeking a job that agrees with her academic honours, the 26-year-old has turned to frying and selling Akara, not just to earn a living but more as a fulfilling way to be self-employed. Her story is an unusual but inspiring one, as Daily Trust found out.
It started like a joke, that is, a joke to the gentlemen.
Chinenye Sarah-Mary Odili was throwing enquiries at the Zangon Daura estate roundabout in Kado, Abuja. She looked dapper in a suit; her physique was cute; and she spoke Queen’s English. So it must have been a joke that she would be asking for space-where she could settle down to fry Akara (bean cake) for sale.
One day in January last year, Chinenye had left home with N3,000, chartered a Keke NAPEP and instructed the driver to driver her round some areas of Abuja metropolis. Her mission: scouting for a vantage location to start a trade, selling Akara.
Selling Akara? The gentlemen she approached would have been more bewildered if they had known right away that the figure before them was an accountancy graduate of the University of Abuja. Her appearance gave away substance-of sorts.
Your average Akara seller is not considered well educated or even literate. The stereotype is that of a woman, at best a secondary school dropout, without hope of landing a high-paying office job, without the finance and intellect to start a meaning small-scale business.
Intending entrepreneurs will first conclude selling Akara is dirty and degrading than ever consider its promise of profits. So this lady uttering impeccable English can only be a joke. But 26-year-old Chinenye is not. It was a career aberration, but she had it all figured out.
From 2010, the Anambra State indigene swotted for her accountancy degree, with time to spare for extracurricular activism. She was vice-president of the National Association of Anambra Students, director-general of the Nigerian Federation of Catholic Students and then a chapter vice-president before graduating in 2014.
After graduation, Chinenye, naturally hyperactive, began to dread life of boredom at home before youth service in 2015.
“When I finished my project, I felt I could not just stay at home doing nothing while I waited for my youth service to start. I could not really get full-time employment without the NYSC certificate, and November 2015 seemed too far away. I could not wait that long doing nothing,” she told Daily Trust.
She was unsure exactly what she wanted to do, but she knew she had to do something.
She couldn’t imagine just idling away her time at home where she resides with her parents, earning no income and constituting somewhat a burden.
Frying Akara was unlikely, but the idea began to take shape and grow. At a point, in search of counselling, Chinenye visited her matron at the University of Abuja. When she tabled her Akara idea, the matron was shocked and asked how Chinenye would come across in society, engaged in such a “demeaning” trade. But she was quick to reply, “It’s not about who I am but what I need and what I want to do.”
Chinenye also spoke of how she visited a former governor of Anambra State in his office in Abuja seeking financial assistance to help launch her Akara business. But the ex-governor would have none of her “crazy” idea, and so no help came from that quarter. Rather, he advised her to proceed for her youth service when she is called up after which a good job would be arranged for her, as he promised.
That was a bad verse, for someone as decisive as Chinenye.
From her father, the reaction was more condemning. She was met with the words, “Are you OK?” followed by a declaration of “We can’t have our daughter doing this.”
Those words of rejection are now history, as Chinenye’s family members, compelled to come to terms with her wish, now facetiously call her “Adanne Ada Akara”, an Igbo pet nickname literarily meaning “Akara daughter.”
“Selling Akara was something I just wanted to do,” she told Daily Trust, explaining her fixation, at the same time attending to customers seated under an umbrella beside a tree where she fries bean cakes. It was quite some work. Eventually she has two assistants to help with the customers while she concentrates on the interview.
Her debut in Akara sales was not encouraging, she narrates. She made only N380 in profit and was afraid the trouble wouldn’t be worth it after all. She would wake up every morning at 3am and be under her tree around 5:30 in the morning to start her business.
One year and three months into the business, she has two aides to run errands and assist in frying and serve customers. And the profit is comfortable, even though she keeps the exact average under wraps.
When her call-up to youth service came last year, she deferred it without hesitation. Youth service just then would have meant scaling on her business hours or packing up. Now with two assistants on hire, she is ready to enrol for youth service this July, but with a firm resolve to keep the business running.
Businesses have early-stage challenges, and Akara is no different, she says. Environmental task force officials are harassers, customers paying with counterfeit means losses, and other customers are impossible and disrespectful because in their minds Akara sellers do not have to belong to an intellectual class deserving respect.
Chinenye advised unemployed youths to, even as they dream big, start small ventures that they can be proud are theirs, in the face of the current economic situation in the country where dream jobs are not readily available. She was miffed that many graduates sit at home idle and complain of unemployment, or wait for handouts, without bothering to create or seize opportunities.
“I would rather be an employer of labour,” she says.
She believed she has the potential to make the Akara business bigger and be an employer of many hands.
Chinenye is working to kill the myth that frying Akara is mainly for poor and uneducated women. Her trail-brazing effort has not been without wide recognition. She is already a toast of many admirers on social media. And at her location, a customer, Bolaji Maruf, expressed his admiration for what he called the “good example” Chinenye is setting.
“She puts a lot of effort into her work and has great customer relations,” Maruf said. He observed that she also keeps the environment clean every time, which he regarded as an important factor. “I assure you that if you come back to this place by 2pm you will not know that something that could make this place dirty had actually happened earlier in the day,” he said.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, about 50% of Nigeria’s young people aged 18 to 34 are unemployed, and the figure is set to increase as the youth population grows. Nigeria’s youth also make up half of the entire population but is not represented in the workforce. Chinenye said that she would encourage youths to develop to be employers and not rely on the few jobs that exist.
“Look within yourself because I believe everybody is unique. Really, look in and ask yourself what you love and what you can do, and not something someone wants you to do,” she says.