‘Some Educated People Think Artisans Know Nothing’
HE might, today, have been a soldier, busting Boko Haram insurgents in the North. Clad in army camouflage or some equally smart uniform, he might also have been in one of the many units that make up the Nigerian military. No doubt, he would have commanded more respect, more than some of his customers now give to him.
Oluwadurotimi Felix Tomoloju’s dream of a career in the armed forces, however, never saw the light of day because he listened to his mother. Being her first son and the only hope she has of having his younger brother trained, the woman “begged” passionately. And just as he might one day have done to some captured terrorist, his mother’s pleas tied up his hands firmly behind his back.
But life was hard. He needed to make ends meet. He had no one to sponsor any academic pursuit. Kicking off with menial jobs, like shoe mending and polishing, he decided to try his luck at furniture making, which he learnt for two years. Has he become a successful entrepreneur?
“Business is growing, and I thank God for it,” he answered. “I still remember how small I started. Four years after, I can say there has been a lot of improvement. Even if I have not been able to move from the little space in front of my house to a bigger shop, things are going well; I can take care of my needs.”
Asked what his vision is for the business, he replied: “When I have saved enough money, I want to open a big showroom in a very commercial area, away from this space I am managing in front of my one-room apartment. I also want to expand to foreign countries because my talent is not for Nigeria alone.”
But while his ambition incubates, Tomoloju thinks society needs to improve on the way it relates with craftsmen. They must be accorded dignity. “My biggest challenge, so far, is with customers,” he said. “They can be rude and disrespectful sometimes. They even go as far as talking down on you because they can pay and they know you need the money. They can also be very impatient; when they give you a job, they expect it to be ready immediately.
“They pay you ridiculously small amount of money for jobs; something they would never do at well established furniture companies.
They give you small jobs and take bigger ones to people who charge higher prices, because those have very big showrooms and well-equipped workshops. They think having a small workshop in front of your house makes you less qualified. Often, educated people think because we did not go to school we, therefore, do not know anything or are unable to differentiate between a dining and a centre table. They forget that this is our own school and we learnt everything about the job.”
Although 31-year-old Tomoloju has neither wife nor child, at the moment, he is nevertheless saddled with responsibility. Besides putting food in his stomach and meeting other personal needs, he is sponsoring his younger one at a university. “He (younger brother) is my responsibility and part of the reason I learnt this job,” he said.
Explaining his business world, he said: “I opened my small business, named: Roflex Classic Furniture, where I make all kinds of tables, chairs, sofas, wardrobes etc., basically anything that has to do with wood. I even make show glasses. People who have an eye for creativity in furniture making visit me. I receive them from all over Lagos, not only in Olodi-Apapa but also from Gbagada, Ikorodu, Yaba etc. And so far, the pay is good, sometimes. At other times, it is just okay. I accept all kinds of jobs, even if it is replacing a rusted or broken nail; that’s how I build my connections.
In buying the materials we use, one has to be careful because there are a lot of low quality items paraded as being of high quality. And when you make a mistake, customers would think you cheated them deliberately and stop giving jobs to you. We also get underpriced a lot because we are just small street businesses, unlike the bigger companies out there.”
With every passing day, Tomoloju falls deeper in love with the job he “initially wanted to do just to get by.” Someday too, he would “love a wife and children” he can provide for with the business. Today, meanwhile, the young man is living out his passion. And in his words: “There is something about turning an ugly piece of wood into a fine art work.”