Before the advent of banks, people entusted their savings with thrift collectors. One of them stood out in Lagos and the areas that now constitute South West Nigeria: Taiwo Olunaike Alphaeus.
However, that name may not ring a bell until you say “Alájọ Ṣómólú”, meaning “the thrift collector of Ṣomolu”, then the penny drops! Over time, his name has become synonymous with intelligence, honesty and hard work.
In fact, the Yoruba expression, Orí ẹ̀ pé bii ti Alájọ Ṣómólú “his/her wits are sharp like those of the Somolu thrift collector” has become so common that many people don’t realize he was actually a real person – but he was!
Alájọ Ṣómólú was born 16 Sept 1915 in the tiny town of Isan-Oyin (now called Isonyin) near Ijebu-Musin and Ijebu-Ode in Ijebu North-East Local Government Area of Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria.
He was only 3 years old when he lost his dad. Nonetheless, he was able to further his education. He started schooling at Emmanuel Primary School, Ijebu-Isonyin.
He had not finished his primary education when his paternal uncle, Torimoro came and took him to Lagos where he was able to further his education. He arrived Lagos and was enrolled at St. Johns School, Aroloya.
From there, he proceeded to the Christ Church Cathedral School, Lagos, and finished there in 1934.
In 1936, he was enrolled as an apprentice under a tailor named Rojaye. He was a tailor-in-training for 9 years before he got his ‘freedom’. When he started working as a tailor, he saw that the income was not just going to be sufficient for him; he needed an alternative – and fast!
Therefore, when the younger brother of his late dad, Torimoro, was going to abroad on business, Alájọ Ṣómólú seized the opportunity to go with him. And so in 1950, Alájọ Ṣómólú went to Cameroon. There, he unleashed the entrepreneur in him. Quite determined, he tried his hands on various jobs. He sold goods and newspapers and tried his hands on many ventures.
In Cameroon, one of his neighbours was a thrift collector who told Alájọ Ṣómólú about the business. This immediately caught his fancy, and, by the time he returned to Nigeria in 1954, already decided he was going to start the business of ájọ gbígbà (thrift collection). He was 39 years old at that time.
BACK TO NIGERIA
Before leaving for Nigeria, he took a copy of the thrift collection card used by his Cameroonian neighbour. In Nigeria, Alájọ Ṣómólú made his own copies of the thrift card and named his own venture “Popular Daily Alájọ Ṣómólú“.
In September 1954, Alajo Somolu went out for the first time to collect thrift from clients. He had launched his business and had great hopes. Sadly, not a single person patronised him that first day. Many of the market women even taunted him saying he would simply collect their money and vanish into thin air.
Nonetheless, he was not discouraged. He persisted, riding his bicycle from stall to stall and shop to shop until some market women pitied him and decided to give him a trial with steady contributions of some kobos. At the end of the first month, all his clients got their money complete with not a penny missing!
Baba Alajo also made his own profit and was doubly delighted: his clients had renewed hope in him and the new business was more lucrative than tailoring. With time, news of his honesty, transparency and hard work spread and his clientèle grew.
Baba Alajo’s prosperity shone as well! He built his first house at No 10, Odunukan Street in Ijesa. He later sold the house and built another in the Owotutu area of Bariga, Lagos.
SOLD CARS TO BUY BICYCLES!
Anytime one of his vehicles returned after a thrift collection trip, it would be inspected. If it had depreciated to the point it was no longer viable, he sold the car and bought bicycles instead. Sometimes, people noticed one of his vehicles was missing and a brand-new bicycle had appeared.
That was the origin of the sarcastic expression: “Orí ẹ̀ pé bii ti Alájọ Ṣómólú, tó ta mọ́tò, tó fi ra kẹ̀kẹ́” “You are smart like Alájọ Ṣómólú, who sold his car to buy a bicycle!”. However, Baba Alájọ Ṣómólú knew what he was doing. To him, there was little point maintaining cars that no longer brought in profit. It was better to sell it and buy more Raleigh bicycles to access all the hitherto inaccessible areas.
LOYAL CUSTOMERS, GREAT TESTIMONIALS
It is worthy of note many of his customers stayed with him for decades and many up to the time he died. They described him as being very friendly, reliable and honest. He was also praised for willingness to help others.
When he died, one of the other thrift collectors in the area named Oladini Olatunji gave this testimonial. He said there was a time he ran into financial trouble with his business. This became a huge debt on him. He said that it was Alájọ Ṣómólú that helped him pay off the entire debt and saved him from bankrptcy.
Furthermore, this man never told a soul. For this and many more good deeds, all other thrift collectors looked up to him as their father figure and even held the alajo (thrift collector) meetings in his home.
RETIREMENT & DEATH
Alájọ Ṣómólú continued his job with joy until 2010 when he was 95 years old. At this age, his children pleaded with him to retire. Much as he tried to, customers continued to bring their monthly payments to his home!
On the 11 August 2012, Pa Alájọ Ṣómólú breathed his last. Surrounded by family and clients who had become family, he passed due to old age.
A legend indeed!