Intriguing accounts of “Baba Alajo Somolu”the man who pioneered thrift collection in the South West
Alphaeus Taiwo Olunaike is not a name that many Nigerians are familiar with. But once you mention Baba Alajo Somolu, the eyes of millions of Nigerians will light up. Yes, they are more familiar with this nomenclature. Baba Alajo Somolu was just three years of age when he lost his father. However, he was able to proceed with his education. He started his primary education at the Emmanuel Primary School, Ijebu-Isonyin. He had not finished his education at his small hamlet when his paternal uncle, STA Torimoro came and took him to Lagos where he was able to further his education.
He was born at a very dangerous time. A perilous period in history. It was on the 16th of September 1915 in the tiny city of Isan-Oyin (now called Isonyin), close to Ijebu-Musin and Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria. Within the thick groves of thick forests and the brilliant foliage of green tropical plants, the cries of newly-born babies pierced the calm and peace of the forest. A woman named Grace Okuromiko Olunaike had given birth to triplets. Three at once!
Immediately she was told that she just gave birth to three babies, her face went sullen. She could not hide the sadness. Her heartbeat increased as tears streamed down her warm face. She was visibly confused. It was an abomination for a woman to give birth to triplets at that time in Yorubaland. One child must be sacrificed to the gods. One of the babies was eventually sacrificed to the gods. The other two were spared. One of them is whom I am writing on right now – Alajo Somolu.
Long after he narrowly escaped being sacrificed to the gods, in the year 1927, he arrived Lagos and he was enrolled at the St. Johns School, Aroloya. From there, he proceeded to the Christ Church Cathedral School, Lagos, and finished there in 1934. Two years after his education, he was enrolled as an apprentice under a tailor named Rojaye. He was a tailor-in-training for nine good years before he got his ‘freedom’. When he started working as a tailor, he noticed that the income was not just going to be sustainable for him and he needed an alternative fast.
Therefore, when the younger brother of his late dad, STA Torimoro, was going to Cameroon on a commercial trip, Baba Alajo Somolu decided he would also seize the opportunity and follow him too. Thus, in 1950, Baba Alajo Somolu was on his way to Paul Biya’s nation. Upon reaching Cameroon, Baba Alajo Somolu unleashed the ferocious entrepreneurial spirit that was in him. A very determined fellow, he tried his hands on various tasks and duties in Cameroon. He sold goods, newspapers and tried his hands on many ventures. In Cameroon, one of his neighbours was a thrift collector and he gisted him about the business which immediately caught his fancy.
As a a result, by the time he returned to Nigeria in 1954, he already had it in mind that he was going to start the business of ajo gbigba (thrift collection). He was 39 at that time. Before he left Cameroon, he took with him a copy of the thrift collection card used by his Cameroonian neighbour. Upon reaching Nigeria, he made his own copies of the card and he named his own venture Popular Daily Alajo Somolu.
At the peak of his career, he was so hardworking and diligent at his work that sayings were coined in his name. The sayings are as follows:
‘’Ori e pe bii ti alajo Somolu, to fodidi oôdun meta gbajo lai ko oruko eni kankan sile, ti ko si siwo san fenikeni.’’ (Your brain is as sharp as that of Alajo Somolu, who collected thrift for three years and paid back all his customers without writing down a single name and without making a single mistake with the payment)
There is also another one that goes thus:
“Ori e pe bii Alajo Somolu, to ta moto, to fi ra keke”. (You are so intelligent like Alajo Somolu, who sold his car to buy a bicycle)
For Baba Alajo Somolu to collect thrift and financial contributions from his countless clients without writing down their names and then returning to pay them as due and as scheduled at the end of every month for years without making any mistake points to an eidetic (photographic) memory. Only someone of a vast and prodigious memory with an outstanding power of recall can effortlessly carry out such an amazing feat.
One very interesting thing is that many people actually think the story of Alajo Somolu is of myths and legends and that he does not exist. But alas! He did truly exist!
After establishing his Popular Daily Alajo Somolu thrift collection business, he got a bicycle that he planned to use in moving around collecting money for saving from his customers. Then he called an older relative and hinted him of the business, seeking his counsel, advice and suggestion. But he was shocked.
His elder relative took a good look at him and thoroughly discouraged him. He told Alajo Somolu that thrift business was not for people like him, that is was a very difficult and challenging job and he even counted about six people who had started the business of thrift collection but ended up bankrupt. He summed it up by telling Alajo Somolu to try another business as he will not succeed in thrift collection.
After listening to the demotivating tale of his older relative, Alajo Somolu headed to the place of his own elder sister, named Sarah. He explained that he wanted to leave the tailoring job and all that was on his mind to his dear sister. She listened carefully to all he had to say, believed in his passion and took him to a clergy who prayed for him and gave him all the support and encouragement that he needed in his new venture. He also preached to Alajo Somolu to be very honest in all his dealings, and that once he was fair and just, his business would bloom.
An elated Alajo Somolu and his delighted sister left the place of the cleric full of thanks and gratitude. In September 1954, Alajo Somolu went out for the first time to collect thrift from his clients. He had launched his business and he had great hopes. Unfortunately, not a single person patronized him that first day. Many of the market women even taunted him saying he would just collect their money and vanish into the thin air. But he was not discouraged with the negative atmosphere. He persisted in riding his bicycle from stall to stall, from shop to shop until some of the market women pitied him and decided to give him a trial and gave steady contributions of some kobos.
At the end of the first month, all his clients got their money complete and not a dime was missing. Baba Alajo too also made his own profit and he was doubly delighted that his clients had renewed hope in him and that the new business was actually more lucrative than the tailoring he was doing. With time, the news of his honesty, transparency and hardwork spread and his clients swelled in number. Baba Alajo’s prosperity too also shone and he built his first house at No 10, Odunukan Street in Ijesa. He later sold the house to the Deeper Life Ministry and built another one at Olorunkemi, Owotutu Area, Bariga, Lagos.
In a shortwhile, his fame spread like wildfire. He was the thrift collector for the entire axis covering Awolowo Market, Oyingbo Market, Olaleye, Mile 12, Ojuwoye, Baba Oloosa, Sangross and of course in Somolu (Shomolu) where he got his nickname. His customers fell in love with him for his truthfulness, his ability to save them from financial ruins by providing life-saving loans and most importantly, for his outstanding memory. He did not also use a calculator and there were no computers either. The most amazing part of his prodigious memory is this: he does not only pay back the exact amount to his clients, he also pay them back with the same notes and coins that they contributed with. He was so exact that if a client should write down the number on his notes, he would be astonished to get the same notes back at the end of the month. Such brilliance!
Anytime one of his vehicles returned after a trip of thrift collection and the car had depreciated to the point that it is no longer economically viable, he just sells off the car and buys a bicycle instead. Therefore, when people noticed that one of his vehicles was missing and a brand-new vehicle had appeared instead, they will say:
Alajo Somolu has sold his car to buy a bicycle.
But Alajo Somolu knew what he was doing. To him, what is the point of maintaining a car that was not bringing in profits anymore? It was better to sell it and buy more Raleigh bicycles to access all the hitherto inaccessible areas. Let me state here that many of his customers stayed with him for decades and many up to the time he died. They described him as a very friendly, reliable and honest man. He was also praised for his willingness to help others. When he died, one of the other thrift collectors in the area named Oladini Olatunji said that there was a time when he ran into some financial troubles with his business and it almost became a huge debt on him but it was baba Alajo Somolu that helped him pay off the entire debt and saved him from bankruptcy and he never told anyone. For this and many more, all other thrift collectors looked up to him as their father figure and even held the alajo (thrift collector) meetings in his house.He was happily married and as at the time he was alive, he was the Layreader and Treasurer for 30 years at the Anglican Church that he attended at Somolu.
Alajo Somolu continued his job with joy until 2010 when he was 95 years old. He really wanted to continue the job but his children insisted that he had to go on voluntary retirement, and that it was time for him to rest.
But you know the most amazing thing? Even though Baba Alajo Somolu followed his children’s suggestion that he retire and not go out again to receive thrift collections, his clients did not let him rest. They had so much faith in him that they personally went to his house to give him their daily contributions which they then returned to collect at the end of every month when it would have accumulated to a sizable portion.
On the 11th of August, 2012, Baba Alajo Somolu breathed his last. He was not sick but died due to old age.
From a humble background and with little formal education, Baba Alajo Somolu was able to remodify esusu, the traditional banking system and became a pioneer in his own right. He was clearly a fulfilled man, with the proceeds from his job, he was able to build houses, send his children to school and sustain his entire family. Below are photos of some of his children:
Culled from: NaijaArchives
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