Like many Yoruba towns, Epe, a Lagos State community, also derives its panegyric from its main occupation, which is fishing. Because of its geographical location as a coastal town, Epe fish market has been a melting pot of different cultures through the years. TUNDE BUSARI, who was at the market, reports.
Although its official name is Oluwo Market, it has become very convenient to refer to the market as a fish market considering its major trading preference and location. There are other markets in the town but the Epe fish market lacks a replica on account of its unique status as the only market where a large variety of fish is sold.
Before the market was relocated to its present site at the bank of a lagoon in 1990, it was sited near the marine police office in the town. The relocation was said to have become inevitable when the physical size of the market was becoming inadequate for the traffic of buyers and sellers who daily besieged the centre for their transactions. For many years, the market has played a significant role of converging people of varying cultures to its location. People travel from far and wide beyond the Lagos metropolis to carry out their trades. Many travel as far as Ondo, Ogun and other adjoining states for transaction.
Even at that, the present state of the market, as regards regular influx of people, has shown that it would require further expansion and upgrading in the nearest future.
Activities commence at the market as soon as the day breaks with early risers standing at the bank of the lagoon awaiting the arrival of fishermen.
The fishermen transport their catch from the water with the use of both manual and mechanical boats. The boats are locally assembled with woods and through the years have included the conveyance of human passengers aside their catch.
The arrival of the boats signifies the beginning of each day at the market with fish sellers approaching each boat in search of fishermen.
A fisherman, Adesina Arimi, said the experience on the water is quite different from what obtains at the bank. But he said he always looked forward to each day because he has no other means of livelihood.
Nigerian Tribune gathered that the fish sellers and fishermen had struck a strong mutual understanding and a bond difficult to break.
For instance, a retailer has no access to the fishermen except those who had established a long standing relationship with them. At the peak of the market activities, the whole place could be rowdy, especially because of the water-logged terrain of the market. This, it was learnt, makes buyers to visit in the morning and leave before the regular heavy traffic descends on the market. There is hardly any kind of fish not available in the market; eja omi, obokun, oloboro, eja aro, eja osan, jelotine, lele, salapore, baraket, akokoniko, awere, epiya, ika, korowo. Same goes for snails, crabs, crayfish, and other aquatic delicacies.
Because of the large variety of aquatic delicacies regularly and readily available for buyers, a cross section of foreigners can be seen haggling with the sellers. Some callers at the market were of Asian extraction.
In an interaction with the Nigerian Tribune, the woman leader of the market popularly known as the Iyaloja, Mrs Folashade Ojikutu, stated that the market remained the best among other fish markets. She argued that the market has the largest concentration of buyers and sellers both foreigners and locals.
Ojikutu, who claimed to have inherited the fish trade from her mother and grandmother respectively, said it is a pride for her to be the leader of the market, a position, which, according to her, she assumed in 2015. Major fish markets in Ikeja, Somolu, Agege and other locations in Lagos State get their supply from Epe fish market.
Retailers from Lagos flood the market on daily basis and return to their base into the waiting hand of their customers. Mrs Janet Adebamke, an Ajah based fish seller, told our correspondent that she came to the market to beat other sellers and buy at what she called ‘friendly prices.’
Adebamke said her three years in the business have been characterised by success considering her list of customers which include hotels, restaurants and drink joints.
“My customers in Ajah are already waiting for me because of their Sunday sales. You know our people are watching football matches at restaurants and joints these days. This increases the demand for pepper soup, which I was told they like, especially the Epe fish variant,” she told our correspondent and walked away.
Mrs Kadri Idowu, a fish seller at the market disclosed that her venture into the business right from childhood had brought modest fortune to her.
The woman, popularly known in the market as Idowu kukuru, enthused that her colleagues in the market had, through the business, produced graduates, who are enjoying their post-graduate life in their respective places.
“We thank God that there is nothing good that other traders are embarking upon which we are also not doing. Apart from the fact that we send our children to higher institutions, we have also built houses and bought vehicles. This means we are in the right business,” she said.
The market, findings further reveal, can boast of some fish sellers who are university graduates, having been gainfully employed after endlessly waiting for white collar jobs. In other words, according to the Iyaloja, the fish market is an antidote to the frightening unemployment problem facing the nation.
Ojikutu said happily that that category of sellers is doing well as their contribution to the development of the market is always noticeable.
Besides, the market has functional toilets which serve both sellers and their customers. Also a mosque sits in the middle of the market for Islamic faithful while a section where fishes are dried is located at some proximity to the mosque.
However, the challenge of preserving unsold fish, it was also learnt, has remained a major problem for the people. While the traders appreciated government’s intervention for the construction of a big cold room for the use of the entire market, the sellers lamented the epileptic power supply being suffered in the market. As a result, according to another fish seller, Eniyamo Farapon, fish were subjected to forced cheap sale to forestall total loss.
The Iyaloja said, “We are appealing to the government to help us by increasing the number of power lines that enter the market to four. Lack of electricity is the major problem that we face every day. Our business relies much on electricity because of our cold room. We will appreciate it if they can help us out of this problem.”
An Epe-based computer school proprietor and regular caller at the market, Adebambo Olugbenga, shared the sellers’ fear and urged the government to come to their aide.
Drawing from experience as an employer of labour whose business also involves constant electricity supply, Olugbenga said government’s further assistance to the market in the area of power supply would further boost the market’s fortune.
“Fish is perishable item and it is either it is sold or stored in the freezer or allowed to waste. That is why the government should come in on time to save the sellers. I have patronised this market for over 15 years but the power situation remains the same,” he said.
Despite the challenges faced by the sellers, the Iyaloja remained positive, giving glory to God that the market is doing well.
“Our business is moving on despite the state of the economy. There is no way people will not eat good food. And when you are talking of good food, fish is the best. When doctors advise that one should abstain from eating meat, it is only fish they encourage. That is why you see foreigners coming to the market. They are familiar with us. They are many. If you wait longer, others would meet you,” she said.
Arimi, who has spent more than half a decade in the fishing vocation, said he had no difficulty setting his net on the water and returning home with a good catch.
“It is difficult for those who are not well trained. It is easy for people like me who have spent many years on it. We move further into the water at Laboye village where we set the net and in a few hours get a good catch. We then bring our catch back into the market for our customers who sell to their own customers,” he said.
Olugbenga, who is also the director of e-library, Awa-Ijebu, Ogun State also called on the government to make it a priority by upgrading the market to international standard. Already, he stated, the location is more of a tourist market going by the way foreigners visit and freely relate with fish sellers and other buyers.
“I am concerned because I am familiar with these problems we are highlighting. But with the way the governor of Lagos State, Akinwumi Ambode, has rehabilitated the road leading to the market, it is a sign that the government is gradually moving near the market in its developmental programme,” he said.
The Iyaloja finally raised an alarm and still pleaded with the government to construct culvert at the bank of the lagoon to block spillage of water and thus save the sellers from incessant flooding experienced during rainy seasons.
“If you had come here during rainy season, you would not have moved this freely. So government should help us construct culverts to control the water from spilling into the market,” she said.