Alphaeus Taiwo Olunaike is not a name that many Nigerians are familiar with. But once you mention ‘Alajo Somolu’, the eyes of millions of Nigerians will light up. Yes, they are more familiar with this name!
Born in 1915 in the small city of Isan-Oyin (now called Isonyin); close to Ijebu-Musin and Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria. 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, Torimoro came and took him to Lagos where he was able to further his education. He arrived in 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 and fast. Therefore, when the uncle, Torimoro, was going to Cameroon on a commercial trip, Alajo Somolu decided he would also seize the opportunity and go along. Upon reaching Cameroon in 1950, he 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 and newspapers; tried his hands on many ventures.
In Cameroon, one of his neighbors was a thrift collector and told Alajo Somolu about the business. The details immediately caught his fancy. As 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 years old at that time. Before he left Cameroon, he took with him a copy of the thrift collection card used by his Cameroonian neighbor. Upon reaching Nigeria, he made his own copies of the card and he named his own venture ‘ Popular Daily Alajo Somolu‘.
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 simply collect their money and vanish into the thin air. But he was not discouraged by 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 completed. Also, baba Alajo made his profit and he was doubly delighted: his clients had renewed hope in him and the new business was more lucrative than the tailoring he was doing. With time, the news of his honesty, transparency, and hard work spread and his clients swelled in number. Baba Alajo’s prosperity too also shone! He built his first house which he later sold to build another. In a short while, 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, Sandgrouse, and, of course, in Somolu (Shomolu) from whence 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 use a calculator and there were no computers either. The most amazing part of his prodigious memory was the thoroughness of it. He did not only pay back the exact amount to his clients, he also paid 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.
Then, people started saying “ORI E PE TI ALAJO SOMOLU, TO FI ODIDI ODUN META GBAJO LAI KO ORUKO ENI KANKAN SILE, TI KO SI SIWO FUN ENIKENI”– “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”.
Anytime one of his vehicles returned after a trip of thrift collection, it would be checked. If the car had depreciated to the point that it is no longer economically viable, he sold them off and bought bicycles instead. Therefore, when people noticed that one of his vehicles was missing and a brand-new vehicle had appeared instead, they would say: “Alajo Somolu has sold his car to buy a bicycle!” “ORI E PE BI AALAJO SOMOLU, TO TA MOTO, TO FI RA KEKE ”. But Baba Alajo Somolu knew what he was doing. To him, there was little point in 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. It is worthy of note 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.
Alajo Somolu 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.
He passed away in 2012 at age 97.