The amazing story of an Ivorian refugee in Lagos State who once lived on its streets and now creates jobs for Nigerians.
“’You are a great engineer’,” my wife said to me one day, ‘do something for your family’”, recalls Vasodia Bamba, Ivorian refugee in Ikorodu, Lagos State. They were at the lowest point since they had found refuge in Nigeria, and they struggled to feed their baby.
It should become the turning point. The next morning, Vasso as his friends call him went to downtown Lagos, entered an internet cafe and offered to set up a server. This was the first money earned on a path to success.
The money was enough to survive, but not to thrive. After having arrived in the Lagos area with his wife and 6-months old son David, Vasso was granted refugee status in 2012, but he did not find a stable situation until much later. Forced to sleep on the street for some time and surviving on the generosity of passersby, the family was finally allowed in a refugee shelter. “They only gave us one blanket, and on some days, there was no food”, he recalls. The place was overcrowded.
The family ended up sleeping rough from time to time. It was one of those nights that brought another lucky turn. The family was just preparing to spend another night as homeless people, as a car stopped, and the window rolled down. “What are you doing on the street,” a man asked. “I need a job,” Vasso replied. “I am a computer engineer”.
The man in the car had a computer company, and asked Vasso to pass by. The following Monday, Vasso was given four computers to repair. “I fixed them in no time. That’s how I earned 60,000 Naira (some US$ 150 at today’s exchange rate) in a single day”. Forcing his way and bargaining his fee low, he started to get more such informal jobs such as that one, taking his family with him around Lagos.
In 2013, his earnings and savings were not enough to survive expensive Lagos city, but could do just fine in Ikorodu, a smaller town on the opposite side of the Lagos Lagoon where he canvassed the streets tirelessly, boldly entering every shop with his toolbox and offering his services.
A year later, Vasso made the next major step in his career – he rented his first shop in Nigeria – thanks to the help of UNHCR’s local partner Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC). With a shop and a generator, he could power the computers and extend his working time. In 2017, with a 125,000 Naira grant from UNHCR, he could move to his current office, which is bigger and located in a busy market. He decided to follow an online training, and soon received a certification in computer science from Birgham Young University in Idaho, USA. The degree paid for itself as his improved skills could bring him bigger clients: the companies in need of a server specialist.
Vasso, one of over 2,700 registered refugees in Lagos area, is proud of what he has achieved: his computer repair shop attracts crowds of customers, individuals and companies alike, from all over town. He can now employ five people, all Nigerians, and train more than 10 students from local universities. But that was not a fortune given: it has been ten years in the making.
“We kept running and running.”
Vasso has always been an entrepreneur: Back in Abidjian, he owned a thriving printing company. Too thriving in the eyes of some, maybe: because he was printing political propaganda for clients, he became the target of militia groups during the 2010 turmoil. When they attacked his building, he narrowly escaped and found refuge in his community’s church. “They were killing everyone at that time”, he shivers. “We kept running and running, out of Abidjan, into Ghana. But we heard that they were arresting people even in Togo, so someone advised me to go to Nigeria”.
As he was on his way back to become a successful entrepreneur again in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit him, his wife, their son and 10-year old daughter Matania economically like most other urban refugees. Businesses were forced to close, the market had shut its gates, no travel was allowed to prospective clients. Customers were chased away, and all wealth accumulated, or assistance received was now dedicated to feed and shelter the families.
Vasso who had become the President of the local Refugees of Côte d’Ivoire Association, a 120-member organization in the meantime, was no exception. He was responsible of the livelihood of 18 people, his family and employees. Exceptionally, UNHCR could provide him some cash relief, a total of 120,000 Naira, and Vasso tried to reduce all expenses. “I was forced to abandon an online training, and I have still a student debt pending”, he says.
“Even after the pandemic, we are still standing.”
Vasso is not someone who gives up: “Even after the pandemic, we are still standing”, he comments with a convincing gaze. He has a plan: As the restrictions ease and business reprieves, Vasso is convinced the only way to survive this harsh period is to expand the business, to sell new computers, not just to fix old ones. But he doesn’t need money, he needs capital. “I asked for a 300,000 Naira loan from a financial service provider with support from UNHCR’s partner JDPC. “It’s a lot but it’s the only bank I can ask”, he says. With the loan, he plans to buy computers in bulk, get good prices, make some profit and immediately start paying back. Even if the financial service provider does not help him with capital, Vasso sounds confident that he will make his way.
With editing by Roland Schönbauer, Abuja