I step into the shop made of metal sheets welded together. A clean-shaven man with a wide smile waves at me from his fortress of shelves piled high with candy bars, biscuits, cookies, 50 CFA bags of peanuts, and water bottles.
Tinny music from a small T.V. perched atop a refrigerator by the door fills the air. To my left, shelves are stacked with neon-colored household cleaning products, baby wipes, laundry detergent, and notebooks. The man switches on the bare fluorescent light bulb above our heads so I can see better.
And then the power cuts off – a common occurrence in Niamey, where the electric company struggles to keep up with demand. A few moments later, it clicks back on, filling the store with the bulb’s greenish glow and mechanical hum.
There are many shops like these all over Niamey, and it’s easy to fly past them in your car with the windows rolled up, the A/C blasting. But thanks to Djibo Boureima’s location facing the American Cultural Center (ACC), I often find myself walking into his shop.
Over the past two years, I have seen his business evolve from a simple wooden structure to the shop I’m in today. He has added a few more shelves and increased the number of items he sells. Last week, I decided to go beyond Ina kwana (Good morning) and Ina aiki (How’s work?) to ask him about the key to his success.
Sitting on a wooden bench, an interpreter between us, we have our first real conversation amidst the buzz of ACC English Language Program students coming to buy biscuits and sodas after class.
“Building this business has not been easy,” he says in a matter of fact tone. “When I was in my early twenties, I could walk all over town with my table of products balanced on my head going from neighborhood to neighborhood and not sell a single thing.” This certainly would not have been easy in a climate where temperatures regularly surpass 110F.
“It was pure luck that one day I stumbled upon the ACC. At that time, it was located in the Grand Marché, where the pharmacy is today. I noticed that there were always people there just hanging out, waiting for classes to start or for their kids to come out of classes. So, I stopped carrying my table all over town and set it up in front of the ACC instead. I didn’t have to walk anymore. My customers came to me!”
And, they keep coming. In the middle of our conversation, Mr. Boureima has to attend to several customers who come in looking for laundry detergent, chocolate cookies, and cell phone minutes. “Mr. Boureima is very well-known because we know we can trust him,” says one customer. “If there’s something I want, I just ask him and he finds it for me. Some people drive all the way across town just to buy things that they know only he has.” The customer continues as Mr. Boureima hands him his change, “and if I don’t have enough today, he’ll let me pay my bill at the end of the month!” Of course, this only works for his regulars.
His customers gone, Mr. Boureima continues, “When the ACC moved to this spot, I was the only vendor who followed. For several months, I set up my table full of candy bars, peanuts, cigarettes, and other things under this tree, in this very spot, where I could see the door, over there. The director at that time noticed I was the only vendor who had moved with the Center. He asked me to build a permanent shop. And, so I did.”
A white van pulls up in front of the open door and the driver waves at Mr. Boureima. They exchange a few phrases in Zarma and the man drives off. “That’s the water wholesaler,” he explains to me. “He drives by every now and again to see if I need more bottled water to sell. In fact, that’s how I get my sodas and cell phone minute cards, too. Once I had my storefront, the wholesalers wanted to do business with me.”
A young boy, roughly ten years old in age, enters the shop and takes a seat by the cash box. He quickly jumps up again and attends to a young customer who wants to buy some sweets. Boubacar Boureima is Mr. Boureima’s son who is now taking English classes at the ACC.
It is the steady stream of students who have made it possible for Mr. Boureima to go from being a street vendor carrying his wares in search of customers to the owner of two stores. Mr. Boureima’s ability to spot a market and cater to its needs is the key to his success.