Blogs > Cliopatria > Tire Repair -- Nigerian style

Dec 22, 2004 2:28 pm

Tire Repair -- Nigerian style

Phew... what a semester. Nothing like having a newborn and deciding to buy a new house to make finals extra-interesting. Just in case anybody was actually wondering why I haven’t posted in a while (aside from Ralph Luker, anyway) those are the reasons, in a nutshell. So, to get back into the swing of things, I’m choosing a somewhat offbeat topic: tire changing.

Hardcore blog-watchers may have noticed my dear brother actually blogged during a tire change a little while back. Of course, being the blog-o-maniac that he is, that is hardly a surprise. But, anyway, this is something of an example of brotherly synergy, since I have, for a while, been planning to do an essay on the differences between tire changes in the US and West Africa. Indeed, eventually I plan to write a book on West African car culture, but other commitments mean that will be a few years down the road (so to speak). In particular the whole tire change process seemed to me to highlight the contrast between life in these two global regions. Since most readers will be familiar with tire repair in the industrialized world, I won’t go into how tires are repaired in that “place.” Just note that you can usually sip free coffee, sit in climate-controlled comfort, and perhaps even Blog while somebody uses mega-expensive powered machinery to fix your tire. In the end you will pay anywhere from $10 to $30 for a plugged or patched tire.

First and foremost, flat tires are WAY more common in West Africa than they are in the US. For a region short of machine tools and their products, West African roads seem unusually well blessed with nails, screws, and other pointy paraphernalia. I once suffered a flat tire at the hands of an unusually large (and not very sharp) C-clip. Also, almost all West African tires are mounted using tubes. For those too young to remember the days of tubed tires, this means that when something pokes a hole in your tire it goes flat RIGHT NOW – not a few hours or days from now. No doubt the prevalence of tubes is a major contributing factor to the high rate of traffic accidents and fatalities on West African roads.

Given the frequency of flats (one a month is nothing odd, and I have gone through a couple of spells where I had several flats in a single week), tire repair establishments, known as “Vulcanizers” are also common. In a town or city one can be found on almost every block. Get a flat in town and you will almost certainly have a Vulcanizer come to you or an enterprising young lad will offer to run to one in return for a tip (“dash”). They are usually a two-man team, consisting of senior vulcanizer and an apprentice/assistant who is often a young boy or teenager. Their equipment generally consists of a scavenged AC compressor attached to a small motor to inflate tires, a really heavy bar used as a bludgeon to “break the bead” between the tire and wheel, and a lever-and-fulcrum assembly to pry the tire off the rim, if necessary. Usually, however, once the bead is broken, the tube is slipped out on its own so it can be patched.

The process of repair is undertaken by melting a patch over the section of the tube that has been punctured. Once the hole is located, the patching material is placed over the offending (offended?) section of the tube, and then both tube and patch are cranked tight between a board and an upside-down flat-topped piston. Kerosene is poured into the piston and set alight – thus producing the heat to melt the patch material – “vulcanizing” the patch into place. Within about 20 minutes the tube has a new patch (I’ve seen tubes with a couple of dozen such repairs). The tube is then slid back between the wheel and tire, the motor/AC Compressor is fired up, and the tire is re-inflated. Once the assistant has placed the wheel back on your car, you can pay the Vulcanizer for the work. In Nigeria this now runs about 20 to 30 Naira – or about 15-20 cents US. Then, off you go!

Of course, the question is why don’t West African drivers forego the use of tubes? The trick lies in the amount of air pressure available. To “seat” a tubeless tire on the rim requires a goodly volume of air delivered at about 100psi. The locally-produced compressors used by Vulcanizers simply can’t deliver such pressures. Tubes are thus considered a necessity. Mind you, there are upscale auto dealers in West Africa (Mercedes, Toyota and Nissan, mostly) who have equipment just like what you would find at a tire shop in San Diego or Tokyo, but the costs are also like those found in the industrialized world – putting tubeless tires out of the reach of most Africans.

I did, however, come to know one Vulcanizer who had a system for seating tubeless tires with his existing equipment. I had mentioned to a Nigerian friend (a mechanic) my desire to avoid using tubes in my tires. He then took me to a said Vulcanizer. I watched in amusement and admiration as he sent his assistant out for several servings of Gari – a casava-based foodstuff that has the consistency of really thick mashed potatoes. He then smeared the Gari around between the gap between each rim and tire... creating a seal tight enough to allow the tire to seat despite the slow delivery of the air. Within an hour or so I had four tubeless tires mounted and a spare in the hatch. The process cost about three times the normal rate (perhaps two dollars for the whole service), but I was most pleased with my increased security on the road.

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Alastair Mackay - 12/23/2004

And Merry XMas.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 12/23/2004

Dear Yemi,

Neither my wife nor I speak much Yoruba. I studied it for a while in Grad School. Mo gbo die die! My Hausa is much much better. So, in turn: Barka da sallar Christmati! Ina fata kai da iyalinka kuke jin dadi cikin lokacin huta. (Merry Christmas, and I hope your family enjoy the holiday!).

yemi olu - 12/23/2004

E k'asan O, E k'ajodun keresi ati odun tutun yii o (translation/paraphrase: Good Afternoon, Hope the you're enjoying the christmas and new year season - for the benefit of those who don't have yoruba-speaking{?} wives)You do have a point about the having tubes inside tubeless tires scenario. That is popular partly because most vehicle owners feel it's a simple way to ensure the longevity of tubeless tires which would need to be discarded once they are worn or punctured. That like you said is probably the highest contributing factor to the large numbers of vulcanizers around. I would also be the first to admit that public transport (privately owned as opposed to state owned) as a rule operates on a basic principle of minimum cost for maximum returns even though most don't seem to get the idea that there's something called the law of diminishing returns. Hence the average vehicle used for transportation has the worst maintenance mantra i.e. "if it's not broken down and losing you money even if it's making unearthly noises, don't fix it". Since I'm sure as you well know Nigeria is a statistical desert, there's no valid way to measure the percentages of who uses what, so you might be right.

Incidentally, I also lived in the north for a year, specifically sokoto town. I hope to lay my hands on some of your works, looks like they'll make for an interesting read. I wish you and your family a happy holidays. I'm not sure if your wife is yoruba but let me just say that, "Bankale l'Oluwa a se omo naa fun yin o, Ire, Ayo la o ma gbo nipa eyin ati omo naa o" Have a happy holidays.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 12/23/2004

Yemi can be found here:

Ralph E. Luker - 12/23/2004

Mr. Mackay, Try this. I am not certain whether that is the intended blog or not.

yemi olu - 12/23/2004

Sorry about the typo. There's no www before the x-kog. The url is

yemi olu - 12/23/2004

There's not www before the x-kog. It's

Alastair Mackay - 12/23/2004

Sorry, doesn't appear to link to a valid page.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 12/23/2004

In respose to Yemi,

E'kaasan! Thanks for your comments, and I welcome your counter-point to my posting (and appreciate your giving me the benefit of the doubt for being a nice guy). It certainly was not my intention to misrepresent or make sport of Nigerian tire repair. Indeed, as a motorhead myself, I have the greatest of respect for the skill and creativity of mechanics and craftspeople who keep cars on the road without the benefit of the sorts of tools available to most American mechanics. Changing a tire with a pneumatic Hunter machine is no trick at all. Doing it with brain and brawn is.

Nonetheless, I must respectfully disagree with your suggestion that going tubeless is now the Nigerian norm. True, most of my experience is in the North, but I have spent a good deal of time in Lagos and Ibadan as well. No doubt, as I said, there are those wealthier drivers who do go tubeless (my Nigerian Aunt, who owns several business centers, does so), but I would say that the vast majority still utilize tubes (one of my brother-in-laws, a Chartered Accountant, uses tubes). No doubt if you see a newer Mercedes, Lexus, or Landcruiser go by (of which there are no shortage in Nigeria) they are probably sans-tubes, but the vast majority of Peugeots, Toyotas and Nissans (much less vehicles serving as taxis and danfos) are probably not so (un)equiped.

Mind you, as a point of clarification, almost everyone in Nigeria uses tubeless tires, but they put tubes inside them. As evidence, I point to the continued ubiquity of Vulcanizers. Tubeless tires don't go flat so quickly, and don't demand immediate service. Vulcanizing is an in-demand profession precisely because there are so many tubes in use.

Similarly, while I have indeed seen a few imported compressor/tank systems in use, the vast majority of Vulcanizers I have seen are still using the AC Compressor combo -- with the low cost of such systems being their main advantage. You can't see it in the Vulcanizer photo, but he was using an AC compressor.

In closing, let me say that you (Yemi) seem like a nice person, too.

yemi olu - 12/23/2004

You know I have a blog that's being all over the place in terms of a central theme and thanks to you I think I have an idea of what to focus on now. You can check it out at Have a happy holidays.

Chad Brown - 12/23/2004

Growing up in an agricultural community, it was fairly common for some farmers to "ether" a tire ('ether' being used as a verb meaning "to seat the bead of a tire using a can of starting fluid, which is primarily ether"). It was a bit of a trick, but it was effective for large tractor tires that needed large amounts of expansion quickly to seat. The amount of spray was critical, usually dispensed in "one Mississippi" increments, up to as much as four Mississippi if you were off your rocker or had already hit the flask stowed in the machine shed. I'm more of a two Mississippi kinda' guy. A spray of ether on the floor in a trail behind something solid was my preferred method.

Many trucking and farm places have a machine now that consists of an air tank with a big flat nozzle and a valve. The tank is filled from the compressor, the flat nozzle is inserted into the bead, and the valve is thrown, emptying a tank that took minutes to fill in less than a second.

Alastair Mackay - 12/23/2004

yemi olu (10:17am),

Thanks for adding additional depth to Dr. Reynolds' description of Vulcanizing, Nigerian style. It's interesting to find out that some (many? most?) Vulcanizers now get their compressors new, from Asia. Makes sense; the influx of pretty good Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian tools and machined goods has drastically lowered prices in these areas in the US.

Reynolds' detailed explanation of why many people in Nigeria prefer tubed tires was, actually, fascinating to me as an ex-motorhead. You add some depth to his picture by pointing out that tubeless tires are often employed in the southwest of the country. Presumably, the practical factors favoring tubes are present in the Yoruba areas--I wonder why, then, many folks there go tubeless?

Sounds like you have a wealth of experiences from growing up. They could form the basis of mini-essays as revealing of West African life as Dr. Reynolds'. Here's hoping you get the chance to put them on paper, or, better, in a blog. All the best, A. Mackay

yemi olu - 12/23/2004

I want to point out a few misinformed statements that stood out in the "Tire repair Nigerian Style" piece. First is the "Their equipment generally consists of a "scavenged" AC compressor attached to a small motor to inflate tires...". Now I went to check out the blogger and he turned out to be someone that might be considered an expert on african issues - he has certainly made a career of the historical and cultural aspects of african life among other things. I would be the first to say that I don't know him personally and he does seem to have first-hand knowledge of the places he writes about, but this piece of disinformation is just too obvious to have been missed. I do have a "vulcanizer" two houses down from where I grew up, and I know for a fact that the graduation ceremony for an apprentice in nigeria consists of a significant part which involves raising money for the former apprentice. This money is for purchasing equipment and tools required to set up shop. The compressor system is usually purchased from those who import such machines from asia, as that's the only way it would be within the means of anyone starting a business from scratch. The nigerian financial system does not have any form of credit.

The second piece of misinformation is that tubeless tires are not that prevalent. That depends on the part of the country you're talking about, Because as far back as 7 to 9 years ago, most of my uncles and relatives had tubeless tires on their vehicles. Granted I come from a middle-class yoruba (southwestern) family and I've a few relatively well-to-do relations, most of them however are just regular people financially speaking. Hence the idea that tubeless tires are the exception is totally untrue and a professor the caliber of Dr J. Reynolds should know better. If it were just another uninformed blogger, I would have ignored the presented falsities but being someone who would probably be called to give an insight on CNN should the american state have any sort of issues with my country of origin, I would expect a more thorough fact-checking process before making such statements. As a final word, I don't know Dr. J. Reynolds personally but I do check up on his brother's blog frequently and find some of his opinions interesting. For the record he seems like a nice person and he has a black wife, and even in this day of media advertised racial equality (yes I now live in the U.S. and have met too many white girls who won't date me 'cause I'm black) that's enough to verify that he's not one of the undyingly populous condescending people out there.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 12/22/2004


A doff of the motorhead cap to you! That's GREAT! I can't believe I haven't seen that done before. Mind you, out of love for my Nigerian Vulcanizer friends, I'm not going to share that with the folks back in Nigeria.

Manan... I'll be eagerly awaiting that post. Tirewallas - I love it! In Northern Nigeria, the Vulcanizers are known as Masu Iska , which translates from Hausa as "possessors of air."

Manan Ahmed - 12/22/2004

Yeah, I have done/seen that. Can be ugly.
This wonderful post reminded me of all the tirewallas back home. The tire-puncture shops in Pakistan deserve a sep. post and I will put that up soon...

Steve Tonnesen - 12/22/2004

I was young and stupid, and sometimes even 120psi and lots of air won't make a tire seat on the rim. "Exploding" a tire onto the rim was never standard practice. It was only used if the air wouldn't work. Once again, I qualify that I don't recommend this practice to anyone, but it _is_ amazing how well it works. Given the prices charged for tire changes in Nigeria, I'm not sure if it'd be cost effective. Tubeless tires are a lot cheaper to manufacture as well, so I doubt that the air pressure problem is the sole factor involved here.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/22/2004

Mr. Tonnesen, My immediate reaction to this was: "Are you nuts?" I've rethought that, a bit. No insult intended.

Steve Tonnesen - 12/22/2004

Another way to seat tubeless rims is to explode something inside the wheel. We used to spray carb cleaner inside the tire, throw in a match and BOOOM! Tire is seated beautifully, waiting for air. Not recommended for those who value life, however. :)