Here in the United States, an insurance company will declare a car a total loss after an accident if it would cost more to fix it than the car is worth. They pay off the car's owner, and then often they sell the wrecked car at a salvage auction. But some immigrants see treasure in the insurance company's trash. They buy wrecked cars, fix them up, and sell them to buyers in their home countries.
In a body shop on the outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina's capital, Adewale Otaru helps chain a wreck of a small truck to a metal ramp. Otaru bought this car at a salvage auction in New Hampshire for about $13,000. In good condition, this 2005 Toyota 4 Runner would be worth about $30,000. But this one has been in a head-on collision. Otaru points out the damage. "The headlight is missing. The bottom part of the bumper is broken. And you see it slanting upwards on this particular side. The hit must have made it buckle up a little bit."
A machine pulls on chains attached to the four corners of the frame and literally twists the car back into shape. Otaru says with a little more work it'll be as good as new. ""The regular eye [person] might be like, 'oh no, this car can't be fixed.' But you see, I would say 'no, I should be able to get something done to it.'"
The 34-year-old Nigerian believes his eye for a vehicle's potential serves him well. Last year, he bought 13 wrecks and had them repaired. Then he shipped them to Nigeria. He says there's a big market in the oil-rich country for used cars with luxury features like air conditioning and leather seats. Otaru thinks this Toyota will go for about $20,000. After all his expenses, he might pocket a few thousand, but he says he's just starting out. "I haven't made money out of it yet, I'd say that. But I know there's money to be made out of it. And so I want to go ahead and establish myself now."
Out-going and likeable, Otaru is a natural salesman. When he was a student at the University of Lagos, he dabbled in exporting cashews and timber, and then got into the cattle business. He traveled to remote cattle markets, bought cows on the cheap, fattened them up, and sold them for a nice profit. He explains, "We grew up looking at life from the perspective of, if it's still usable, then use it. You don't want to waste things just because you can afford to get another one, no."
Otaru came to the United States in 2002. He sold women's shoes at one store, jewelry at another. He married an American but was working so many jobs that he rarely saw her. Relatives suggested he go into business for himself, and lent him the money to start a company he calls Otaru International.
Otaru says his cars are especially reliable, and his customers in Nigeria are spreading the word that here's a used car salesman you can trust. "I've had a couple of them call me back to say, 'Ade, I'm still driving that car. And Mister X asked me where I got it from and I told him it was you and he wants to get one from you.' So people who have bought from me are now introducing me after a period of time."
But it takes more than a good reputation to succeed in this business. Otaru's buddies at the body shop say to make more money, he needs to do more of the work himself. In the next repair bay, Emad Kumara is taking the radiator out of another wrecked car. He came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone 15 years ago, at the height of that country's civil war. Over the years he became a skilled mechanic. Now, he makes his living by fixing up wrecks and selling them back home.
"To do this kind of business, you have to know the bodywork or you have to know a mechanical way, how to fix something," Kumara explains. "You don't have to depend on somebody to do it for you, because the labor in America is expensive."
Otaru, who now works as a courier during the week, says he's trying to pick up more mechanical skills in his spare time. "I watch what's going on, and there are times when I'm able to help out, to do some minor installation of body parts." He says he can now take off a car's fender and put the repaired one back on. "I'm learning it bit by bit as the guys work."
Some of Otaru's friends are saving money to open body shops and car dealerships in their native countries. But Otaru says he wants to keep exploring his new homeland, as he drives from one salvage auction to the next. "To me, it's the adventure of going to new places, meeting new people, the time to go get something I bring it back. It was in a state where everybody rejected it, but I bring it back and I can bring it back to life and it is appreciated again. That feeling," he says with a smile, "would make me go anywhere."