When 13 traders from eastern Nigeria arrived at the allotted spot for their new market outside Lagos in 1977, the vista was not promising.
“When they got here this was thick forest and swamp, populated by reptiles,” says Chief Emeka Dike.
Today, Mr Dike presides over what is reputed to be Africa's biggest electronics market, a heaving bazaar long since swallowed by a megacity of 18m people.
On offer at Alaba market are the trappings of a comfortable existence: fridges, televisions, air conditioning units, cookers.
Hundreds of shops cater to the Nigerian segment of a middle class whose ranks have been swelled across the continent by rising livelihoods.
From the explosion of mobile telephony to bulging profits of beer companies, evidence of expanding consumer markets in Africa abounds.
In its early years, Alaba was for the few. Only the elite, flush with oil money, could afford the white goods and Japanese sound-systems. Then, just over a decade ago, the factory of the world went into production.
Prince Anselam Nwadike gestures at two electric ovens in his Alaba store. “When we need quality, we go for Italy,” he says, indicating a shiny silver model for Naira 150,000, about $996 (€809, £677). Turning to a more basic alternative with a Naira 50,000 price tag, he adds: “When we want cheap, we go for China.”
Traders estimate that about 90 per cent of the appliances in Alaba are made in China. Quality has improved markedly with time, most say. Some of the audio equipment packaged in western-branded boxes is Chinese underneath, some admit.
According to a 2006 report for the African Union, “Chinese imports can be 75 per cent cheaper than ‘equivalent' imports from traditional sources and up to 50 per cent cheaper than the locally produced substitutes”.
The precipitous fall in the cost of imports has brought a middle-class lifestyle within reach of many more Africans. Estimating their numbers is difficult. Data from the United Nations suggest 92 per cent of Nigeria's estimated 150m people live on less than $2 a day.
But many analysts say such figures fail to capture huge informal economies as well as a surge in well-paid employment in banking and telecoms.
A Nigerian official study calculates that 30 per cent of the 150m population have “middle class” salaries. Yet graduating to the African middle class can be prohibitively expensive – as one of Alaba's best-selling appliances testifies.
The whirr of diesel generators is the soundtrack of Lagos life. So comprehensive is the collapse of the national grid that generators are the main source of power.
“Without the gens, this market cannot exist,” says Nonso Nwankwo, an Alaba trader selling Chinese-made generators for a quarter of the price of the old Japanese ones.
But running a generator costs an estimated Naira 45 per kilowatt hour, roughly three times the average residential tariff in the US. Factor in the price of repairs and Alaba's other appliances start to look less like bargains.
Corruption adds an extra levy. One Alaba merchant says “settling” – or bribing – customs officials and police can add $7,000 to the cost of importing each $40,000 shipment of smoke-extractors. Nonetheless, Alaba's customers are better off for the cheap Chinese wares.
Tens of thousands of redundant Nigerian textile workers are not, however. An influx of Chinese textiles dealt a hammer-blow to Nigerian factories already struggling with the lack of electricity. In the face of Chinese competition, efforts to stimulate local manufacturing seem futile.
The chances of an industrial middle class emerging in Nigeria as it did in Europe 200 years ago look slim.
However, Mr Dike, Alaba's elected president, says globalisation has provided the means and the incentive for Nigerians to fork out – at least for televisions. “It's supposed to be a luxury,” he says, “but today it's a necessity.”