The shoe making industry in Aba, Abia State, exports about one million pairs daily to African countries. This has given it a firm grip on the African market. But, with the formation of Aba shoemakers into cooperative societies to enable them access funds from development finance institutions, build capacity and link international markets, among other initiatives, the industry appears set to take the global shoe market by storm, while contributing to Nigeria’s industrialisation and job creation drive. Asst Editor OKWY IROEGBU-CHIKEZIE reports.
He spoke from his vantage position as an industrialist. And by the time he drew attention to the huge, but largely untapped potential of Aba shoe making industry, President, Abia Think-Tank Association, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, left no one in doubt that the industry may well be the tonic to galvanise Nigeria’s industrialisation and create jobs.
He said, for instance, that the shoe making industry in Aba, the commercial/industrial nerve centre of Abia State, exports an estimated one million pairs of shoes daily to other African countries, such as Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Gabon, among others.
The icing on the cake of this thriving shoe industry, according to the industrialist and former Chairman, Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG), is that the shoemakers produce quality shoes that compare with Italian footwears and other notable global brands.
He, however, expressed regrets that, despite leading the African market, the Aba shoe Industry was yet to have a presence outside the continent, blaming it on the low patronage of made-in-Nigeria products caused by lack of policy backing by the government.
“When made-in-Nigeria products are patronised by the government and ordinary people, more goods will be produced, wealth created and prosperity will be spread among Nigerians,” Ohuabunwa said.
He said once the made-in-Nigeria policy is sustained in the medium and long term, the percentage of Nigeria’s manufactured products in composite of export will increase and the percentage of total imported goods will decrease.
Urging Nigerians to develop confidence in made-in-Nigeria products and trade on them in order to facilitate more productivity in the country, Ohuabunwa pointed out that Aba remained the economic and industrial hub of Eastern states and Nigeria with great potential yawning for exploitation.
He said as part of efforts to position the Aba shoe making industry for exploits in the global shoe making market, a number of initiatives have taken off. “We have started forming the shoemakers into cooperative societies so that they can have access to funding from development finance institutions like the Bank of Industry (BoI) as well as capacity building and linkage to international market,” Ohuabunwa said.
For instance, the Industrial Training Fund (ITF) has scaled up the skills of the shoe makers while the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) introduced quality standards in the production process of the shoe making industry.
Last year, members of the Leather Products Manufacturers Association (LEPMAS) in Abia State also received a N10.4 million loan from the Bank of Agriculture (BoA). The loan was aimed at supporting the standardisation of finished leather products.
The loan was facilitated by the United Kingdom (UK’s) Department for International Development (DFID) and Market Development in the Niger Delta (MADE).
According to Ohuabunwa, these efforts became necessary after he “found out that they (Aba shoemakers) were doing the work without minimum support from anybody”. “
But when I calculated their returns on those investments, I found they were peanuts. They work like elephant, but eat like ant. They sweat to bring in their ingenuity, but because they are not properly harnessed, the return on investments is meager,”he said.
Indeed, over the years, all shades of small and large scale industrialists and artisans in Aba, including operators in the city’s booming shoe making industry, have been yearning for attention.
The commercial city, popularly called ‘Enyimba City’, is said to be home to over 110, 000 artisans engaged in making shoes, bags, and belts, while over 50, 000 others engage in garment making.
The city is home to various industrial clusters and burgeoning micro, small and medium enterprises. The ‘A Line’ section of the Ariaria International Market, for instance, boasts a range of finished leather products, including shoes and bags created through the ingenuity of Aba artisans.
It will be recalled that in 2002, Aba attracted World Bank’s attention, with the visit of its then President Mr. James Wolfensohn, accompanied by the then Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The visited raised hope of a possible massive intervention to fix the infrastructural needs of the city.
The visitors were told that one of the major problems facing Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises (MSMEs) in Aba was lack of electricity supply. The Aba shoe makers also complained that foreign manufacturers of adhesives used in making shoes were hoarding high quality adhesives from them. This, they claimed, affected the durability and competitiveness of made-in-Aba shoes.
Although, governments at both national and sub-national levels have not been able to address these issues until recently when the prevailing economic realities caused by recession appeared to have forced them to start looking inwards. Both the state and Federal Government ministries and agencies, including private sector operators, are now coming up with measures to reposition the industry.
Government wades in
Recently, Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, brokered a $1.5billion deal with Chinese firm, Huajian Shoe industry in Dongguan, Guangzhou, China. According to him, Abia–Huajian shoe industry will have the capacity to produce 5,000 shoes per day and employ about 10,000 people directly and indirectly.
On October 1, 2016, Ikpeazu launched an e-commerce site to make it possible for Aba-made merchandise to be retailed across the country. Part of the government’s reform was to provide infrastructure for the markets to thrive.
When a delegation of Leather and Allied Products Manufacturers Association of Abia State (LEAPMAAS) recently visited the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, the group commended him for his support for the campaign on made-in-Nigeria products. Saraki said the necessary legal instrument has been put in place to strengthen the campaign.
“Today, we have made it a national project,” he told the delegation from Abia, adding that the Senate had amended the Public Procurement Act “to give your efforts a solid legal backing that will ensure patronage for your products and that of other local manufacturers”.
Saraki said the House of Representatives will soon pass the same law, which, according to him, would make it binding that “government agencies must necessarily and compulsorily patronise locally made goods. It has started with orders made for boots by the Army. If the Army is doing that, I also challenge all the other agencies to follow suit.”
The Senate President challenged all the Senate committee chairmen “to ensure that all the other agencies, whether it is Air Force, Navy, Customs, even the Road Safety, Civil Defense and National Youth Service Corps follow suit”.
He commended the Nigerian Army for demonstrating the readiness to patronise locally made products through their purchase of 50, 000 boots from Aba.
To make other government agencies toe the same line, the Senate President said patronage of made-in-Nigeria products would be included as part of the conditions to be fulfilled by government ministries, agencies and departments (MDAs) in due time.
Organised private sector too
The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) has also called on the government to implement the Public Procurement Act, which gave preference to locally manufactured goods, pointing out that until this is implemented, indigenous manufacturers will continue to operate under very unhealthy policies.
MAN President, Dr. Frank Udemba Jacobs, specifically called for a 60 per cent home-bias in public procurement, where locally produced goods and services will be given preference against their foreign alternatives.
He explained that in support of the campaign for made-in-Nigeria goods, his association partnered ENABLE2, a Department for International Development (DFID) programme, to drive home the message.
He said the idea was aimed at improving the patronage of locally manufactured products by Nigerians, the government, Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) through an effective and inward looking public procurement process.
The MAN boss said the campaign has made reasonable progress and necessitated the call for the review of the current public procurement Act. Others are the introduction of the Executive Order, improved government patronage of ‘Made-in-Nigeria’ products and the current build up against smuggling and counterfeit activities in the country.
The Nation learnt that contempt and neglect of Aba-made products by Nigerian consumers, was borne out of decades of opulence engendered by petro-dollar, which made Nigerians and government to develop huge appetite for foreign goods and services.
The situation was so pervasive that Aba artisans, as part of survival strategy, developed inferiority complex and had to start inscribing ‘made-in-Brazil’ or ‘made-in-Italy’ or ‘made-in-Spain’ on shoes that were designed and produced in Aba.
“It worked for us then,” said Chief Emenike Uche, a shoe manufacturer in Aba. According to him, “Our own people started buying the same shoes, bags that they were referring to as Aba-made, thinking they were buying imported goods”.
Indeed, before now ‘Aba Made’ was taken as derogatory statement, meaning that it is not only locally produced, but also of very low and inferior quality. Nigerians from other parts of the country contemptuously referred to Aba products as “Aba-made”, which was an expression of inferiority in comparison to imported goods.
This is despite Aba’s reputation as the city with the largest concentration of MSMEs in the West African sub-region. The city acquired its popularity through sheer ingenuity, which, over the years, exploded into local manufacturing of various products, including fabrication of machine parts.
Through dint of hard work, thousands of artisans in Aba have carved a niche for themselves in finished leather products such as shoes, bags, and belts among others. But while the artisans were busy churning out their products, the government was not looking their way and no conscious policy was formulated to encourage them.
Despite the fact that Aba-made shoes, bags, belts and garments are making waves in other countries within the West African sub-region and even beyond, successive Nigerian governments have failed to fully exploit the industry’s huge potential through the implementation of the right policies.
But a major turnaround appears to be in the offing, following the renewed attention on the Aba shoe industry. Although, this was prompted by the economic recession and the need to look towards the non oil economy including a revitalised shoe industry, operators and stakeholders are optimistic that the industry is well placed to drive Nigeria’s quest for industrialisation and job creation.