Hunt for Budding Talent
By Emmanuel Ugwu
Emmanuel Ugwu in Umuahia writes that the first Abia products exhibition provided the perfect platform for talented local manufacturers, innovators and entrepreneurs from the state to showcase their products and creativity
In its heyday, the production wheels of Aba were in constant motion churning out various products like shoes, bags, garments, chemicals, agricultural products and industrial equipment fabricated to serve specific purposes.
Aba was bustling with production activities so much so that it attracted the attention of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations Industrial Organisation. The then World Bank President James Wolfensohn had led a powerful delegation to Aba to access how the Brentwood institution could intervene to strengthen the production capacity of Aba entrepreneurs and further fire up their creative ingenuity. Specifically the World Bank mooted the idea of creating industrial clusters and to strengthen the city’s infrastructure.
On their own the local manufacturers in Aba had already galvanissd their energy and creative minds in setting up the numerous small scale businesses that gave Aba its famed sobriquet as the ‘Japan of Arica’.
While the Aba SMEs were anxiously waiting for the World Bank, Enyimba City was hit by a whirl wind of wave of insecurity that blew over the city between 2008 and 2010. The ever bustling Enyimba city was brought to its knees at the peak of the security challenges as kidnappings and other criminalities held sway.
“The security challenges highly affected us,” said Goodluck Joseph Nmeri, one of the local shoe manufacturers of Aba. He told THISDAY that customers that used to come from across West Africa withdrew and diverted to other countries. The shoe maker further lamented that even the sourcing of raw materials become a huge problem as the big time merchants who were bringing the items also relocated to other countries in order to protect their lives and keep their businesses running. He recalled that at some point in the manufacturing prowess of Aba, the city was playing host to the Chinese who were coming to spy as it were on the ingenuity of the local manufacturers. Today, China manufactures anything you can think of for the world and has become a key player in the international market. On the contrary the growth index of Aba’s manufacturing sector has ebbed over the years as the local manufacturers grappled with the problems of insecurity, decayed infrastructure, dwindling patronage, as well as absence of direct policy intervention by government to encourage the local producers of Aba. Expectedly the local manufacturers became discouraged. The production wheels either screeched to a halt or were retarded to snail speed.
The era of insecurity in Aba has been put behind following the effective partnership of the federal and Abia State governments. But the local manufacturers are still struggling to cover the lost grounds. This means climbing back to the height attained prior to the ebb and then jostling for a space in the international market. Recently, a collaborative effort between the office of the wife of Abia State governor, Mrs. Mercy Odochi Orji and the private sector resulted in the first made in Abia products exhibition. The event, which was organised under the public-private partnership (PPP) initiative, brought together local manufacturers, innovators, and entrepreneurs to showcase their products and creativity. For 10 days products, innovations/inventionsby companies, academic institutions, government agencies, women and youth entrepreneurs operating in Abia were on display at Ibeku High School, Umuahia. It was a celebration of the can do spirit of Abia people. On display were products ranging from leather products to industrial equipment, science equipment, artifacts, and tourism products to agricultural products. A prototype helicopter made by “The ultimate objective of these efforts is full capacity utilisation of installed plants and machineries for increased production and marketing hence generate more employment opportunities,” said Mr. Frank Ibe, chairman of the steering committee of the products exhibition. He explained that in conceiving the idea of first made in Abia products exhibition, the wife of the governor was desirous of exposing the economic potentials of Abia to the global stage thereby stimulating economic growth and development.
Ibe said that Abia has the potential of leveraging on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) being championed by the government of the United States of America to encourage manufacturing and marketing of selected goods (such as garments, shoe and leather products, agriculture and allied products) from the sub-Saharan African countries. “It is worthy of note that Abia State has comparative advantage in manufacturing of these selected AGOA products in West African sub-region. There is therefore the need to showcase them to the world for records and possible patronage,” he said.
There was ample demonstration that the minds of Abia inventors are as fertile as ever and that given the needed push their products could hold their own at the global stage. They can also save the country enormous amount in foreign exchange incurred from imported goods that can be locally manufactured. Elder Chekwa Alozie said he has already been doing that for the nation as his locally manufactured industrial cookers “have crashed the prices for imported products,” he enthused as he proudly displayed his products at his stand.
Alozie makes industrial cookers for hotels and fast food companies and big time caterers. He said that aside from the burners every other component of his products is locally sourced, adding that he makes stoves “that burn like gas cookers”. The innovator, who said that creativity is a trait in his family, was optimistic that with the right environment he will in future wholly source his raw materials locally.
Mrs. Esther Ibe is another local manufacturer who has through her efforts been able to provide high quality local alternatives to imported products. She makes pullover, sweater, caps, cardigans, wedding gowns, epaulets for military and paramilitary uniforms as well as large scale production of school uniforms. “There is no need to import these products,” she said, pointing to an array of products she displayed at her exhibition stand. Mrs. Ibe, who runs the Aba-based Unit Fashion Center, said that she has been using locally sourced raw materials to make products of international standard. “We make these things here and we are proud they are as good as what some people import from overseas,” she enthused.
There remains much for these local manufactures to do achieving and achieving and sustaining economies of scale in large scale production. This has remained a bridge too far with the unresolved problem of electricity power supply. But the Group Managing Director of Diamond Bank Plc, Dr Alex Otti, said that the local manufacturers of Aba would soon overcome this drawback when the Geometric Power Plant comes on stream. The Independent Power Plant (IPP) is expected to generate 188 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide Aba with 24 hours of uninterruptible power supply with excess to accommodate neighbouring cities.
To make this possible, Otti said that Diamond Bank has invested over N30 billion in the Geometric power project, explaining that it was a demonstration of his bank’s faith in the Nigerian economy and its strong commitment to policies aimed at providing the fertile ground for the germination and growth of local enterprises. To this end, he said that the bank has remained the biggest promoter of small, medium scale enterprises devoting over 30 percent of its loan portfolio to the SMEs because of their relevant to the economic growth of the nation.
Otti, who chaired the opening ceremony of the Abia products exhibition, noted with the creative drive of Aba’s local manufacturers, Abia State would within the year witness a rapid economic growth. He said that in a matter of months the investment in power would yield good dividends as Aba and its environs begin to experience 24 hour uninterrupted power supply round the year, adding that the power supply would breathe a new lease of life into commerce and industry. He commended the organisers of the made in Abia products exhibition, saying that “no society can develop without production” adding that the event has further underlined the fact that “Abia is a productive state.”
Governor Theodore Orji attested to that when he arrived at the exhibition ground to formally flag off the event. “The exhibition is unique because it is a celebration of the famed ingenuity of our people,” he said, adding that made in Aba products have attained international reputation in standard. He described the exhibition as “bold attempt to promote” products manufactured in God’s Own State for accelerated economic development of the state, which is in line with his legacy projects. According to him, the exhibition would give Abians a sense of pride in showcasing their products at the world stage unlike in the past where such high quality products were manufactured in Aba and credited to other countries for marketability. The governor noted that his administration was already implementing policies and programmes aimed at accelerating the economic growth of the state, citing the building of new markets and provision of sustainable security in the state.
Indeed, there was time when the local manufactures of Aba would produce their high quality shoes, bags and other leather products and label it made in Italy or Brazil for acceptability even in the local Nigerian markets. It was all due to the large appetite that Nigerian consumers have developed for foreign goods and their rather unfortunate belief that high quality goods have no place in local production. Ironically when the same goods were manufactured in Aba and given a foreign imprint Nigerians would rush at it and even pay higher prices for them.
Goodluck Joseph Nmeri told THISDAY that his fellow shoes makers in and other manufacturers in Aba have learnt to be proud of their products and make them acceptable by local and international consumers. “We cannot be producing things of this of high quality and be glorifying other countries,” he said, adding, “We’re being challenged to make better shoes” in order to create and retain consumers’ confidence in Aba products. Nmeri pointed out that some of the teething problems like the absence of industrial machines and high caliber adhesives that affected the quality of Aba shoes at the initial stage had been surmounted. According to him, the local manufacturers have taken up the challenge of producing the machines locally while the high caliber adhesives could now be afforded by any local manufacturer who wants to produce high quality shoes.
As efforts are being made to encourage the innovators and entrepreneurs, conscious efforts are equally being made to inculcate creativity and entrepreneurial skills in children right from the primary school level.
This would ensure an endless flow of men and women that would keep Abia on the map of highly innovative and enterprising states in Nigeria. The Executive Secretary of Abia State Secondary Education Management Board, Chief Ndubuisi Umezurike, said that the state would continue to fine tune the school curricula to make them serve the needs of the society. “We’re teaching crafts and entrepreneural skills in the schools,” he said, adding that both students and teachers benefit from the knowledge. He explained that students can pick up any of the crafts or trades so learnt and make a living from it while on retirement a teacher can make extra income by engaging in making of beads, for instance.
The entrepreneural revolution in Abia products school system was evident at the products exhibition with the display of beads, bangles, earrings, flower vases disinfectants, detergents, among other products made by students and teachers in Abia schools.
It may have started on not a high note but the made in Abia products exhibition would in due course give the local manufacturers the exposure they have been craving for. First the acceptability and patronage of made in Aba goods would serve as the launch pad needed to achieve the competitive edge in the global market. As Mrs.
Orji rightly noted the patronage of locally made goods would expand the production capacity of the manufacturers and create more jobs along the line. The job dividend is paramount in a state like Abia where unemployment is a raging battle.
The traditional ruler of Umuanyi autonomous community in Uturu, Eze Uwadiegwu Ogbonnaya, believes that the small scale manufacturers hold the key to resolving the issue of unemployment. According to him, over 80 percent of jobs in Europe were generated by companies with staff strength of 50 persons. “We can’t wait for the multi-million companies to give jobs in a developing nation like Nigeria,” he said. Eze Uwadiegwu, who is the proprietor of Sam-Mandi Enterprises, which makes school chalks with five employees, said that small scale manufacturers should be encouraged to grow and banks should have the will to provide financial support for them through low interest and long term loans.
One pertinent question being elicited by the first made in Abia products exhibition is whether it has achieved its purpose at least in the short long. The exhibitors believe so. “The exhibition is a good idea and if they had been doing it all these years the awareness would have been very high,” said Elder Alozie. On her part Mrs. Ibe said that said she was glad to have exhibited her products at as it has gained her more exposure and make many contacts.
However one area that the participants were not satisfied about the exhibition was the venue. They said that Umuahia was not the best place for hold the event since it is not a commercial city.
The commissioner for commerce and industry, Samson Orji did not disagree. He said that Aba, “the natural habitat of made in Abia products” and the next edition of the exhibition would be hosted to Enyimba city. According to him, the forthcoming exhibition would bring out more innovations and locally made goods as what were on display at the maiden edition “is a far cry from what we have.”