Emmanuel Ugwu writes that there is a growing demand for made-in-Aba products by Nigerians
Former president of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo cannot by any characterisation pass for a model. And when he wears a pair of shoes made-in-Aba, the commercial city of Abia State, he would not be hitting the runway to model the shoes. But he has become a strong voice in the campaign to patronise locally made goods. That is the new thinking now as Nigeria reels under economic recession.
With his high profile national and international status, Obasanjo’s appreciation of made-in-Aba shoes delivered to him by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu was a huge testimony which could not be achieved on the runway. “Governor, I can’t thank you enough, and through you, I cannot thank my brothers and my sisters who have decided to adorn me with these wonderful, classy and classic shoes made in our land by our own people,” he said. Obviously, the former president, like so many other Nigerians, never believed that high quality shoes were coming out of Aba. Therefore wearing a pair of well crafted shoes from Aba became an eye opener to the former president and others still skeptical about locally made products. “These shoes are so comfortable and they are so good. Anybody watching me, no matter how high or low, who wants to help Nigeria get out of recession quickly should call the makers of these shoes in Aba to make for them,” Obasanjo further stated in his testimonial for made in Aba shoes.
The reputation of Aba as the city with the largest concentration of micro, small and medium scale enterprises in the West African sub-region was not an ascribed status. It was acquired through sheer display of ingenuity that over the years exploded into local manufacturing of various products, including fabrication of machine parts. This commercial hub of Abia State in South-east Nigeria has through dint of hard work by thousands of artisans carved a niche in finished leather products such as shoes, bags, belts among others. While the artisans were busy churning out their products, government was not looking their way and no conscious policy was formulated to encourage these local manufacturers. Even as Aba-made shoes, bags, belts and garments were making waves in other countries within the West African sub-region and even beyond, successive Nigerian governments did not take note. 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.
The contempt and neglect of Aba-made products by Nigerian consumers was borne out of decades of opulence engendered by petro-dollar which made Nigerian people and government to develop huge appetite for foreign goods and services. It was so pervasive that Aba artisans 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 was a survival strategy. “It worked for us then,” said Mazi Johnson Ike, a shoe manufacturer in Aba. “Our own people started buying the same shoes, bags that they were referring to as Aba-made, thinking they were buying imported goods”.
Over the years Aba has been yearning for attention. It is believed that the commercial city fondly called Enyimba City is home to over 110, 000 artisans engaged in making shoes, bags, belts while over 50, 000 engage in garment making. In 2002, Aba attracted the attention of the World Bank, which raised the hope of a possible massive intervention to fix the infrastructural needs of the city. The then president of the World Bank, Mr. James Wolfensohn visited Aba and in company of the then Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala went round the industrial clusters and was amazed at the burgeoning micro, small and medium enterprises. At the ‘A Line’ section of the Ariaria International Market, Wolfensohn saw for himself the range of finished leather products, including shoes and bags that were created through the ingenuity of Aba artisans. He was told that the major problems facing the MSMEs were the near absence of power. Indeed electricity supply in Aba, like in most other cities in Nigeria, is epileptic. Aside from the nagging issue of power the Aba shoe makers harbour in their minds an existence of international conspiracy aimed at reducing the competitiveness of the finished leather products made-in-Aba. According to the artisans, the foreign manufacturers of adhesives used in making shoes were hoarding high quality adhesives from Aba artisans. This, the artisans claim, affects the durability of the made-in-Aba shoes.
But now the tide of Aba-made finished leather products is in the upswing. Ikpeazu has been the driving force following his inauguration as the chief executive of Abia State in May 2015. Among his priority programmes was the rehabilitation of the decayed infrastructures of Aba and creating the enabling environment for made-in-Aba goods to thrive and compete favourably at the international market. In his inaugural address to the people of Abia State, Ikpeazu stated that “the time is ripe to use over 110, 000 shoemakers and 50,000 garment makers as a launching pad to enable Abia to truly become the undisputed SME capital of Nigeria.” He has not relented in his avowed mission to put Aba on its feet. The governor is now seen as the chief marketer of made-in-Aba goods. It was in the course of his marketing of Aba shoes at the 2016 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Forum in Lagos, that the attention of Obasanjo was drawn. The interest of the former Nigeria president in Aba-made shoes was sufficiently aroused to the extent that he promptly made an order for size 42 of made-in-Aba shoes and specifically asked Governor Ikpeazu to deliver the shoes to him.
Ikpeazu and Obasanjo are not the only ones talking about made-in-Aba shoes. The President of the Senate, Senator Bukola Saraki is also canvassing for the acceptability and patronage of the locally made shoes and products. He confessed that he got fascinated with Aba shoes and other finished leather products at a trade fair for made-in-Aba goods staged in Nigeria’s capital territory, Abuja earlier in the year. Hitherto the Senate president like other members of the political class had little or no regard for locally made goods, not least made-in-Aba shoes. But he did not hide his attitudinal change after what perhaps could have been his first direct exposure to Aba shoes and he promised to use legislative instruments to promote the locally made products. Last month when a delegation of Leather and Allied Products Manufacturers Association of Abia State (LEAPMAAS) visited him to express appreciation for the constant support he and the Senate have given to the Buy Made-in-Nigeria campaign, Saraki said that 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 that 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 meant business as he 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 Defence, National Youth Service Corps must follow suit.” The Nigerian Army actually demonstrated its readiness to patronise locally made products by making an order for the purchase of 50, 000 boots from Aba. To make other government agencies toe the same line, the Senate president said that patronage of made-in-Nigeria products would be included as part of the conditions to be fulfilled by government ministries, agencies and departments (MDAs) when they come to defend their 2017 budget. “They must show evidence that they patronise and purchase locally made goods,” he vowed.
Patronage of locally made products has become a huge national agenda because of the present economic realities. The federal government spends over N2 trillion (about $4.3 billion) annually for purchase of goods mostly foreign products.
According to Saraki, “the aim of the Senate is to ensure that a large chunk of the funds go into the pockets of Nigerian manufacturers.” It is certain that Nigeria can ill afford to sustain its voracious appetite for foreign goods with a floundering economy and scarce foreign exchange. Over the last one year, Nigeria’s national currency has lost its value to the United States dollar by as much as 150 per cent thereby driving the price of imported goods beyond the sky. This has made it very difficult for those Nigerians that delight in patronising foreign made goods, to sustain their appetite, especially in situation where local alternatives exist.
With the new thinking in government circle the creativity and persistence of Aba artisans is beginning to pay off. Over the years, they have continued to demonstrate their capacity to produce high quality products with little or no government encouragement. Increased patronage means a bigger challenge for the manufacturers of Aba shoes and leather products. Will the Aba shoe producers be able to meet up with the demands and also maintain high quality and standardisation of their products? The Abia State government has taken pro-active measures to ensure that the Aba shoe makers are not caught napping by the time their products come into high demand. Ikpeazu has taken 29 shoe makers on trade mission to Turkey where they were exposed to the technology of shoe and garment production. He said that he has taken steps to revive the Aba shoe and garment industry by exposing the shoe makers to the best standard practice and procuring the best equipment needed for automated production. An industrial cluster for the producers of shoes, leather products and garments is in the offing. The governor said that the establishment of the industrial cluster was part of his administration’s five pillars of development, which include development of small and medium scale enterprises with emphasis on shoe, leather and garment industries.
Aba-made products have equally attracted the attention of non-governmental organisations and international development partners such as the Department for International Development (DFID) of the British government. These agencies have identified the potential of Aba-made products in efforts to eradicate poverty and reduce unemployment. To this end, a loan facility has been facilitated by Market Development in the Niger Delta (MADE), an intervention agency of the DFID aimed at encouraging manufacturing and standardisation of finished leather products in the commercial city of Aba. The relatively very low interest loan is provided by the Bank of Agriculture (BOA), the partnering bank, which is equally interested in playing a role in the efforts to grow the business of shoe and finished leather products in Aba. Ordinarily BOA would not provide loan facility for non-agriculture related products. The intervention manager, MADE, Dr. Adeyinka Abimbola said that leather product was a recent addition in the intervention programmes of the agency in recognition of the “hard work” of Aba artisans in the manufacturing of shoes, bags, belts and other finished leather products. He said that even though MADE was not engaged in direct intervention, it decided to partner BOA to provide loan facilities for those involved in finished leather products because the bank offers the lowest interest rate. “Our joy is to see you grow to compete with global products and standards,” he told members of LEAPMAAS during the second phase of the loan disbursement ceremony.
Aside providing legal instruments to promote made-in-Nigeria products, the political leaders would do more by demonstrating their love for local products. Both Ikpeazu and Senator Theodore Orji are shining examples of those practising what they preach. From head to toe their attire is completely made-in-Aba and their sartorial taste for locally made garments is a big boost to the campaign for locally made products. The wind of change is certainly going to impact positively on the production and commercial activities of Aba. The makers of shoes, bags and other finished leather products in Aba are bracing up for the expected explosion in demand for locally made products. But the president of LEAPMAAS, Mr. Okechukwu Williams assured that his members would be able to work harder and deliver the quantum of orders expected to roll in from government agencies, especially if the boots requested by the Army were made of high standard and delivered on time.
Team leader of the made- in-Aba Project, Mr. Sam Hart, who led the delegation on advocacy to the National Assembly, assured the Senate president that “we shall continue to improve on the quality of made-in-Aba and indeed made-in-Nigeria goods.” While insisting that made-in-Aba products are of high quality, Hart stated that Aba was ready to play a pivotal role in the nation’s quest to end the over-dependence on foreign goods. “There is nothing that can be manufactured elsewhere which cannot be produced in Aba. We believe that with your support, we will go very far,” he assured.