Managing Director of Chutzpah International Limited, a firm that manufactures office and other furniture, Ms. Angela Agidi, in this interview with Nume Ekeghe, called on all government agencies to ensure that they pursue policies that do not discourage manufacturers. Excerpts:
Could please give some insight into your companyâ€™s operation, what you do?
We are a group of companies and we manufacture furniture since 1999 or before that, but it was registered in 2001 formally. We were importing before the ban came up, we were importing furniture, but for us, importing at that time wasnâ€™t really to import full sets of furniture. It was to use what we could get which were top quality parts from Europe and bring them in here and use them with our own local raw materials and set up something.
So we always had a vision that we would be manufacturing from scratch here. It has been a bit of a battle. But we are now manufacturing from scratch. We are the first in Africa to be able to manufacture from scratch especially office furniture by way of the swivel chairs. We manufacture the component of swivel chairs. We manufacture and assemble. So we have a manufacturing plant and we have an assembling plant.
When people were importing furniture especially office furniture, the same parts they were importing, we now manufacture in Nigeria.
Are you into only office furniture?
We do a bit of home furniture; when you talk of kitchen, doors, we also have a sister company that does the sanitary wears, we do bathroom and all round home furniture.
Has there been any major challenge in your business?
I think we all know what the situations are in the country. For starters, the foreign exchange jumping from what it was- N198 to N500 to a dollar. So that whole period was terribly unstable. We had people in the industry that left the country while some just shut down. But at that point in time, because we had already embarked on the manufacturing line and had gotten our machines, we were a bit lucky because that would have affected us even more.
Initially also, we had problems of getting the foreign exchange to conclude the final parts of our project, but it has been resolved. With LC application, because my bank is quite a good bank, we were able to get the LC out on time and also helped ensure that things worked smoothly with the LC. But other than that, the exchange rate then was killing and it still is, because no matter what, you want to make things affordable for your customers and all that.
Now that the exchange rate situation has improved, isn’t that a good sign for business and businesses in general?
It is better than it was before, but it is not so great. But we would work with it and I think people are getting used to it otherwise it is not so great at all.
With the machines you acquired, are you now able to produce everything from scratch? You can produce 90 per cent from scratch of a normal office chair.
The fraction you need to import, are there still difficulties accessing foreign exchange?
Yes, you still get push back from Customs especially, it is terrible. Even though you have the permits to bring in your accessories, you still get push backs. There is always one hurdle or another. Manufacturers are really going through a tough time and also traders who make this economy grow. It has been a battle and struggle; sometimes we feel like we should leave this business and do something else, but because this is something we have worked really hard on. For us it is more of a challenge insisting we are going to do this no matter what.
You said earlier that some of your competitors in your field left the business due to some hurdles, how have you been able to sustain your business and also how do you want the government to help ease the hurdles in your sub-sector?
For starters, we know that there are a number of bad actors in the country in general, it is not just in the manufacturing sector. If you say you are encouraging manufacturers, you should really encourage the industries, people and entrepreneurs that are going to make the economy grow. For instance, make it easier for people who need raw materials, let them bring them in. Let it not become such a hurdle to overcome. It is like every step you take, there is one hurdle after the other.
I think the government should make it a lot easier for us so that we can be creative. If we are spending all our time to overcome different sorts of hurdles they put on the roadside for us, what time would we have to be creative as entrepreneurs and industry movers?
Government needs to make sure all their agencies are aligned and are on the same page, so that you don’t have to go to one agency and they tell you one thing and another contradicts. There should be a streamline process whereby people that want to manufacture or work would go through, not going from one problem to another.
Are your prices competitive with imported furniture?
Yes, they are cheaper. They are at least 20 per cent cheaper than the European imported ones which is the standard we are using, not the Chinese ones, which are quite cheap.
For the Chinese imports that are cheap, would you urge government to ban or make it hard for them to come into the country?
Not really, I wouldn’t say that. I would maintain that the agencies need to do what they are supposed to do by not making it difficult for us, but making it difficult for people to bring in sub-standard goods. If the standards are good, then you have level playing field then you can compete. We are very confident in our products so we know it can compete anywhere in the world because we have a European standard. I don’t want to be referring to Europe as far as I am concerned, we should be calling it an African standard. It is a good standard and we have all the raw materials.
One of the things I must say is that one of the major raw materials for what we are manufacturing is pretty difficult to get here. However, I am not one of the people telling government to ban anything. But the people that are manufacturing the raw material, the resins that we use, have apparently gotten a monopoly in our own country. So they increase their prices at will and we just have to pay.
That makes the business fluctuates and it affects the bottom-line at the end of the day. So they come in and dictate the prices and the government agencies are not monitoring them. But they would monitor and go after Nigerian entrepreneurs and make it so difficult for us to do what we need to do whereas they give the foreigners all the concession that they need and arbitrary increase prices constantly.