The Chief Executive Officer, Dajo Pottery Limited, Levi Yakubu, in this interview with Jonathan Eze, spoke about issues in the ceramic industry and the need for government to patronise Made-in-Nigeria products. Excerpts:
Tell us about your pottery business. How did it start?
I am a fellow of society of Nigerian artist. I am a graduate of Ahmadu Bello University with specialisation in ceramics in 1979, first generation potter in my family and first male potter in Benue State and the president of Dajo Pottery International based in Makurdi, Benue State. It was a long way coming where we are today. In 1979, I was lecturing in ceramics at the Benue Polytechnic, which used to be Murtala College of Art and Science Technology. With the coming of the Muhammadu Buhari military regime banning importation of table ware ceramics, I took that as a professional challenge of my life. I resigned my appointment in June 1985 to start Dajo pottery and two months into my resignation, the administration was booted out of power and I became more confused, but I didn’t lose my focus. I was steadfast.
The banks didn’t put in cash to support my dream nor start-up. The government was not sympathetic because I had a wonderful appointment as a lecturer in ceramics and they rationalised ‘Why would you resign to start making pottery like a woman? From where I come from, men will not be respected if they did women chores, like making pottery, so it didn’t make sense to the elite and normal people. But that didn’t discourage me.
So, two years into my pursuit, the Ibrahim Babaginda administration that ousted the Buhari government out of power, introduced what they called ‘Entrepreneurship Development Program’ under the national directorate of employment. You only needed your degree certificate to get a loan of N25,000 to start up your own business. In my own case, I was given N25,000 in four instalments spread across four years under the first scheme. Two hundred of us were selected for the programme and out of the 200; I was the only one that survived that program even as I wasn’t treated fairly.
So I persisted and built my first workshop and put together equipment which I started production with and I built from road bricks. Today, I am the most decorated Nigerian ceramist ever with three national awards, Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), National Productivity Order of Merit and National Local Raw Material Content Award. I have represented Nigeria at several fora at the national and international level. At the African regional level, I bagged six trophies for this country at the African art and crafts expo, which was in 2017. At the world level, I have beaten the Chinese to the game in China for five years, winning the coveted international ceramics excellence award. Today we have spread our tentacles and the whole country is being respected for that.
Tell us about your patronage, who do you sell to and how do you market your products?
Back home, unfortunately we talked about made in Nigeria, rebranding Nigeria and several programs introduced by government to support and patronise local initiatives, unfortunately, I have not been patronised and Nigeria spends more than $600 million on importing ceramics into the country. If and when Nigeria supports and patronises us, and challenge us to produce what can be used in the Villa or in all government offices right down to the local government level, that will create a very big boom for the sector. Today, Nigeria is ranked eight out of 19 leading countries that is involved in ceramics trade and we are the only one that doesn’t export ceramics.
So, if and when Dajo Pottery is impacted and supported, it is going to create a wave of activity in the solid mineral sector, because all ceramics projects use more than 20 solid minerals like; bowl clay, tin oxide and several others. Now, if as the biggest off-taker of these raw materials, it is going to create a big boom for the economy, a lot of people will be employed and a lot foreign exchange will be curtailed, and this is where we are today. We participated in the ERGP program recently and we were the only tableware ceramic industry that was selected.
Up to now, we have been looking for support from institutions of lending to get capital injected into what we are doing. So far, NEXIM has come forward and we have gotten some funds of about N70 million from them for basic equipment. But the kind of demand for what we need it is too small to make the desired impact. Right now, we have signed an MoU with technical partners in the United Kingdom, to expand the facility so that we can boost output to be able to satisfy local demands and exports.
Why should Nigerians embrace the use of ceramics?
It is not safe to consume food or drinks from plastics or metallic utensils because of contaminants and cancer prone agents materials. The safest is ceramic that is why the whole world uses it to sell food and not plastics as we have back home in the country.
Asides cups and jugs what else do you produce?
We have the potential to produce electrical inculcators, bricks, floor, wall tiles and sanitary well too. All we need is the capital to diversify into these areas.
So what is your message to the government?
My message is let the government walk the talk. We have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that this is how far we have taken the Nigerian ceramic to and all we need is the political will to release funding to us and stay by us to make the dividends come by mass employment by way of service delivery. That’s all we require.
So what are you doing to transfer this unique knowledge of yours to younger generations?
It will interest you to know I have been a master trainer for several institutions for the ITF program on students industrial work experience scheme. All the tertiary institutions in Nigeria that specialises their students in ceramics come to Dajo pottery for industrial attachment, and we have been doing this for years and we have started producing full soldiers for the sector which the universities cannot do and have not been found doing. Six months after their training they go back to school better than a lot of their lecturers too. And we have gotten approval to start a ceramic academy.