Correspondent STEVE OKO, in this interaction with shoe and leather product artisans in Aba, writes that the major target of the enterprising artisans is to produce military and para- military foot wears for all countries in the West African sub- region in the next seven years. They also want the Federal Government to ban the importation of foot wears for all security agencies in Nigeria boasting that they can produce better products at cheaper rates. Excerpt.
Aba, the economic honey pot and commercial nerve centre of Abia State is no doubt the industrial backbone of the South East geopolitical zone. The Enyimba City ( Peoples elephant) as it is fondly called is replete with enterprising artisans of different callings who display their ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills with charming amazement almost daily.
The recent order of 50,000 pairs of military shoes placed by the Nigerian Army has boosted the morale of the thousands of shoe producers and leather products artisans in the commercial city who told The AUTHORITY that their target is to be the sole producer and supplier of military foot wears for all the military and para-military formations in the entire West Africa sub- region in the next seven years.
According to the President of Leather Products Manufacturers Association, Abia State, Mr. Okechukwu Williams, there are 16,560 registered shoe artisans in Aba besides apprentices understudying the trade and skill of shoe making in under them. The shoe artisans have 12 industrial clusters all located around the Ariaria International Market . These include : Power Line Shoe Manufacturers, Old Site Shoe Manufacturers, United Shoe Manufacturers, Omenma Shoe Manufacturers, Aba North Shoe Plaza, Umuehileri Industrial Market ( aka Bakassi Line), among others.
Made- in Aba products especially foot wears, clothes, and bags are patronised both locally and outside the shores of Nigeria. Traders from Togo, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Niger Republic, Congo DR , among others keep heading for Aba for these products daily. Confirming this to The AUTHORITY, an Aba- based artisan said “ our market keeps expanding to our neighbouring countries but we don’t still enjoy good patronage from Nigerians because they prefer imported goods”.
Shedding more light on the 50, 000 pairs of military shoes ordered by the Nigerian Army, the LPMA boss said 16,000 pairs would be delivered in the first phase explaining that if after proper examination of the products the Army authorities are satisfied with the quality, the balance would be supplied. He commended the military high command for the move and promised not to disappoint them.
Mr. Williams further explained that the military contractors in charge of the deal preferred to deal directly with the individual artisans but added that on their part as a union, they had decided to monitor the artisans to ensure they comply with the expected and standard quality.
He said that 60% of the order which was placed in October 2016 had already been delivered blaming the little delay on scarcity of raw material particularly leather which he said is sourced from Kano State. He lamented that Kano leather producers prefer exporting their products and selling to foreigners instead of dealing with local users. This, he said has been a major challenge to manufacturers of leather products in Nigeria particularly from the outset of the current economic recession and the attendant high exchange rate of the Dollar against Naira.
As a way forward, Mr. Williams advocated the removal of the federal grant to leather works and its transfer to finished leather products to discourage leather producers from frustrating local users of their products. This , he argued would benefit Nigeria more as a country than few individuals who use the grant to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow patriots.
He also identified the soaring foreign exchange rate as another major impediment hampering the activities of shoe manufacturers in the country. His lamentation: “ The high exchange rate has affected us adversely. The leather we use for producing the Desert Warrior military boots are imported from Italy, Spain or China but now forex has gone up thereby making us to produce at almost no profit”.
Continuing, he said: “ There should be some waiver for intermediary raw materials like leather, adhesives, soles, ropes, etc to help bring down the prices of finished leather products to avoid buyers resorting to imported goods. He , however, commended the National Assembly for passing the Procurement bill which bans importation of basic finished leather products which can be produced locally.
Similarly, another major challenge of the artisans is electricity with which to power their equipment. He decried the epileptic power supply in the commercial city which he said has continued to increase the cost of production especially in the face of the biting economic recession. He therefore, urged quick resolution of the impasse between the Geometrics Power Plant and the management of Enugu Electricity Development Commission ( EEDC) so that Geometrics could begin to supply power to Aba residents from its power plant in Aba. This , he believed would significantly solve power crisis in the commercial town and its environs. He boasted that Aba artisans “ have the capacity to produce quality and quantity but our challenge is non steady power supply”.
He further identified the absence of modern machinery and equipment for perfect finishing as another serious challenge Aba shoe artisans and leather workers are grappling with . “The level of technology is still low; we have the expertise , we are above board even in the absence of modern equipment but bulk production is still a challenge because almost everything here is still hand craft”, he lamented.
Williams also identified the penchant for imported finished products by Nigerians as another set- back to local producers in the country. To this end, he urged the Federal Government to ban the importation of “ products we can produce locally”.
He refuted the insinuation in some quarters that some artisans import products from overseas and label them made-in Aba, dismissing it as a cheap blackmail. “ We don’t import to rebrand, rather, our products are exported and rebranded abroad, imported back by merchants and sold at higher prices to Nigerians crazy for made- in overseas products.”
Worthy of commendation however is the efforts of Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu in projecting and promoting made- in Aba products. Ikpeazu is so proud of made - in Aba products that even his clothes are labelled “ proudly made in Aba”. He had during his inaugural speech promised to wear only made in Aba clothes, a promise he has religiously kept till date. He has also personally assumed the responsibility of the Chief Marketing Officer of made- in Aba products, thus, using his influences and connections to market the products. He had recently taken some pairs of the made- in Aba shoes to former President Olusegun Obasanjo to his Abeokuta country home. This step in the right direction should be sustained.
Attesting to the commendable efforts of the governor in this regard, Williams said he is the first Abia governor to show genuine commitment in projecting made in Aba products. He added that the governor had also indicated plans to bring in modern machinery to help give made- in Aba products a perfect finishing. “ Part of the efforts by the governor to encourage us is the move to bring back the Bank of Industry to Abia.”
He however, grumbled that no core shoe producer was among the delegation of artisans that travelled with the governor to Turkey on a visit to some shoe factories to understudy the modern trends in the trade. He pleaded with the governor to insist on dealing directly with real artisans to get the needed result instead of relating with ‘political producers.’ He also welcomed the move by the state government to set up industrial cluster at Umukalika at Obingwa.
Confirming the order of military foot wears placed by the Army, the Chairman of Aba North Shoe Plaza, Hon. Christian Okoro, said the artisans would not only deliver on time but produce quality shoes to prove the skeptics wrong. He said the union had put a machinery in motion to ensure their members did not compromise standards. “ We want to make Nigeria proud of made- in Aba products, so , we will produce according to specifications and better than the imported ones.” He appealed to other military and para- military formations to take a cue from the Army and race down to Aba for their foot wears, belts, caps and uniforms.
A survey in the industrial clusters around Ariaria International Market revealed that foot wears and leather products including military and para- military boots, belts, caps etc of different sizes and shapes were being churned out in their thousands daily by the enterprising artisans. Mr. Chinwuba Izuwa from Isiala Ngwa North has been producing bags in one of the clusters for the past 20 years. He said he was fulfilled in the trade from which he derives his livelihood. “ I produce conference bags, INEC bags and ballot boxes”. Identifying absence of modern equipment as his major challenge, he appealed to government for soft loan to boost production.
Similarly, Elder Kenneth Nwachukwu from Mbaise in Imo State has been a shoe artisan in Aba for over 25 years. The trade, he said gives him a lot of satisfaction. He said he has 10 apprentices under him, and also appealed to government for loan to enable him expand. “ I need about N10 million loan to enable me upgrade my machines for mass production and better finishing”, he requested.
Another artisan, Mr. Tony Ani from Udi in Enugu State said he remained a happy man producing foot wears. He said he could produce 100 pairs of military shoes a week, adding that he has been producing para- military shoes for a security company based in Rivers State. He however decried high cost of raw materials saying it has adversely affected his sales. He also appealed to government to make loans available to artisans to help them acquire modern equipment. “ Sole pressing machine costs $ 50,000, automated cutting machine is about N2.5 million while ‘lasting machine’ is about N12 million. We need government intervention”.
Our investigations also revealed that shoe production and other vocational skills have provided job opportunities to millions of youths in the South East and South South zones both male and female. Interestingly too, a number of Hausa youths are involved in the production cycle particularly in sewing the shoes while a lot of others are involved in truck- pushing of the products to motor parks for delivery to customers.
It was also observed that most of the internal roads in the clusters are in bad shale and need urgent repairs. Government should also intervene in waste disposal as heaps of waste have continued to remain constitute environmental nuisance to both the artisans and visitors to the clusters. The federal government should also intervene in the efforts to reposition and promote made- in Aba products particularly in view of the accruable value chain. This should be tackled as a priority and not politicised.