The intrusion of Chinese businessmen combines with other factors to threaten the popular Aba industrial heritage, writes CHUX OHAI, who had just returned from the Enyimba City reports PUNCH Newspaper
The atmosphere at the zonal office of the Powerline Shoe Manufacturers Association on Eifan Road, Aba, was tense. It was so tense that you could slice it with a knife. A few stern-looking men sat silently inside the office as our correspondent, guided by the signpost outside the premises, entered.
Apparently the men were members of the association and the looks on their faces suggested that they had gathered to discuss a matter of great concern. There were just six of them. One of them, a spry fellow whose age could be anywhere between 50 and 60 years, looked askance at our correspondent and, without offering him a place to sit, demanded, “Yes, who are you and what do you want?”
A few seconds later, the man slowly relaxed and introduced himself as Mr. Goodluck Nmeri, the president of the association.
“I am sorry that you bumped into us like this. This is not a good time to visit us. We are in a bad mood today. It is because we are not happy about the way things have been going on around here,” Nmeri said.
Thereafter, he launched into a long narrative on the dwindling fortunes of the famous ‘Made-in-Aba’ shoe manufacturing industry and the factors that appear to be hastening its total collapse.
How it started
The beginning of the ‘Made-in-Aba’ shoe industry can be traced to the defunct Ekoha Market in 1966, at a time when foreign shoes were quite popular among Nigerians and constituted the bulk of the footwear generally worn in the country.
“The seed was sown by an Igbo cobbler, who was given a pair of shoes to repair. The man was said to have taken a good look at the shoes, which were imported from Italy, before proceeding to work on them. In the end, he did a good job of it. The shoes were almost unrecognisable and there was hardly any trace of the initial flaw,” Nmeri said.
The cobbler’s feat opened everybody’s eyes to the fact that foreign shoes were not the products of such ‘incredible craftsmanship’, as most people were wont to believe, after all. Gradually, the people began to show interest in shoe making and more shops began to spring up in the market.
Then, there was a scarcity of what is known as lass, one of the materials used in producing shoes. In the past, only Europeans had access to this substance, which was made from plastic. In its absence, another man, described in the common lingo as a ‘knock-on-wood’ specialist, decided to carve a replica of the lass from wood and he handed it to the cobbler.
While nobody can say how exactly the indigenous shoe making business grew from a mere novelty to a full-scale manufacturing industry many years later, the destruction of Ekoha Market by a strange fire outbreak, between 1971 and 1972, must have significantly impacted on its development.
After the market was razed, the authorities decided to relocate the shoe makers to a different part of the city. Eventually, they were resettled in a place known till this day as the Powerline area. Their nearest neighbours were timber merchants and traders in various types of leather or animal skin.
For the shoe makers and producers of wooden lasses, nearness to the timber market and the leather merchants had initially seemed like a blessing. It was by far easier to stroll into both markets and buy the raw materials that they needed than to search everywhere for them.
The shoe industry, partly aided by this factor, experienced an unprecedented boom in the early 1980s. Many people came from different parts of Africa to patronise the shoe makers. But it lasted only a few years.
In the 1990s, the then Federal Government opened the doors to Chinese products and, in the process, gave birth to a different dimension in local manufacturing.
‘The Chinese are pirating our designs’
The arrival of Chinese entrepreneurs and their products introduced a different dimension in low-tech manufacturing in Nigeria. Nmeri recalled how deeply the incursion of these foreigners had affected the ‘made-in-Aba’ artisans and their businesses.
He said, “Initially, we thought that by allowing Chinese manufacturers to bring in their products, the FG was trying to boost the efforts of the local manufacturing industries, especially the shoe manufacturers in Aba. But we were mistaken.
“We did not know that the Chinese had a different agenda. Eventually we discovered that they came here to copy our products. They came here to interview us and to photograph samples of our products and afterwards, returned to their country to reproduce them. At first, they lied to us that the government had sent them to talk to us about the challenges that we were facing here. They promised to help us and without suspecting that something was amiss, we opened up to them.
“We told them our closely-guarded secrets about the success of the shoe manufacturing industry, took them to the different sections of the industry and allowed them to understudy our production process. We allowed them to take video shots of our shoe designs, the way we moulded and patterned them.
“These Chinese businessmen took these secrets and went back to their country. When they returned, they brought back exact replicas of made-in-Aba footwear and started to sell them to Nigerians in our own markets. These people are still doing this today. Most of the time, they come here to buy locally produced shoes, take them to their country, add a few touches and bring the same shoes to sell here.
“They are able to do this because they have access to better facilities. They have modern machines for the production of shoes and, with these, they are able to refine the original designs of the made-in-Aba shoes that they export to their country.”
Nmeri warned that most Nigerians who buy Chinese products stand the risk of getting poor quality goods that have a shorter life span than made-in-Nigeria goods. Noting that made-in-Aba shoes, for example, are superior, in terms of quality, to footwear produced in China or Dubai, he describes them as more durable.
“Most of the time, Chinese shoes do not last beyond three months. It is the irony of the current rush to patronise foreign products among Nigerians. Generally, Chinese shoes, bags and belts come very cheap. They are so cheap that a customer can afford to buy them in large quantities. For example, a man can afford to buy about 10 pairs of made-in-China shoes in a whole year. But, in the manufacturing business, it is quality, not quantity, that matters. For this reason, a man who buys only three or four pairs of made-in-Aba shoes can be rest assured that he will not be in a rush to replace them till the end of the year.
“Most of our regular customers come from neighbouring Cameroun. The major reason why they turn to us for their supplies of footwear is that some of these Chinese merchants ruined the economy of their country. Now, all the importers of shoes and other leather products depend on made-in-Aba products. This industry would have collapsed but for the patronage that we enjoy from them. Apart from the Camerounians, our other regular customers are from Gabon, Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin,” he says.
Contrary to expectation, our correspondent had a rough journey from Port Harcourt to Aba. It was far from being smooth. The road was wet and bumpy, causing gridlocks to build up at different points. Hundreds of travellers heading towards the city, which was once described as the pearl of Eastern Nigeria, were forced to wait for a few hours before they continued the journey.
The ride became even less pleasant as our correspondent reached the outer approaches to the city. At the Flyover area, large pools of water, evidence of the previous day’s downpour, still hugged the edges of the road. As the journey progressed, signs of infrastructural decay, from the busy Port Harcourt Road to Faulks Road (both of them riddled by large craters), came into sharp focus.
Some minutes later, there was no further doubt that Aba, which used to be a well-ordered urban area with wide streets, tarred roads and a population of more than 1 million people, had become a mere shadow of its past glory. Several years of neglect by successive governments had significantly diminished its value as a commercial city.
Enyimba City, as it is popularly known, is clearly riddled with bad roads, blocked drains and dirt. The direct consequence is constant flooding and chaotic traffic jams, the cumulative damage of which has forced many of the artisans out of business and to earn a living as operators of commercial motorcycles.
A short distance away, the Ariaria International Market bustled with buying and selling, just as a lone elderly trader, Chief Mike Okorie, who is also a patron of the market, lamented the effects of the previous day’s heavy rainfall.
The old man said that each time there was a downpour, business at the market always grounds to a halt. At such times, the traders and their customers often find themselves at the mercy of floods.
“Everywhere would be flooded. This thing keeps happening all the time. Last year, we complained to the Abia State Government about it. We told the governor that we paid storage fees two years because of the constant flooding. The government promised that the money we paid would be used to rehabilitate the roads in the market. But nothing has been done ever since,” he said.
Our correspondent gathered that only a few months ago, each shop owner in the market paid N2,000 as levy for infrastructural development. In addition to this, the traders paid a revalidation levy of N2,000 to the market authorities – but all in vain.
“What else are we going to do? We have no right to embark on any construction work or we would have been able to solve this problem through self-effort,” Okorie said.
Irregular power supply
Some tailors on Ehi Road, the centre of dress making in Aba, also complained bitterly about bad roads and the dearth of regular electricity supply in the commercial city.
One of them, a young man named Mark Nwokocha, described the situation as a serious hindrance to economic activities.
“Aba itself is facing a lot of challenges, as you can see. The roads are bad. Many of our customers have stopped coming to us because of this. They are always complaining about spending too much time in the gridlocks caused by bad roads. Also, our production schedules are seriously affected by the lack of regular power supply. Nowadays, it takes a longer time to meet orders from our customers because of this problem. Government is part of the problem, too. It has not been doing much to support artisans in the city,” he said.
Nwokocha lamented the fact that manufacturing in Aba is still based on manual production, instead of industrial machines.
“We need modern equipment to power production and to increase our output. The entire business environment in Aba is declining at the moment because we are not industrialised yet. We need not only enough capital to get to that level, but also steady power supply. With regular electricity, it will be easier for us to organise ourselves and our businesses,” he explained.
Similarly, a pioneer shoe manufacturer, Mr. Godfrey Ohaeri, thinks that without modern machines, the shoe industry may not last another 10 years.
“You can see that everybody is working manually. Everybody knows that to produce good quality shoes that measure up to international standards, we need the necessary modern equipment, such as coupling machines, copying machines, pressing machines, heating machines, casting machines, binding machines, smoothing machines and spraying machines. More important, we need regular electricity to power these machines,” he said.
Despite the efforts of security personnel, especially soldiers drafted from their base in Ohafia, at salvaging the city from kidnappers and other criminals, the manufacturers insist on improved security in the area.
“Some of our customers from neighbouring countries are still too scared to come here and do business with us. They prefer to go to Ghana than risk attacks from armed robbers and kidnappers.”
Also, the activities of the violent Islamic sect, known as Boko Haram, has scared off many customers from Niger, Chad, Mali and others who have to pass through the north to reach Aba.
The made-in-Aba manufacturing industry, as a whole, operates in solely rented properties. Constant hikes in rents have added to the pressure on the manufacturers. That is why they have requested the federal and Abia State governments to provide them with a better and enabling environment. Our correspondent observed that an ultra-modern market, constructed by government at either levels, and related facilities may not be out of the picture
Scarcity of young artisans
One of the greatest problems facing the manufacturing industry in Aba is that youths are gradually drifting away to embrace other vocations. The older generation of artisans are left in a lurch as to how to address this unhealthy development.
Matthew Eze, CEO of Manco Shoes Nigeria Limited, notes that shoe manufacturing, for example, has become less profitable and less attractive to the youths because of the inherent challenges.
“Perhaps, they have seen that the industry is no longer as profitable as it used to be. Now they prefer commercial tricycles or okada (commercial motorcycling) to shoe making as their means of livelihood. Many of them are bricklayers. This is sad,” he noted.
A few decades ago, the industry provided jobs for an average of 2,000 youths every year. By implication, it was a big employer of labour and a source of economic fulfilment for many people.
“But many of us are growing older and soon, some of us will retire. What will happen to this industry after we leave?, ” Eze asked.
In search of government support
Made-in-Aba manufacturers only enjoyed occasional support from government.
“We want to thank former President Olusegun Obasanjo for his efforts at promoting the manufacturing industry in Aba in the past. During his tenure in office, he saw that we were having a very tough time dealing with the challenges arising from the influx of foreign products, mostly from Europe, into the country and he came to our aid by imposing a high tariff on such imported goods,” Nmeri said.
Obasanjo’s timely intervention had paid off. It was like a tonic to manufacturers of leather products in Aba. Many of them were encouraged by the gesture to work harder and to produce better products. But the local importers were unyielding in their quest to fill the markets with imported goods. Since they could no longer afford to bring in goods from Europe, they turned eastwards to China and its manufacturers for help.
Like cankerworms, Chinese entrepreneurs gradually wormed their way into Nigerian markets, flooding them with cheap and often inferior products. The local manufacturers were plunged into confusion as their customers drifted away to embrace the ‘invaders’ from the Orient.
In 2001, the FG held a training programme for made-in-Aba shoe manufacturers in Zaria. In the end, most of the participants left with the conviction that government was more interested in supporting the traditional leather manufacturers in the north than the shoe industry down south. The former accused the government of providing better facilities and equipment for the former without spreading such privileges to others in the south.
“Here in Aba, they denied us these privileges. We deserve good infrastructure, machines and an enabling environment for greater productivity, too,” Nmeri argued.
In the past, the manufacturers had embarked on peaceful demonstrations to make known their grievances to government. But such demonstrations often failed to yield the desired results.
“But when it is time for elections, the people in government always come to seek our support with promises that they never bother to fulfil.”
They want the government to help sponsor a nationwide campaign for made-in-Aba products, create a market for their wares, and to discourage importation of Chinese products through introduction of high tariffs.
When our correspondent tried to reach the Abia State Government on Wednesday, through the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Theodore Orji, Mr. Ugochukwu Emezue, efforts made were not successful. Several calls made to his phone were not replied.
However, a statement posted on the government’s official website indicates that there is a plan to build an international industrial market in Aba. According to the statement, the facility is conceptualised as a “specialised market” to be located in the Osisioma area on the Aba/Owerri Expressway.
The size of the parcel of land available for the project is said to be about 100 hectares. It is partly intended to divert attention from the Aba metropolis and to aid the decongestion of the city. But until this is done, things will no longer be at ease for the businessmen.