As the recession continues to take its toll on the economy, in the southeastern city of Aba – known as the ‘Japan of Africa’ more than 2,000 shoemakers have shut down because they cannot pay for imported glue or synthetic leather, whose prices have surged due to the scarcity of dollars.
Uche Okeke, who used to make 1,000 pairs of women’s shoes a month before the price of glue quadrupled, forcing him to nearly halve production and lay off half his 10 staff, said shoemakers in Ariaria International Market and other manufacturers in the city have never had it so tough.
He said with the inflated input costs, consumers in neighbouring Cameroon, who used to buy most of Aba’s shoes, are now opting for cheaper Chinese footwear. Until recently, three trucks laden with shoes and bags left the city for Cameroon every week.
Now it is one every fortnight, traders at the city’s almost deserted motor park said. Made in Aba products are undoubtedly the outcome of self reliance entrepreneurship and product ingenuity. Apart from shoes, other products made in Aba abound.
This is despite the challenges ranging from inadequate capital, epileptic power supplies, bad roads, high costs of acquiring modern industrial machines, raw materials among others. A visit to the shoe sections of Ariaria International Market, Aba reveals the ingenuity and the enterprising spirit of the Igbo man.
The ever busy industrial hubs of the market are home for shoes of all sizes and shapes. These sections comprise Bakassi Zone, Shoe Plaza, Power Line, and Imo Avenue spanning over two square kilometres. All four sections are populated with artisans who churn out foot wears of different kinds like the queen bee.
The market is estimated to house over 70, 000 shoemakers besides apprentices under their tutelage. When Sunday Telegraph visited the market on Monday, many workshops were locked while the open ones were busy doing what they know how to do best despite some daunting challenges.
The artisans were working hard to beat deadlines of orders placed by their customers from all parts of Africa. Goodluck Nmeri, chairman of the 6,000-strong shoemakers association, said their business face very serious threat as it has become very difficult to obtain foreign exchange, even from the parallel market to import the necessary inputs that go into the shoes they make.
“We are tired of hearing about support from the Federal Government. We read about it in the newspapers, hear it on television and radio. But it’s just talk; we have not seen anything concrete. All we want is forex, regular power supply and good roads to enable our customer come in and leave when they want”.
He called on the Federal Government to ban the importation of shoes and fully made cloths into the country, saying the market has more than the capacity needed to produce all that Nigerian needs to wear. “We can do it here in Aba, try us. We currently depend on export of our products and a fraction sold in the country, because Nigerians are crazy about anything that has a foreign label.
That is why our customers take supplies here, take it off-shore, put the label of a foreign country and bring it back to sell in different parts of the country as foreign made shoes,” Nmeri said The Chairman, Aba North Industrial Market (Shoe Plaza division), Ariaria International market, Hon. Christian Okoro, told Sunday Telegraph that if they are given the needed support, the entire Africa and the rest of the world will be coming to Aba for their shoe \needs, saying “Nigeria is very small market for our products.”
According to him, made in Aba products are already making waves in different countries in Africa such as Togo, Niger Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Libya , Senegal. This is in addition to their customers from all parts of Nigeria mostly the North.
He further revealed that Abamade products are taken to Dubai in the United Arab Emirate, and Italy where they are given some finishing touches and then imported back to Nigeria and marketed as foreign shoes.
Two major factors according to him, are responsible for this practice – craze for foreign goods cum lack of interest in locally made products by many Nigerians, and the absence of modern machines and equipment for a perfect finishing on the products.
He said, “Some traders buy our shoes at very cheap price and take them to Dubai, Brazil and Italy where they put some finishing touches because of the absence of modern machines here.
They later bring back the shoes and sell them at high costs in boutiques. Some of the shoes sold at boutiques in Abuja and Lagos, Port Harcourt, Uyo etc are imported Aba made shoes.”
He said that if provided with the needed materials and enabling environment, Italian shoes will be no match to made in Aba shoes, adding that most of the artisans will be proud to label their products as made in Aba should government heed their request.
Okoro identified their major challenges as high cost of raw materials, importation of inferior materials especially gum and chemicals from China, and the unwillingness of leather producers in Kano to sell genuine leather to Aba shoemakers.
He lamented that leather dealers in Kano prefer to sell their original leather to Italians and other foreigners who would pay them in hard currency. “Now people adulterate chemicals and sell to us because it is also hard to get original chemicals from Italy,” he added.
Other daunting challenges of the shoe makers according to him, include; unstable power supply, absence of modern equipment and machines, poor access road, and lack of funds.
He called for government intervention especially on the area of modern machinery which he said, would make their products compete favourably in the international market. He appealed to government to provide financial assistance to the artisans to boost their business. He said that a loan of N1 billion could change the stories of the over 70, 000 shoe makers in the market.
This, according to him, will enable them acquire the multi- million naira modern shoe threading machines used by their counterparts. “ I know that my members alone are over 10, 000 and if government can give us N1, 000,000 loan each which we will pay back in one or two years, Africa will be a small market for made in Aba shoes.”
Corroborating these positions, one of the artisans, Mr Kenneth Nwachukwu who specialised in military and paramilitary shoes and belts said he needed some funds to acquire the right machines that would enable him produce products with better finishing. He boasted that with the right machinery his products could compete favourably with foreign military wears.
“Already we get orders from contractors for Civil Defence, Police, Navy, and National Youth Service Corps. We produce some of the shoes their men use and the contractors buy them at a cheap rate,” he said.
Source: Sunday Telegraph