From OKEY SAMPSON, Aba
IT is not for nothing that Aba, the commercial city of Abia State, popularly known as Enyimba city is also referred to as the Japan of Africa. The ingenuity of its residents simply astounds. It ranges from the dexterity of the technicians who fabricate machinery parts to those who can manufacture a long list of items.
In Aba, the shoemakers at Ariaria International Market constitute one group of entrepreneurs whose activities have contributed in no small way to raise the economic profile of the city.
About 39 years ago, the shoe and allied products entrepreneurs began forming clusters in Ariaria after Ekeoha market was razed by fire in 1977. The government consequently relocated the market to its present location.
Between 1980 and the 90s, when the shoe manufacturing business reached its peak, it had over 80,000 workers operating under nine clusters located in the following places: Imo Avenue, Shoe Plaza (where men’s shoes are produced), Bakassi (Umueghilegbu) Industrial Market, Old Site, and then you have the bag, belt, suitcase and powerline clusters. The last cluster that was formed was the one known as ‘Chief’ which has 10,000 members.
In fact, these men, and indeed a growing number of women, who populate the powerline cluster, which goes by the official name, Powerline Shoe Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria (POSMAN), churn out about 300,000 pairs of various types of shoes every week, as Sunday Sun learnt from Hon. Goodluck Joseph Nmeri, president of the association.
From Ariaria, the products are distributed across Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Togo, Benin Republic, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and some parts of South Africa. In fact, Cameroonian markets receive the highest number of 144,000 pairs of shoes every week.
The interesting thing is that the shoes are of very good quality. Nmeri explains it this way: “Our own shoes last up to three years if you are talking about quality. Any shoe purchased here in Powerline, we will give you a guarantee of two and half years or three years depending on usage. But if you buy a normal coupled shoe here in Powerline, we will give a guarantee of three years, unlike China shoes which last for about six months.”
Despite this assurance on quality, shoe manufacturers in Ariaria, Aba still find it difficult to label their products “Made in Nigeria.” What is the reason? Nmeri was prodded. And here’s his response: “In the early ‘80s through the middle 90’s, we were doing well and proudly labelling our products ‘Made in Aba.’ By then people were coming from various African countries such as Gabon, Togo, Benin Republic, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and some parts of South Africa (they are our major customers), to place orders for our products. After finishing the shoes, we would send the goods to them by waybill.
“So, we were doing absolutely well until Nigeria signed a bilateral trade agreement with China. It was a very unwise thing to do. You see, Chinese businesses were producing what we produce, but it was substandard and cheaper.
“Chinese were using machines, modern technologies and cheap stable power supply to produce shoes. Soon they started flooding Nigeria with their substandard shoes which were also flashy. Nigerian women rushed for them and abandoned our own because we normally use leather and synthetic leather to produce footwear that last longer than the Chinese products. In China, they use lining to produce their shoes and that’s why the last only for three months.
It was when that agreement was signed that we started having problems here in terms of sales. If you go into the market today, you will see China-made shoes everywhere in the market where our products are supposed to dominate; that is the number one challenge we have.”
He explains further: “Initially, as I said earlier, in the early 80s, we were labelling our products as “Made-in-Aba” because we had no challenge then. When the Chinese flooded our markets with their shoes, we found it very difficult to sell and sustain our families. To be able to sell our products then, we were compelled by the attitude of Nigerians to label our products “Made-in-China” because our customers believed that the Chinese shoes were superior. Some of our people also took it further and labeled their products “Made-in-Italy,” so that they could get patronage. So we copied the labels, logos and other symbols of the imported Chinese products. Our products looked exactly like the Chinese shoes and when mixed with them, the customers could not differentiate the Chinese shoes from the ones we made in Aba.
“Indeed it was because of hunger that we did it. At that time, you could make 20 pairs of shoes in one day and it would take you one week to sell them unlike in the past when we could produce and sell 200 pairs within three days. Moreover, we were producing according to specified orders placed by our customers; therefore, we didn’t need to make different samples, but just to finish the shoes as ordered and freight to the customer. That was why we changed from branding them as ‘Made-in-Aba’ to ‘Made-in-Italy’ and ‘Made-in-China.’ and it would take you one week to sell
The cheery news is that shoe manufacturers in Aba have now realized that though their action enabled them to earn some income and sustain operations, what they did was not good for either the Aba shoe industry particularly or Nigeria at large. To reverse this, the leadership of the various clusters have resolved to restore the pride of their craftsmen in shoe design and production by stamping their products “Made-in-Aba.”
Nmeri explains: “The present government in Abia State promised to look into the plight of shoe makers in Aba; because of this, we have directed our members to brand their products ‘Made in Aba’ and they have started doing that. To support us in this regard, we want the Federal Government through the Ministry of Trade and Investment, the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Bank of Industry to help us create special intervention under the MSME Fund. This will help us so much as we will be able to acquire better machines at affordable cost and also secure long term repayment plan. The government should also try to provide stable power to Aba. What gives China an edge over us is stable, cheap power supply, cheap labour and modern production technology. Our people are gifted and very enterprising. We can make substantial contribution to the Gross Domestic Product of the country earns and foreign exchange from export of shoes made by our indigenous enterprises. Please help us take this message to President Muhammadu Buhari.”
So, when next you are buying shoes, endeavour to look out for the ones stamped ‘Made-in-Aba’ because they have been confirmed to be more durable and in most cases cheaper than the foreign ones.