“Everything can be made in Aba,” says Uche Jumbo, a Nollywood actress, on a billboard along the Aba-Owerri road in Aba. Wearing a headgear and beaming with a bold smile, Jumbo announces she is proudly “Nwa Aba” — a child of this commercial city in Abia State, southeastern Nigeria. And she proudly supports products manufactured in the town she grew up in.
There are other billboards along this road with pictures of celebrities expressing confidence in Aba products. The campaign, “Proudly Made in Aba”, is partly to change a negative tag, “Aba Made”, with which Nigerians derided goods manufactured in the town. Ironically, those who reject the Aba products sometimes buy the same products at higher prices when foreign labels are attached.
Remaining undaunted over the decades, the Aba manufacturers have succeeded in making the town a popular international destination for finished leather and garment products.The volume of trade between Aba and the rest of West and Central Africa is high, as tens of truckloads of manufactured goods depart the commercial city to the ports for onward export to Cameroun, Ghana, Togo, Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa Republic and other African countries.
“There is no documentation,” says a senior staff in the Nigerian Export Promotion Council, Aba Smart Office, who wishes to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak to the press. “There are no records of trade for us to know the exact volume of trade between Aba and these countries, but we are working with the associations to urge them to keep records of their individual sales.”
Manufacturing in Aba is informal, likewise the sale. The manufacturers are mostly in their houses, on the streets and market stalls. There are tens of thousands of individuals who are actively manufacturing different types of products but nobody knows for certain the quantity of these goods that are produced in the city.
The evidence of manufacturing in Aba cannot be ascertained by the number of factories because there are too few of them.The evidence is, however, ascertained by the number of trucks that transport manufactured goods out of the town and the presence of Aba products in all the markets in Nigeria and many African countries.
In Aba, the markets, the roadsides, the streets, and the backyards have been turned to manufacturing sites for different products where quality is maintained by fierce competition for sale.
“Aba is textile and leather,” Okechukwu Isiguzo, the Public Relations Officer of Aba Chamber of Commerce, Mines and Agriculture, told the ICIR.
He classifies the industries in Aba into four: micro, small, medium and large. He, however, points out that it is the micro industry that makes Aba unique in the manufacturing of goods.
“It is this micro industry that employs the people and pushes out the goods,” Isiguzo says. “Most of the products you see in the markets are produced by the micro industrialists inside their houses. You will see three tailors come together in one room but day and night, they are producing quality goods and putting labels that you won’t believe are coming out from there.”
Aba has a niche as a manufacturing hub for shoes, belts, bags and clothes but for those who understand the people’s creativity and entrepreneurship, manufacturing in the town goes beyond leather and garment products.
A N50 MILLION DREDGER FOR N8 MILLION
A passer-by may think that Ugwueze Adiele is welding a tank or container but he is actually constructing a dredger that will be deployed to Imo River at Owerrinta for a large-scale sand scooping business from the river.
His workshop is so ordinary that the only conviction that he is building a sand dredging machine is a Detroit-built engine that will power the dredger. The engine is propped up on two iron bars while the top is covered beside the room-size dredger under construction.
Adiele specialises in the fabrication of engine boat, barge and dredger; he has more than 15 years of experience. The last dredger he constructed before this has already been deployed to the site in Oguta Lake, close to the home of Arthur Nzeribe, a former senator from Imo State.
“If it is salt water, we have engine for that but Imo River is not salt water and that is why I’m using this engine,” Adiele says in a mixture of English and Igbo, rubbing his stained hand on his polo before lifting the cover from the engine.
Last year, he was invited to Okirika, in Rivers State, to work on a new dredger that was imported from abroad but failed to start until he operated on it.
“If the Oyibos do their own, we also do our own here in Aba but I know you would not want to do a dirty work like this,” Adiele says with a smile, probing the interviewer to know if he could ditch journalism for “this dirty work”.
He explains that importing the dredger would cost about N50 million but he was constructing one with N8 million. Although he concedes the imported dredger will be finer, he says his will be more durable because he uses stronger local materials. It will also be easier to fix if it breaks down.
“The problem is that we don’t value what we have,” Adiele says, lamenting how Nigerians do not recognise the technologies made in Aba. “But those who understand come to us. Imagine a dredger that will cost you N50 million to import from abroad and you are getting it N8 million here in Aba.”
Due to the fact that machine fabrication is capital intensive, he usually produces whenever there is an order and he produces according to the specification of his client. He says it takes him about two months to construct a dredger.
‘WITH N800,000, I CAN SHOW YOU HOW TO SOLVE NIGERIA’S POWER PROBLEM’
Just as Adiele is building a dredger for N8 million in his little corner on the street, thousands of technicians like him in Aba are also into the fabrication of all kinds of industrial machines.
Godson Emeka, a 31-year-old graduate of Electrical Engineering from the Rivers State University of Science and Technology is challenging any investor to drop N800, 000 and he will come up with an innovation that will solve the country’s persistent electricity problem.
Emeka specialises in the construction of power factor systems and industrial controls but he has also constructed industrial food driers and other industrial machines for clients.The money he is asking for, is to develop a prototype for a generator that will run on improvised hydro system.
The 100 percent renewable energy technology will work by water pressure that turns an improved turbine, not the usual ones in the market. This particular turbine will have much more accelerated speed. The turbine will turn as water falls on it through a water jet from an overhead tank. As the water rotates the turbine, it will turn the alternator to generate electricity. The water from the overhead tank will quickly deplete but a pump coupled to the turbine will take the water back to the overhead tank from the underground tank. The water loss during this movement will be compensated through an interval refill from the underground water system. According to Emeka, this technology can run nonstop for over 50 years.
“The 800k is just to develop a prototype to demonstrate that this will work but the project itself will cost a lot of money,” Emeka says. Askedwhat is the guarantee that this will work, he says “If I see an investor who is willing to take a risk, for him it is a risk but for me it is not really a risk. I will guarantee 100 percent on this and if there is something like one million percent I will guarantee.”
Emeka is currently working on industrial fish drier for a local company in Aba. Machine fabrication in Aba is so vast that most businesses in the town use the machines fabricated by the local technicians. Emeka is suggesting that if there is a database that showcases the machines that can be manufactured in Aba and the contacts of the manufacturers, it will help to increase the visibility of thousands of technicians in the town who are looking for clients.
“That we still patronise foreign-made products is a deliberate choice, not that we can’t do it here,” he says. He argues that the machines designed and produced in Aba are simpler and more durable than the foreign machines which may be complex and their parts may not be readily available.
He explains that the most important thing about any technology is to understand how it works and then produce local technology that will get the job done. He adds that if Nigeria continues to depend on existing technologies without producing its own, it will never develop.
WINE FROM ABA
A lot of entrepreneurs are producing wine in Aba. One of them is Onyema Chima, a 71-year-old that is pushing for new frontiers in winemaking. His Crispitas Wine, which has NAFDAC registration, is made up of pawpaw, orange, pineapple, mango, yeast, sugar and water.
“It is the nature of firewood in your place that you will use in cooking,” Chima says, responding to a question on how he could make wine from the aforementioned fruits. He explains that he crushes the fruits and allows them to ferment for 10 to 14 days, depending on the nature of the fruits, before filtering. After filtering, he allows it to age in airtight container for six months if it is white wine, or one year if it is red wine.
“There,” Chima points to a back door that leads to a corridor, “I have wine of 2009 and 2010 that I have not bottled.” After exiting the production room, he opens another room with airtight white plastic tanks that contain the wine. “Each tank gives me 280 to 300 bottles of wine,” he says.
Chima, who studied Biological Sciences for his first degree, told the ICIR that winemaking was his hobby when he lived in the United States for 14 years. But when he returned to Nigeria in the early 1990s, people were importing all kinds of wine into the country and he decided to demonstrate that good wine could be produced in-country.
The Imo-born scientist is not just a wine maker but also an inventor. In 2013, he was honoured by the Presidential Standing Committee on Inventions and Innovation for making yeast from plants. He has secured a patent for this invention. Again in 2016, he featured as one of the beneficiaries of Presidential Standing Committee on Inventions and Innovation awards for producing enzymes from animal source.
Shoemaking is the largest industry in Aba. An estimated more than 100,000 shoemakers are producing different kinds of shoes in the six shoemaking clusters in the town. The Aba shoe industry received a boost when it produced 60,000 military boots for the Nigerian Army last year.
The made-in-Aba shoes are competing in the Nigerian footwear market, estimated at nearly N700 billion annually.
“More than 60 percent of new shoes worn in Nigeria come from Aba but most Nigerians don’t know that they are wearing Aba shoes,” Ken Anyanwu, National Secretary of Association of Leather/Allied Industrialists of Nigeria, told the ICIR at his shop in Ariaria International Market.
In his shop, five shirtless men are making high-heeled shoes. One is applying gum on the already cut insole sheet and passing it to another, who places the sheet on the sole and flattens it with his fingers. The third man fixes the cover on the sole. Another workman picks up the shoe, examines it, and hovers it over a burning stove before passing it to the youngest among them, who controls the sole pressing machine. The shirtless young man brings the shoe under a protruding rod on the blue painted sole pressing machine, and when he presses a button, the rod comes down hard on the shoe. He does it twice on the shoe, the front and the back, before throwing it into a wide basket. A shoe is made.
The workmen are all Anyanwu’s apprentices, learning from the master who has spent 30 years in the business. “An average Aba shoemaker believes in quantity and quality. These two attributes culminate in huge profit,” says Anyanwu, who discloses that he supervised the production of 30,000 out of the 60,000 military boots ordered by the Nigerian Army.
Getting reliable data on production or even the producers seems impossible because every manufacturer is independent. However, rough estimates put production capacity of the Aba shoe industry at about 500,000 pairs daily. The industry is made of independent micro entrepreneurs with an average of three apprentices.
According to a popular story by the shoemakers, the Aba shoe industry started with a shoe cobbler who approached artisans that carved local mortars and pestles for a pair of lasts. He gave the wood carvers a drawing of the design and size. A few days later, the cobbler laid his hands on a pair of hardwood foot-shaped stretchers which he used to produce his first virgin shoes.
The cobbler continued to produce shoes after this successful experiment. People began to take notice of his ingenuity and showed interest in acquiring his skill. Apprentices swarmed his shop. Within few years, the number of people making shoes in Ekeoha Market in Aba expanded.
In 1976, Ekeoha Market was gutted by fire and the shoemakers were relocated to Ariaria.
The Aba shoe industry is still heavily dependent on manual production but locally-made machines have improved the quality of the shoes. One of such machines is sole pressing machine, which has contributed significantly to the durability of the shoes.
In the past, the soles of the shoes used to detach easily because the shoemakers used their bare hands to attach the soles. Now, most of them have now acquired the sole pressing machine manufactured by technicians in Aba. The Aba shoe industry is now semi-automated, with a lot of local machines that facilitate the production of the shoes.
‘ABA COMPETES WITH ITALY, NOT CHINA’
“I once went to Abuja where I saw one big man wearing my shoes. I told him they were my shoes but he doubted. He said he bought them from a boutique that sold Italian shoes. I asked if I could open the shoe, he agreed. I opened it and showed him my name inside the shoe. I left him with his mouth open so wide that I feared flies would go in.”
Chiemeka Ekezie narrates this story in Igbo amidst laughter from his colleagues on how Nigerians will reject their products as inferior but end up buying them at expensive price when they are packaged with a foreign label. The artisans say they do not understand how Nigerians will buy what they refer to as substandard Chinese leather products instead of their own, which are far more durable. They, however, agree that Chinese products are flashier.
“We are now competing with Italians, Brazilians, and Spaniards, the world’s renowned shoe manufacturers,” says Goodluck Nmeri, President of Powerline Shoe Manufacturers Association of Nigeria. He pulls off his footwear and squeezes it to demonstrate the durability of Aba leather products. In the association’s office, he presents a pair of military boots and good-looking pair of office shoes. These shoes are made by his members and he says there is no type of shoe they cannot make.
According to Nmeri, the influx of substandard Chinese products from 2000 to 2015 brought untold hardship to Aba shoe manufacturers. Many of them went into other businesses, including commercial motorcycle riding.
Those who left the shoemaking business began returning since last year, as the business has started picking up again. African countries have begun showing a high preference for Aba-made products. Also, Chinese products are no longer as cheap as they used to be because of higher tariff and naira devaluation. Aba manufacturers now offer competitive price with the Chinese products.
Nmeri, who has been in the business of making female footwear and bags for over 30 years, says Chinese products overshadowed leather products manufactured in Aba in the past. But not anymore. “Our women started going for Chinese-made shoes, which they were made from inferior materials even though they were shining. So women went for flashy shoes from China and abandoned us. So we suffered the defeat.They had machinery for mass production. You see it very flashy but use it for two weeks, you will throw it away but you can wear our own for two to three years.”
He says Aba is now enjoying high patronage because many African countries have recognised the quality of their leather products. “China is no longer our challenge,” Nmeri concludes.
‘IF YOU PUT A LABEL, IT BECOMES FOREIGN’
Okechukwu Nnaji flips a backpack he has just finished making, and tosses it on his worktable.“This one is N2,500 nwanne,” he says. “But if you go back to Abuja with it and put foreign label, won’t you sell it for N10, 000?” The bag looks beautiful and without doubt can compete favourably with foreign-made bags.
Nnaji’s shop is located at the Glorious Line in Ariaria Market where thousands of other bag makers display the designs they have produced in front of their shops. Colourful bags of all kinds, such as men and women’s bags, conference files, travelling and school bags are on display.
The most visible equipment they use in the production of the bags is just sewing machine.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
Tailoring is the second biggest industry in Aba after leather products, but it does not mean that there are factories that produce the clothes in the town.
At St. Michael’s Road, a group of five tailors told the ICIR that they sew for a boutique in London. They are just part of tens of thousands of tailors who are in their houses or the streets making clothes that are being exported informally to several countries.
John Amadi, Public Relations Officer of the Association of Tailors and Fashion Designers in Abia State, told the ICIR that the association has about 30,000 members.
“What makes Aba unique in tailoring is that an average Aba man strives for the best,” Amadi says. “If you do a bad job here, that will be the end of your business because nobody will give you clothes again to sew. So it is about the survival of the fittest. That’s why Aba is so popular for tailoring. That’s why many people come to Aba because you will get whatever design you want done perfectly.”
Amadi’s description of tailoring in Aba as a “survival of the fittest” captures the entire spectrum of making products in the town. The roads and power supply in Aba are probably among the worst in the entire country but the individual manufacturers strive to offer the best products in spite of the odds against them.