The Changing narrative of the Aba shoe maker

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Okechukwu Keshi  Ukegbu

Between the 80s and the early 90s, the Aba shoe industry witnessed an unprecedented boom. Aba shoes made in the popular Ariaria International Market captured the West African and Central African markets such as Togo and Cameroun. The centre of attraction then and the destination for the youths was Ariaria.

The Aba shoe industry boom was cut short by the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida’s regime when Nigeria became a dumping ground for all manner of imported goods, especially shoes. Thank God the old good days are here once again-courtesy of Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu’s stride to reinvent the Aba shoe industry.

Ikpeazu during his campaigns promised Abia artisans a better deal and a departure from the past. The governor reinforced this promise when he met with Shoe, Bag, Belt and Trunk box Manufacturers Association of Abia state who paid him a courtesy visit at Government House, Umuahia. He stated his administration’s willingness to encourage and empower Aba shoe makers, bag and leather manufacturers to excel in their trade, adding that Abia is blessed in commerce with a lot of craftsmen and promised to give the association priority in his government’s scheme of things.

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To fulfill this, Abia State Government organized an economic trip to Turkey. Also, plans are underway for another batch of shoe manufacturers to embark on overseas induction course. The induction course will be on train-the- trainer’s basis, where those trained will in turn train other manufacturers at home.

Four shoe manufacturers: Roland Anyanwu, President, Abia State Shoe, Bag, Belt, and Trunk box Manufacturing Association of Nigeria; Promise Ekpo, Nnamdi Onwubiko, and Kenneth Anyanwu were part of the bia State contingents that recently embarked on the Turkey Economic Trip.

According to Roland Anyanwu, they visited several shoe factories in Turkey where they were exposed to different machines which are used in making shoes.

The essence of this exposure was for them to familiarize with mechanized methods of manufacturing shoes which is the vogue in Turkey in particular, and the world in general. It was also to elevate their skill with training and exposure to modern technology to enhance capacity.

“We visited many shoe factories in Turkey and was exposed to different kinds of machines. The essence is for us to be exposed to the mechanized methods of manufacturing shoes to boost our productivity level to enable us compete favourably with the whole world as an emerging market for leather works,” Anyanwu said.

The contingents were exposed to a lot of knowledge in Turkey and this knowledge has affected the productivity of shoe manufacturers in  Ariaria.

Nnabugwu Osondu, Secretary of Abia State Shoe, Bag, Belt, Trunk box Manufacturing Association of Nigeria, said that the contingents carried out a sensitization programme on their trip to Turkey when they came back and told the shoe manufacturers that they had no other option than to improve on their productivity and  quality of their products.

The Turkey trip has indeed ushered astronomical boost in shoe manufacturing in Aba. Production has increased from less than 300,000 pairs of shoes weekly to 600, 000 pairs.

Brazilian investors who visited the market recently were enthralled by what they saw. They bought pairs of shoes and wondered what the market would be when manufacturing process is fully mechanized as the machines will soon arrive Abia.

In the words of Goodluck Nmeri, President, Power Line Shoe Manufacturing Association of Nigeria:” The Turkey trip has boosted our productivity and the quality of our products. The watchword now is quality because that is what Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu needs. The governor has on several occasions charged us on quality. We have no option than to ensure quality because we want to capture the world market.

Togo pit now produces 60,000 pairs of shoes weekly; Cameroun 120,000;Lagos 180,000; and Maiduguri 200,000.

Because of the imminent boost in the Aba shoe industry, some youths who abandoned the industry for commercial motorcycle and tricycle operations are now making u-turn. In the not-too- distant future, unemployment in Abia State would be drastically reduced with the revolution going on in Aba shoe industry.

The revolution, facilitated by the Turkey trip, according to Promise Ekpo, one of the contingents, is receiving a boost from the sophisticated road construction going on at Old Express. The construction will enable buyers access the market easily.

The Ariaria shoe market is already exploded and demands immediate attention. The market is divided into six zones: Power Line, Omenma, Imo Avenue, Shoe Plaza, Umuehilegbu Industrial Market, and Old Site.

The total number of shoe makers from the various zones is estimated at 70,000 and the shoe manufacturing process is supported by division of labour. Each process is manned by either a smoother, tailor, sprayer, or a wheeling machine operator. On the average, each production is expected to employ three persons.

There are strong opinions that scattering of the shoe makers will lead to poor regulation of their activities, and in turn, affect the quality of their products.

But Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu is proactive in his approaches. The proposed cluster for garment, shoe, belt and bag workers at Umukalika, the outskirt of Abia, will take care of the issue. This cluster would be equipped with a resource centre that could enable businessmen to register their trademarks, do quality control and open them to markets beyond the shores on Nigeria. The mindset of Gov. Ikpeazu is to conquer the Nigerian market first and make forays into West and Central Africa.

The benefits of the cluster are multifarious. It will also ensure that the leather workers enjoy economies of scale.

The concentration of men with similar skills will promote competition and then innovation and will provide the common spirit that is necessary for cooperation and cross fertilisation of ideas. By bringing the shoe manufactures into clusters, they will easily learn about changing economic conditions, adapt and benefit from the changes. The physical proximity of these would encourage interaction and promote the exchange of ideas and expertise and this will, at the end, stimulate innovation and economic growth.

Ikpeazu, in his usual manner, envisioned that the greatest challenge this stride would suffer was dearth of manpower to man these machines, and thus his introduced the “Education- for- Employment (E4E) project which is conceptualized around creating employment and to ensure that education leads to employment by imbuing the youths with the technical skills that would enable them become either self-employed or sought after by others.

“If you remember, some people are thinking about bringing equipment and all kind of devices to make shoes and garments. But it also requires critical manpower that is vast in technical things to service that industry. And that is why we are going back to technical education. We have brought back to life the Technical School Afara and Technical Ohafia simultaneously. These two schools we serve as model for other technical schools”.

Ariaria, now, and Umukalika in future are beckoning on the Abia youths. Indeed the story of the Aba shoe maker has changed for good because a” Daniel has come to judgment”.

Ukegbu is SSA to Gov. Ikpeazu on media

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