Ushafa Pottery Centre, located about 40km from Abuja city centre, was established by the Late Maryam Babangida under her Better Life for Rural Women Project more than 20 years. The settlement also shot to the limelight when former US President Bill Clinton visited the settlement a little over a decade ago. However, the centre's numerous potentials remain untapped.
When Ushafa Pottery Centre was first established about 23 years ago by wife of the then military president, late Maryam Babaginda, it was bustling with activities and had over 15 well trained and well paid staff.
The tourist centre which is located at Ushafa village in Bwari Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) also had beautiful structures and was the pride of the then first lady's 'Better Life for Rural Women' project at that time.
Its main objective was to empower rural women, who used clay to mass produce pottery wares that were transported in the centre's brand new bus to various markets in the FCT to be sold.
The women clay moulders had ready international as well as local markets and made good percentages for their wares during that period.
A worker at the centre said during that period, they never had it as good and were making a lot of money.
He said when General Ibrahim Babangida left government, things started turning around for the centre and it grew worse during the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo, despite the fact that it played host to former US President Bill Clinton in 2000, former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, former Swiss Vice President, Ruth Metzier and United Nation's Under Secretary-General/Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet.
Weekly Trust gathered from some staff on ground that during the visit of then ex-President Clinton and his daughter Chelsea to the place, senior staff of the FCT Art and Culture Council took up positions as staff, while the real staff were posted to do security duties.
A source at the centre, who pleaded anonymity, said there are many challenges facing the place. He listed some as lack of trained personnel as well as motivation of the existing staff. He said technically, the marketing aspects as well as tourism potentials of the place are somehow dead and need urgent revitalization by government.
Weekly Trust's investigation revealed that they are only three permanent staff in the place, while casual staff in the past were paid N8,000 monthly, which was stopped.
What obtains now is for the casual staff to make the pottery wares and whenever they are sold, they get some form of commission from the proceeds realized. Pottery wares produced include pots, ornamental flower vases, cups, plates, candle stands, ceramic jewellery and figurines. Prices of the items displaced on shelves at the centre, range from N1,000 upwards depending on the quality.
Our reporters gathered that after Clinton's visit, the center turned moribund. The equipment on ground in the place are obsolete, no bus to transport finished work to the markets and they are faced by stiff competition from another pottery moulder in the community. The private pottery moulder appears to have taken the shine out of the Ushafa Pottery Centre as his place is always filled with customers. He has adequate trained and motivated workforce as well as a good marketing strategy. Most people prefer to visit the private pottery due to the quality of their wares which are done with modern equipment.
A moulder at Ushafa Pottery Centre said they still have an edge over the private pottery owner as their products are properly dried and last longer. She said due to lack of materials the finishing of wares by the private moulder is always more attractive than theirs.
Weekly Trust investigations also revealed that the centre has no website to showcase its wares in order to attract buyers and is not connected to the internet.
Staff accommodations in the centre are partitioned containers and poorly built houses.
Our reporters noticed few staff of the place attending to a client last Friday afternoon, while about 12 huts where local women stay inside to mould pottery wares were empty and locked up.
One of the women who spoke under anonymity said during Obasanjo's regime, they were paid only N8,000 monthly for what they produce. "At times we produced about six items daily worth that amount and felt cheated," she said.
The woman said now they are no longer placed on salary, but are given commissions after sales of their products. She said in the past, pottery works from the centre used to generate revenue amounting to hundreds of thousands of naira daily but now, they sell only few thousands. "People don't usually go there to purchase and there is no vehicle to transport the pottery wares to markets. If a pottery of N2,000 is bought today for example, it would take several weeks again for such purchase to be repeated," she added.
In the past, production of pottery wares was carried out daily at the centre. Women made pottery wares with clay gotten from Zhigogi River and used traditional methods to mould and heat up the wares.
They used facilities in the place free of and were supported by the management of the pottery centre to market their wares. During a visit to the centre by the United Nation's Under Secretary-General/Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, Executive Secretary, FCT Social Development Secretariat, Mrs. Blessing Onuh, said the FCTA has proposed a certain amount in the 2013 Appropriation Bill to transform the Ushafa Pottery Centre into a thriving and modern centre for international trade.
Bachelet, who was president of Chile from 2006-2010, was accompanied to the centre by Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Hajia Zainab Maina, UN Women Regional Director for West Africa, Ms Josphine Odera and UN Representative to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Dr Grace Ongile.
She said UN women are supporting the women's economic empowerment project at Ushafa, in order to enable rural women have access to international markets for their craft as well as a life of dignity for their families.
A few years back, Minister of State for FCT, Oloye Olajumoke Akinjide, informed after a visit to the centre that the FCTA will partner with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to upgrade Ushafa pottery centre.
She assured that the place will be transformed into a major cultural attraction to showcase the FCT and the country at large, adding that the FCTA would not dispossess or exploit the pottery makers but would assist them to realise their full potential.
"We will upgrade the facility here, we will bring new innovations so that this can be a destination centre not just for occasional visit but to drive investment in the FCT," the minister declared.
Director Art and Culture of the FCT Social Development Secretariat, Mrs Nana Tsokwa, told the minister that the centre has been converted to a training centre as students from all over the country come for training there.
The director pointed to lack of fund as the major challenge of the centre and called on government for assistance to preserve the place.
Manager of the centre, Mr Joseph Gajere, said the women earned their living by making cooking pots, storage pots, flower vases and clay beads in the place.
In a media chat years back, he said that with improved support and funding, the centre can acquire more materials as well as better equipment necessary for expansion, which will be of more benefit to the rural women working at the centre.
He added that with right facilities and manpower, the centre can turn out high outputs on a commercial scale, with qualities that can match imported ceramic wares.
The manager said the centre is jointly managed by public-private partnership.