Umuahia — If nothing is done urgently to salvage the situation, very soon, local manufacturers of shoes, belts and bags may be sent out of business. If this happens, the slogan that Aba is the Japan of Africa will be a thing of the past.
Major markets in Aba, such as the Ariaria, New Market and Cemetery Market are increasingly becoming dumping grounds for products from Asian countries, especially China. Experts have observed that this situation is largely undermining the Nigerian market and drastically affecting the country's already distressed manufacturing sector.
Obviously, being the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has become a huge market for Chinese products.
Investigation by Daily Trust on Sunday revealed that shoes from China are highly subsidised for export; hence they are sold cheaper than made in Aba products. And Nigerians prefer cheaper products.
The main outlet for the Chinese products is the popular China Town, from where they are distributed to major markets across Nigeria.
Our correspondent further learnt that the Ariaria International Market has over 70, 000 professional and enterprising shoemakers, besides their apprentices and artisans. A total of 250,000 artisans engage in the production of shoes and garments. They are further divided into sections, namely, production, marketing and transportation.
Also, dealers on raw materials such as leather, shoe soles, gum, fiber and other accessories, make good sales. Women also compete for patronage at various stages of production.
Interestingly too, the trade is no longer for school dropouts and illiterates, as graduates are now actively engaged in it. Little wonder new innovations are being introduced to the trade.
Mr Goodluck Joseph, the president of Power Line Shoe Manufacturing Association, who has a 31-year experience as a shoe manufacturer, spoke on how lucrative the industry was before various borders were thrown open for the influx of substandard products into the country.
According to Joseph, in the early 1980s, before the military took over political power, importation of finished leather products from Italy, Spain and Brazil were very difficult. As a result of that, imported shoes were very expensive for an average person to afford. Only the elite could afford imported shoes while others patronised local manufacturers because their products were largely affordable.
He said, "Chinese shoes and other products are trooping into the country in their millions because the Federal Government allowed it. They opened the borders for foreign products. Government should restrict the influx of substandard products into the country so that Nigerians would patronise our own products. Although Chinese products are flashy and cheap, they are substandard."
He further said that last year, local manufacturers of shoes, schoolbags, belts etc, exported their products, but this year, because of the influx of products from China, it drastically reduced 20 per cent.
Joseph said Cameroonians were the main buyers of made in Aba products because they quickly realised that Chinese products were of low quality. They found out that one person would buy up to 10 pairs of shoes in a year because they were substandard. Chinese products came into the Cameroonian market five years ago, but their president quickly realised that the action was eating deep into their economy and introduced restrictions. Subsequently, the people preferred made in Nigeria products. He, however, noted that the patronage had drastically reduced. He added that leather and other raw materials are still being exported while shoe soles are produced locally.
He said that for the past three years, the union has been staging protests, and several letters written to the government for intervention, but nothing has been done.
On power supply, Joseph said that due to inadequate electricity to power some of the machines used for shoe production, individuals resulted to the use of generators, which is very expensive and counterproductive. He also said that many manufacturers could not easily afford the heater used in advanced industries to hold the gum on leather. As a result of this, they resulted to the use of manual stove. He added that stove dealers were making fortune from shoe manufacturers.
Asked why they usually brand their products as made in Italy, Joseph said the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) was not doing anything to stop substandard products from taking over Nigerian markets.
"We can't brand our products as made in Aba because they are not popular and most Nigerians consider our products as substandard, whereas the reverse is the case. If we label our products as made in Aba Nigerians would prefer made in China because they consider it as foreign and our products will remain with us unsold," he explained.
Also speaking to our correspondent, the president of Leather Products Manufacturers Association of Nigeria in Abia State, Mazi Okechukwu Charles Williams, expressed sadness over the influx of Chinese products into Nigeria.
"Before the advent of Chinese products into the local market in the early 1980s, we enjoyed the local industry. We were competing with Italian and Spanish products. Local manufacturers often smiled to the bank after business. But now, with the influx of Chinese products into Nigeria, the business is no longer interesting. They intend to dominate 70 per cent of the shoes, bags and leathers currently sold in the Ariaria International Market, Aba. Local manufacturers are left with only 25 per cent of the market share. The demand for locally made shoes has dropped drastically for shoes from Italy, Spain and Brazil. We now struggle to satisfy the demands of the middle and lower classes," Williams said.
He said solving this problem depended on government policy. He added that the Chinese government had a comparative advantage in terms of production as they have the machines, the technology, but in Nigeria, local manufacturers don't have the capacity to compete with them.
"The government needs to protect local industries through favourable policies. We once worked with the Department for International Development (DFID) in 2013, where issues regarding power were identified. We demonstrated pilot machines for production, the heater and generating sets. Our aim was to improve on production, but the initiative didn't go down well because of the cost of running the heater. It was difficult for local manufacturers to adapt to this initiative," he explained.
Speaking on how they get raw materials for production, Williams said, "Most of our leather materials come from the North, and over the years, it has been very difficult to access leathers from the North because of the policy called Export Expansion Grant. The grant places more incentive on the export of leather. Some of the Lebanese companies felt that exporting leather and attracting 30 per cent incentive from the Federal Government was more lucrative than selling locally.
"Almost 80 per cent of the leathers produced in Kano State is currently being exported. Recently, we moved for the review of the export policy, but nothing happened. Instead of placing the grant on leather, which is an intermediate product, it should be extended to finished products - shoes, belts and bags.
Also, the Standard Organisation of Nigeria has not even set a national standard for foot wears for us to determine which product is inferior.
He said the SON should take the blame for the influx of substandard products in the market because it is their responsibility to regulate the importation and even local production. Unfortunately, at the open market you will see expired shoe soles, gums and synthetics.
"What stops the Nigerian Investment Promotion Council from investing internally to produce fiber and create jobs? For over 40 years we have been importing fiber into the country, but there is no effort by the Federal Government to ensure that these materials are produced locally."