Busy hands of artisans coupled with the efforts of the state government to promote micro, small and medium scale enterprises has engendered exponential rise in the reputation and scale of production of made in Aba products, thereby earning it the undisputed hub of shoe production in Nigeria.
The Aba North Shoe Plaza Industrial Market is a beehive of activities on any business day. Inside the numerous workshops that dot the area artisans are busy crafting various types of foot wears. The production process involves thousands of hands dexteriously shaping the footwears at every stage till the finishing touch when they are ready for the market. The products enjoy good patronage not only in Nigeria but across West Africa and beyond.
Evidently, there is high level of specialisation and division of labour with each artisan producing a particular type of footwear. The Chairman of the industrial market, Deacon Daniel Obioma said over 15,000 artisans are working at the cluster, each producing on daily basis an average of 12 pairs of footwears of different types and designs - shoes, sandals, pams, boots, canvas, cortina, sneakers, etc.
The beehive of activities at the Aba North Shoe Plaza are replicated at several other clusters in other locations in Aba. They include Umuehilegbu(Bakassi), Power Line, Ariaria(Old site), Samek, Imo Avenue, Ochendo Shoe Plaza, among others. The number of artisans varies from cluster to cluster but it is estimated over 100,000 pairs of hands are involved in the production of the famous Aba Shoes or footwears. The combined production outputs from all the clusters is what has conferred on Aba its undisputed reputation as the hub of shoe production in Nigeria.
It was earned, not ascribed. And over the years, Enyimba City, as Aba is fondly called, has maintained its status as the hub of shoe production in Nigeria. The artisans that toil in their workshops day in and day out ensure that the reputation is sustained irrespective of the vagaries of the economy. There were times when the footwears from Aba were regarded with derogatory air of inferiority. But that era has gone for good.
Governor Okezie Ikpeazu in his relentless drive to promote micro, small and medium scale enterprises (MSMEs) has engendered exponential rise in the reputation and scale of production of made in Aba products. "The made in Aba shoe you know before is not what we have now," enthused Obioma. The chairman of Aba North Shoe Plaza said that the quality of made in Aba products got a major boost when Governor Ikpeazu came into the scene to promote shoemaking business. "There has been a great idea, exposure and high standard since he came into shoe industry in 2015," he said.
According to him, Ikpeazu's intervention has placed Aba producers on the global market space thereby expanding their customer base. "It is a very good development for us," he said adding that the state governor has taken them to exhibitions in a number of foreign countries.
To ensure a sustained global competiveness of Aba footwears, the Ikpeazu administration is not leaving anything to chance. Quality must never be compromised has become an article of faith for both producers and the government. The General Manager of Abia State Quality Management and Marketing Agency, Mr. Sam Hart said his agency has continued to keep a tab on the products and services coming out of Aba to ensure they have the mark of international standard. "We have strengthened our Quality Management Department by appointing a UNIDO-trained quality specialist as D
director who has pursued our standardisation drive with vigour. We have introduced Abia State Quality Standards and have undertaken random quality control visits in addition to partnership with Federal Quality Management Agencies for synergy in Abia State".
Apart from the emphasis on standards, a whole lot has changed for the Aba shoe making industry. Hitherto, the trade was sustained through the age-old Igbo apprentice system, which has become an area of study in Harvard University. Chinedu Joseph, who specialises in making of boots, said he inherited the trade from his own father after undergoing years of tutelage. He has now been on his own for over 15 years and following in the footsteps of his father in making boots. "I'm happy doing my job," he said, adding that he makes up to 10 pairs of boots daily "because there is division of labour in the process".
However, there is now a conscious effort to train the artisans outside of the apprenticeship system. Mr. Bentley Chukwuemeka and wife, Chidinma co-founded The Footwear Academy, Aba, to produce the manpower needed for the Aba footwear industry. It was set up with a vision "to be the foremost footwear training and production institution in Africa, putting Nigeria on the roadmap of footwear business by training and mentoring students who will dominate and be relevant to Africa when equipped with the right skill and technology".
The academy, which sprang up in Aba last year is pursuing its vision with vigour. It has attracted the attention of Governor Ikpeazu who regards it as a good mix in the Aba shoe making business. The governor has even enrolled as a student of the academy to acquire the skill of making footwear. Ikpeazu's studentship at the academy is a significant endorsement of the new idea of infusing formal training into the Aba footwear industry.
According to the marketing officer of the academy, Miss Chioma Edoziem, the duration of the training lasts between two weeks and 12 months "depending on what each individual wants". In the course of training, students are trained on footwear design, sourcing of materials and shoemaking. The production manager, Benjamin Ishaya said students get to know every minute details in the shoe making process as "each step requires accuracy".
Edoziem further stated that the academy also offers "soft skills" to its students, which includes how to market their products. Since last year, she said the academy has trained over 100 persons, most of who were sponsored by the Pind Foundation, a non-governmental organisation. On requests, the academy do undertake training programmes outside its Aba base. For instance, the marketing officer said such training programme was conducted at Ihiala in Anambra State under the sponsorship of local governments.
While training footwear makers, the academy also engages in full production of shoes and other footwears based on orders placed by customers. For instance, Edoziem pointed out that the footwear academy was currently engaged in the production of 150 pairs of sneakers for a customer based in Canada. "We really want to make a difference with our products," she said.
There's been a sustained drive by Governor Ikpeazu to keep Aba at the uppermost rung as the hub of shoe production not just in Nigeria but in Africa. His relentless campaign for made in Aba products both within and outside the shores of Nigeria is unprecedented. The state Commissioner for Information, Chief John Okiyi Kalu said the Abia chief executive is so passionate about Aba products and demonstrates it in words and deeds. "No important visitor comes to Abia without receiving made in Aba product from Governor Ikpeazu," he said, adding that he always models the products by his dressing . He has also organised exhibitions at Aba, Abuja and New York City to further expose made in Aba shoes to the international markets.
But with the expanding market base comes the challenge of mass production to cope with demands. To get around the ensuing challenge, the Abia governor came up with the idea of introducing automation into the Aba footwear industry. He followed it up by sending 30 young Abians to China for traning in automated shoe production and thereafter set up the Enyimba Automated Shoe Company(ENASCO) in August 2020. It is a public, private partnership(PPP) enterprise, hence Governor Ikpeazu strictly warned the managment board against running the company as government parastatal but a purely business venture.
Some of the Chinese trained artisans - Amarachi Ndudim, Single Udochukwu Okeagu and Kelvin Chukwuemeka - said that they would use their knowledge and skills to contribute in making ENASCO a big success. "I am happy because of what we are producing," said Ndudim. Her colleague, Chukwuemeka assured of their commitment to their job, saying, "we want to give our people the best".
Managing Director of ENASCO, Mr. Kizito Dominic said the company has come to the narrative of made in Aba shoes with a mix bag of quality and quantity. He said the company has installed capacity of producing 5,000 pairs of shoes daily though it is presently operating below its capacity due to inadequate capital and personnel. Dominic stated that the ultimate goal of ENASCO is to make made in Aba footwears "the best in the world".
According to him, the company's products are attracting good patronage because "they are of very high quality and super solid". He said ENASCO produced 3,000 work boots for the Nigeria Railway Corporation(NRC) and is presently producing 9,000 pairs of pump shoes for Pep Stores of South Africa while the Nigerian Breweries Plc has placed an order for 1,600 sneakers. "Shoe business is good business because everyone wants to wear shoes," he said.
The MD noted that the business environment "is encouraging" for the company. No doubt, the company is well equipped for the business of shoe production. According to the technical partner, Mr. Osaro Ekonweren, ENASCO "has the most updated shoe producing machines in Nigeria". But the monopoly being enjoyed by ENASCO as the only automated shoe factory in Aba may not last long as three privately owned automated factories are set to come on board.
There have been calls and advocacies for Nigeria's military and paramilitary organisations to start sourcing their boots locally at Aba. Governor Ikpeazu is of the firm belief that such inward looking disposition would save Nigeria huge amount of foreign exchange, create more jobs and improve people's living standards. He assures that Aba remains ready to meet the needs of Nigeria's military, police and paramilitary organisations if they decide to patronise local products.
In fact, Aba has the capacity to kit the uniformed men and women not only by supplying their boots but also belts, bags and haversacks. Good news is that the Nigeria Police has accepted the message of buying made in Nigeria products. Okiyi said the Nigeria Police has placed order for 200,000 boots, adding that discussions were ongoing for Army, Navy Air Force, Civil Defence, Nigeria Immigration Service, Nigeria Custom Service and others to patronise made in Aba. The patronages that the Aba footwear industry is currently getting from some corporate bodies, Okiyi noted, "is a statement of confidence" in the quality of the products.
The firm footing of Aba as the shoe producing hub in Nigeria is good both for the local and national economy. Ikpeazu dreams big for the industry and also for the artisans. He has initiated plans for the artisans to add intellectual depth to their skills by acquiring certificates. To this end, he directed the state-owned Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, to work out the modalities of introducing footwear and leatherworks in its academic programmes. This would afford the artisans and those desiring to go into the business of producing footwears the opportunity to study it in a formal academic setting and be awarded a certificate on completion of the programme.
What is happening in the shoe producing sector is just a part of the overall growth of micro, small and medium scale enterprises (MSMEs) in Abia. The World Bank estimates that Aba has over 250,000 SMEs engaged in various businesses. The Abia information commissioner said the phenomenal growth did not happen by chance but as result of "deliberate policy" by the Ikpeazu administration to sustain Abia's status as the SME capital of Nigeria. "Ikpeazu understands the need to assist SMEs with relevant infrastructure," said Okiyi.
He noted that the ongoing rehabilitation of road networks in Aba was in tandem with the policy of promoting the growth of businesses. He said Ikpeazu was always seeking for ways to help entrepreneurs to grow, citing his empowerment of Aba tailors to produce facemasks, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
He said on completion of the ongoing reconstruction of Ngwa Road, a tailoring village or cluster located in that area would enjoy greater exposure to prospective customers. In fact, the tailoring and garment cluster is also witnessing a boom. Queen Duruibe, a graduate of petrochemical engineering, who took up the tailoring business, is now very successful entrepreneur.
While fixing the roads, Ikpeazu also has his eyes on fixing the markets in Aba. Okiyi said that the ongoing remodelling and modernising of the 'A' Line section of Ariaria International Market would engender seamless business transactions in the market. According to him, after the reconstruction, a new market would emerge with modern facilities like spacious car park, quality access roads in and out of the markets, banks, fire service station, among others.
The chairman of Abia North Shoe Plaza, said Governor Ikpeazu has done a lot of good to businesses by fixing many of the roads that lead to markets and production clusters, including Faulks, Old Express, MCC, Umule, Umuode, Umuojima, among others. However, he stated that the problem of irregular power supply has caused a big challenge for most parts of Aba. Obioma appealed to government to find a lasting solution to the problem of inadequate power supply. "You can't stay here and do anything without electric power," he said
Already the support and promotion of SMEs by Abia government is yielding good dividends. Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo in one of his visits to Abia declared that the federal government has recognised Abia as the home of SMEs and is contributing in no small way to the growth of the Nigeria's economy.
As a proof, Abia has been consistently winning awards at the annual National MSME Awards organised by The Presidency. This year, the Footwear Academy Aba won the National MSME Award for Excellence in Leather Works. The co-founder of the academy, Mrs. Chidinma Chukwuemeka also won a car after coming out tops as the best female in leather works. In previous years, bag producers, Nora Onwuasoanya and Chidinma Elem won the awards. Elem makes bags with Ankara materials.
With the strategic reconstruction of all roads leading to the various industrial clusters and markets as well as provision of power, both the formal and informal sectors of Abia's production hub would continue to boom. Okiyi assured that the present administration would not waver in efforts to provide the enabling environment for the state to maintain its position as Nigeria's SME capital. "Nobody should have any doubt that Governor Ikpeazu has reinvented Aba. The spirit of Aba is the spirit of Ndigbo, the spirit of industry and hardwork," he said. Time would tell if this legacy would be sustained by subsequent administrations.