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The African SMEs story: Building Nigeria’s manufacturing industry

The African SMES story, hosted by Linda Ochugbua, brings together SMES across the continent to share their stories and learn from them, and to propagate hope for every SME that they have support. It is an initiative by Support4AfricanSMEs, with partners like BusinessDay, Clarke Energy and more.

The fourth episode looks at the production/manufacturing industry with Azuka Ijekeye, co-founder of Nigeria’s first industrial design school (Azuka Ijekeye School of Design), founder of Interstreet Messenger Technologies Ltd and Managing Director of Producers Hub, with interests in retail display design manufacture, and helping non-food small scale producers achieve manufacturing skill.
Azuka’s journey to entrepreneurship began with his parents with entrepreneurial ability, and the impact of his alma mater Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO). He acknowledges that his entrepreneurial journey has been challenging, but nevertheless is something he has always wanted to do i.e. making things that serve value.

Only running an SME in Nigeria, he notes that only 5% of SMEs get to 10 years in business, so and acknowledges that nearly 20 years in business is indeed a blessing. Seed funding for his business was ₦6000, gifted to him by his elder brother in 2003; he has grown his enterprise to a medium sized factory and with several incorporated business. It is advisable, according to Azuka, for aspiring entrepreneurs to start small: the smaller you start, the better, as it allows you to make smaller mistakes that are easier to recover from. He also advocates for honest self-appraisal, to identify strengths and weaknesses and to hire team members who complement strengths and reduce weaknesses.

Read also: COVID-19 seen as test for business integrity

He spoke on the lessons learnt in running his own business so far, the biggest being trust. Entrepreneurs must build and earn trust from customers and clients. Clients must trust that they can get value for their money and that deadlines can be met, especially for businesses engaging in business-to-business transactions. Entrepreneurs must also be honest to themselves and their customers about their services and any challenges faced; artisan small businesses in Nigeria such as tailors have a notable problem with being honest with customers. Another lesson emphasized is the need for perseverance and resilience, as well as commitment to long-term business growth.

On the often-cited financial challenges associated with SMEs, Azuka believes that African SMEs should learn that financial support comes not just by accessing money but also through avenues like receiving credit from suppliers and being able to defer worker wages. This is important since finance from commercial banks is often difficult to access due to high loan interest rates and hefty collateral requirements (often landed property). During the current pandemic, he notes that money will flow to economies where the impact of the pandemic is not highly felt, and businesses should organise their accounts and processes in anticipation of such financing.

On the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Interstreet Messenger Technologies has played a vital role by producing the TS Module, a positive pressure sample collection booth, designed for COVID-19 testing but adaptable to other infectious diseases. The booth eliminates the need for expensive, single use PPE at the sample collection stage, freeing this equipment to be used by direct patient caregivers. The booth was inspired by technology from South Korea and optimised to create two-person booths that can each collect about 250 samples daily.

Regarding the state of industrial sector in Nigeria, Azuka notes that the country has a lot of innovative and well-educated people, but has not developed its human capital in the direction of industry as well as it should and opines that Nigeria’s technological knowhow is mainly concentrated in technological hubs in metropolitan areas. Educational curricula must be tied to the requirements of industry, and industry need should drive the format of education; he contributes to improving the sector in this regard by training technical staff that work with him.

Azuka regards industrial design as the missing element in small-scale industries in Nigeria. More production entrepreneurs must be educated about it and it must be incorporated into production companies, as it is not necessarily expensive and ensures that products have a good finish.
His advice to aspiring manufacturing entrepreneurs is to start small, pick a niche to focus on and fully learn how it works. The best time to go into technology-based businesses (and not just ICT) to advance local capabilities is now, specifically the fabrication industry and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology which is used in furniture making, plastics, automobiles, and in the military.

To advance Nigeria, Nigerians must have the self-esteem to build the country, and must build industries around our products by including fabricators and industrial designers to add value to the resources we have. He notes that the role of the government is to strengthen the fabrication industry through policy creation and implementation, and to not interfere with business. Entrepreneurs in the fabrication industry must acknowledge that public servants can be a hindrance to business due to the rent-seeking economy that dominates the public service.
To live in a country with robust manufacturing, Nigerians must buy things made in the country, so that they can demand improvements, and so that producers can have the revenue to make these improvements and move the sector forward.

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