Emeka Umejesi left his Abiriba community for Aba, Abia State’s industrial capital, in 2013. Before April 2013 when Umejesi joined the Aba shoe industry, he had been a well-known village champion, whose source of livelihood was running errands for the aged and women in exchange for money. City dwellers would hire him to take care of their aged parents for N2,000 each month.
This was 2012, and at 27, Umejesi did not consider this an ideal source of livelihood. As of 2012, three families had hired him and all together paid him N6,000 every month. In the minds of his paymasters, Umejesi was now engaged and at least would not indulge in criminal activities. But the young man was thinking differently. For him, N6,000 could not provide a quarter of his basic needs.
He had only primary education and could not be employed at the local government when the opportunity came in 2011.
Despite this disadvantage, he decided to take a forward step in 2013 by first exiting his Amaja clan. It was a big blow for the families that depended on him for humanitarian services, but this move, like Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, made all the difference.
He became an apprentice at a shop at Bakassi (Umueghilegbu) Industrial Market, Ariaria, in Aba, serving for six months. It was a difficult period for him.
But the difficulty soon gave way to hope. With the financial assistance of friends in late 2013, he found a small shop at Bakassi. In early 2014, he got a contract to produce 1,379 pairs of leather shoes for a secondary school in Anambra State at N1,300 each. With the assistance of three newly employed staff members, Umejesi was able to meet the one-month deadline. This enabled him to walk home with N1.79 million, a quarter of which was his profit.
Like Umejesi, the Aba shoe and leather industry is lifting a number of Nigerians out of poverty, making a huge chunk of them millionaires.
The industry is mainly made up of small and medium-scale players who are now fairly competing with China in terms of design and price. It provides employment and reliable source of livelihood for the shoemakers and their employees.
At 5pm on February 23, 2017, Sam Okenna, a 42-year-old man, was cutting Chinese leathers into pieces and gumming the layers together at Old Site in Aba.
Okenna had been on this since morning. No time for lunch. No time for frolic. No time to waste. He had secured a supply contract from two secondary schools. One school was located in Aba while the other was based in Umuahia.
He needed to produce 2,700 pairs of shoes in five weeks’ time. Failure to do so would rob him of further contracts.
It had been a good business. A pair of shoes was N1,250. So he would walk off with N3.375 million in four weeks if he could complete the contract within the stipulated period. If he failed, getting his money would take another two months.
“Drive the nail into the sole, fast. Don’t be lazy,” Okenna shouted at one of his three staff members, named Obi.
“Joy, allow the glue to dry. I don’t like the way you work. You have been with me here for eight months, and you are still sluggish,” he barked at a female apprentice, who was desperate to become a shoe exporter.
The supply contract was one of the best that happened to Okenna that month. To produce a pair of shoes, he needed to have some synthetic leather, adhesives, fabrics, nails, dye, heels, fittings and decorative items, as well as finishing materials such as polish, lacre and waxes.
All the raw materials were expensive but each pair of shoe still cost him less than N1,000. Cost of raw materials had spiked on the back of the foreign exchange crunch in the country. Had it not been the weaker state of the naira, Nigeria’s currency, Okenna would, perhaps, be going home with half of the money.
Okenna has no registered business name, even though he tells friends and patrons that he is the managing director of O’ Sam Enterprises. And he is getting contracts because he is skilful in handicraft.
“I am from Mbaise in Imo State. The shoemaking business has changed my life,” he said.
Okenna, like many others in the industry, produces the quality stipulated by consumers.
Some consumers request leather slippers with slightly high quality, paying N3,000 for a pair. Others want cheap products and pay less than N1,500.
For Okenna, the quality he produces is based on the specifications of consumers. This is also the case with many shoemakers in Aba.
Four million pairs of shoes are produced each week in Aba by over 70,000 shoemakers, mainly micro- and small-scale, according to leaders of various sections of Ariaria Market in Aba.
The industry is currently worth over N120 billion, according to BusinessDay’s calculations.
Ariaria Market is the shoe hub in West Africa, with nine clusters, including Imo Avenue, Shoe Plaza, Bakassi (Umueghilegbu) Industrial Market, Old Site, Bag, Belt, Trunk Box and Powerline Clusters.
Traders from Cameroon, Togo, Mali, Ghana and other parts of West Africa file at the market to buy shoes and resell in their countries.
Aba shoe industry has been in the business of reducing poverty and unemployment while producing millionaires since the early 1980s and 90’s when the industry clicked.
Brand names such as John Wax, Virgy Shoes, Anzy, Ncol Shoes and, later, Aris Ken were household names from Aba shoe cluster that made millions from shoe production in the 1980s.
Aba has some of the best shoemakers, such as Divine Promise Industries Nigeria Limited, owned by Promise Ekpo; Napico Investment Nigeria Limited, and Frantonia Industries Limited. There are equally Cuwill Enterprises Nigeria and OC Williams Industries, among others, which have produced millionaires, thanks to the industry.
Many young Nigerians have found solace in shoemaking after school, thereby reducing the unemployment rate in Africa’s most populous country, where 34 million people roam the streets in search of phantom jobs.
Okechukwu Williams is the president of Leather Products Manufacturers Association of Abia State (LEPMASS).
Williams himself is a shoemaker who produces for both local and international markets. A millionaire himself, he believes that the industry is lifting many who work for him out of the poverty line.
He superintends thousands of shoemakers who are daily seeking opportunities to find new markets and funding for expansion. According to him, Aba shoe industry is responsible for over 60 percent of locally-made shoes in Africa’s most populous country.
“I know that this cluster has produced millionaires. People like Anzy Shoes started here, but he is now into food processing, oil and gas, among other businesses,” Williams said.
The industry is now gaining patronage from government agencies, including the military. Between January and June 2017, shoes and garment worth over N1.6 billion were bought from Aba by the Nigerian military, individuals and corporate organisations. These included 50,000 pairs of military boots by the Nigerian Army, the cost of which is estimated at N300 million; orders from the Nigerian Navy, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), the police and Civil Defence Corps, Okezie Ikpeazu, Abia State governor, told BusinessDay in an exclusive interview.
The Nigerian Prisons bought more than 50,000 pairs of shoes from Aba in 2017, apart from direct orders from Aisha Buhari, wife of the president, for the supply of thousands of pairs to school children in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in the northeastern Nigeria. These government agencies had been known for importation of footwear from China, Italy and Spain.
“The total direct orders into the Aba economy were able to change the timidity of the Aba business person from spending 18 hours a day preparing a shoe, only to wake up to acknowledge somebody in Japan who did not do anything but just stamp ‘Made in Aba’ on the shoe,” Ikpeazu said at the investiture of the 15th president of the Aba Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (ACCIMA) in Aba recently.
“Advert on made-in-Aba products sponsored by Ford Foundation has been running on CNN. The list is endless on what we can achieve through the handwork of our people,” he said.
Market leaders in Aba say that hundreds of traders from Cameroon, Ghana, Togo and other parts of West and Central Africa buy thousands of cheap Aba shoes directly at Ariaria, while a number of manufacturers export to the regional market within the year to earn foreign exchange.
“Apart from our local market, we have patrons from Cameroun, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo DR and the rest, and most of these customers are foreigners,” said Williams of LEPMASS.
“Customers from Benin and Togo source from Lagos and so most of these transactions take place in Lagos, because people from Senegal, Ivory Coast come into Lagos to buy Made-in-Aba products,” he said.
In September last year, the Bank of Industry (BoI), Nigeria’s industrial development bank, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the leather makers to boost local production of finished leather goods.
About 5,000 artisans are expected to benefit from the first rollout of the scheme, which is expected in few weeks.
Aba shoe industry is closely associated with trunk box, belt and bag, which are all classified as leather.
At Power Guide Trunk Box line at Ariaria is located Samuel Ejimmadu, who was a auto mechanic before joining the production bandwagon.
Ejimmadu started the business with N1.5 million in 2007 and is worth over N8 million today. He deals in jumbo trunk boxes, which he sells between N6,000 and N7,000 each.
Despite the potential in the leather production business, the industry in Aba is still informal and unorganised.
Export of shoes is also done informally, denying the exporters of government incentives like the Export Expansion Grant (EEG).
Aba shoemakers are also facing high cost of hides and skins, which are major inputs. Local tanneries processing animal skins into leather prefer to sell to buyers from Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, China and India, who pay them in dollars and euros, BDSUNDAY found.
“Once the tanneries are through with production, they export the entire finished leather to the detriment of local leather works manufacturers. This is affecting the finished leather sector in Lagos, Onitsha, and especially the Aba cluster,” Ken Anyanwu, national secretary, Association of Leather and Allied Industrialists of Nigeria (ALAIN), told BusinessDay.
The majority of shoemakers in Aba, however, have resorted to the use of a substitute known as synthetic leather, which is cheaper but not durable, according to Christian Nnajiaku, managing director, ChrisKenzy Shoe Industries.
Apart from shoes, Aba is also known for garment making. Garment makers in the city, especially those specialising in corporate wear, operate from Cameroun Road, Tenant Road, and Market Road, which are linked to Azikiwe Road. The buildings are not arranged in any particular order or sequence and the industry is not organised.
Like shoemaking, the garment industry is creating a number of jobs and empowering the young generation.
At 58 Ehi Road, Aba, garment makers have eight shops with 12 to 13 workers. These shops produce, on a weekly basis, 100 shirts, 110 pairs of trousers, 100 skirts, and 15 pairs of suits. A pair of trousers sells for N1,000, while a piece of suit goes for N4,000 to N5,000.
There are 16 shops at 146 Ehi Road, Aba, with three mini shops called ‘attachments’. Over 30 garment producers operate from there.
Similarly, 129 Ehi Road hosts 40 shops with 60 to 70 workers. In the same vein, 156 Ehi Road is a three-storey building accommodating 144 shops. Each of the shops has five workers, including an assistant.
Onyeka Ikeme is one of the shop owners here. Ikeme produces 20 shirts, six suits, 30 skirts and 20 pairs of trousers a week. He has customers from Imo, a neighbouring state, that come weekly to patronise him, as well as two buyers from Cameroon. He also has four staff members.
Many shoe, trunk, bag and garment makers today have risen from poverty to prosperity while a number of them have become millionaires.
The transition meets one of the three criteria for the Human Development Index – decent income/standard of living.
To lift more out of poverty and raise many more millionaires, analysts say the industry must be formalised and organised, while a host of incentives need to be provided by the state and federal governments.