You would be forgiven if, on stepping into the Ibom Tropicana Shopping Mall in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, you thought you were inside any of such facilities in Europe or the United States. The exterior of the mall says nothing about the surprise that awaits you as you walk in to be welcomed into a completely different atmosphere. By any description, it is of world class standard.
At the time it was first commissioned by the previous administration in the state, the facility was largely uncompleted, with less than 5,000 square meters of space.
The complex was known more for cinema, than as a shopping mall in the real sense of the word.
My visit to the re-modelled Ibom Tropicana Shopping Mall in June, since its commissioning in February, afforded me the opportunity to see beyond what I read in the media. It would be an understatement to say I was impressed with what I saw. The facility I saw seemed completely new to me, just as it would be to anybody who knew what it previously looked like.
Now, at 90 percent completion after the redesigning and remodeling, there are 9, 800 meters of lettable space, while 60 per cent of the 55 shops have been taken. With a rental price of N5, 400 per square meter, the mall has the cheapest rental space in Nigeria, making it possible for small business owners to operate in a most conducive environment. In other parts of the country where there are similar facilities, it is essentially an elitist affair.
It is noteworthy that a majority, if not all the businesses that are operating in the shopping mall are owned by the people of Akwa Ibom. This is an indication of the inclusiveness of the government’s economic programme, which offers opportunity for as many people as may desire to be involved in small businesses to be able to do so.
I did not visit the mall as a journalist, not being one. But from my pleasant surprise and curiosity about what I saw there, I found myself interacting with some of the business owners and workers at the mall, and asking questions. I noticed the excitement on the faces of some of the people I spoke to. Business owners, some of whom have been to other parts of the world, were quite happy with new environment.
The impact the mall is having on small businesses is quite enormous, from the perspective of income generation for business owners and employment for job seekers. The anticipated strong presence of the private sector is going to create an economy in which a large population would be empowered, which would in turn raise the living standards of the people through increase in purchasing power.
A lady who owns a cosmetics shop said it had been her dream to open the kinds of shops she sees in Europe in Nigeria, not because others are not running similar businesses in the country, but because she would also have something to offer, in terms of quality of products and services. Her joy knows no bounds that she has been able to fulfil the dream not just in Nigeria, but in her own state where she is happy to contribute to the economic growth, especially considering the fact that Akwa Ibom was hitherto known basically as a civil service state.
A sales girl in a well-appointed boutique, a graduate of Economics from the University of Uyo, told me before the opening of the mall, she had lived on an ushering job that came once in a while, which also depends on one’s ability to connect with the right people through referrals. She said with what she is earning at the boutique, she is able to feed herself, pay her house rent and save money for her Master’s programme.
It is not a new era for only business owners and job seekers. For indigenes that relied on such malls in other parts of the country like Lagos and Abuja whenever they travelled outside the state, the Ibom Tropicana Shopping Mall offers the option of shopping at home for the same products and services they would get elsewhere, and thereby spending their income in the state.
From newspaper reports, the re-modelled shopping mall is a public-private partnership (PPP) involving the state government and Median Construction Development Limited, the major investors, in a 25 per cent: 75 percent ownership ratio, respectively. The facility is a testimony to what could be achieved through PPP that is proving to be the easiest way to provide infrastructural development to the people. It speaks to an economic environment that is conducive enough to attract investment from outside the state.
Engineer Olumida Akinsanya, the chief executive officer of Median Construction Development Limited, was reported to have said, while conducting newsmen round the mall before its official commissioning, that the ease of doing business in Akwa Ibom is unequalled in the country.
He said while the company struggled through longer periods, sometimes up to two years to obtain certificate of occupancy in some states where it does business (The company has investments in virtually all the states of the federation), it took less than one month to obtain the same document in Akwa Ibom. He said emphatically that the state is an investment destination.
Coming from an investor from outside the state, and one that has had a feel of the investment climate in other parts of the country, Akinsanya’s endorsement is quite significant; perhaps, more than whatever message might come out of the government’s information machineries on the conduciveness of the state’s economic environment. It couldn’t possibly have been for the purpose of patronage that he would single out the state for praise, considering that he has similar investments in other parts of the country, including states with presumably stronger economies.
When completed and fully functional, Ibom Tropicana Shopping Mall is expected to provide over 600 direct jobs and thousands of indirect employment. At the moment, the facility is enhancing the growth of small businesses such as boutiques, groceries, electronics, ICT, hospitality, pharmacy, furniture, etc, which have all combined to create employment for a good number of youths. It is helping to stimulate economic activities in the state and, ultimately, contributing to improvement in standard of living in many homes.
Asuquo is a Lagos-based public affairs commentator