• Saturday, April 13, 2024
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BusinessDay

The Hidden Manufacturers

aba shoe makers

A small army of local manufacturers is making strides as recession in Nigeria makes local manufacturing and consumption inevitable, writes Kay Ugwuede.

At exactly 4:30am every morning, Vincent Nwafor wakes up. His morning routine is simple. He says a short prayer, cleans himself and hits the street at exactly 5:30am. His destination, Shoe Plaza, is a small shoe manufacturing cluster-market located in Aba, Eastern Nigeria.
Conditions are not perfect at Shoe Plaza, which is full of small stalls roofed with mostly aging corrugated Iron sheets but Nwafor says “work and its pressure was less until recently.” He toils till 6pm, every day, except for Sundays. Inimical Igbo music blares out at various sections of the market providing a sort of energy for the workers, who are always shirtless in the hot afternoons, as they try to work under the excruciating tropical heat.

“Business has become more interesting,” Nwafor, 34, says, a broad smile revealing the gap between his teeth. The recession in Nigeria has meant that more Nigerians are turning to locally made shoes and manufacture which Vincent and the five young men he works with produce.

Employing the very principles of Adam Smith, the Scottish Economist who taught that production is more efficient if the process is broken into parts and undertaken by different individuals, Nwafor’s team churns out at least 25 shoes daily.
When the team members have collectively decided on the design which they want to pursue, one of the team members cuts the leather, another sews it, yet another stretches it out onto foot-like molds while applying gum and polish. The other members of the team devote themselves to marketing what is produced. This goes on in all the small shops which make up Shoe Plaza.
The leather used for this light manufacturing is brought in from Kano and other parts of northern Nigeria while the gum and other input comes from either within Nigeria or outside.
Estimates from the governor of Abia State’s office suggest that shoe manufacturing activity, as well as other forms of light manufacturing provides jobs for some 150,000 people in Aba, while the value of the shoe manufacturing industry was estimated at N150 billion as at 2015.
There are at least 25 manufacturing clusters in Aba, which is assuming the position of the “China of Nigeria.” The manufacturing process is not restricted to just shoes. Leather is also crafted into bags, belts, wallets and chair covering in this relentless and ever busy city. Apart from leather work, Aba is also known for military and civilian clothing, military and civilian belts and combat boots.

The big picture

Shoe Plaza in which Nwafor works is part of Ariara market, a big industrial hub in Abia. The spectacle which Ariaria presents lies in the procedure which its inhabitants employ in the production process.
Using basic tools and household appliances like stoves, small knives and hammers about 300,000 units of shoes and sandals are produced monthly. Most of the output is bought by Nigerians, but a large chunk is traded on the West African coast. “Traders come from other African countries including Cameroon, Benin Republic and Togo to buy made in Aba shoes and clothing, Christian Okoro, Chairman, Aba North Industrial Market said in an interview with journalists.
Even though the challenges are many, Okoro says “…Aba products compete favourably with Chinese products, in terms of quality.” He goes on to tell of how the quality of leather used in making a good number of shoes in Aba is better than the synthetic leather used for making most shoes brought into Nigeria from China.

Jacking up quality

One of the challenges Aba products have faced is the perception of poor quality. But that is changing. “In those days, Aba shoes were used as a metaphor for poor quality,” says Ikechukwu Kelikume, a don at the Pan Atlantic University. “The current generation of merchants and producers are trying hard to extricate themselves from that toga,” Kelikume says “and so far, they are doing a good job at it because of how developed the media has become.”

Back then, Aba products were not well accepted as the leather peeled off quickly or the soles of foot wears came off easily. And so in spite of how affordable they were, the acceptability and wide reach of their products remained restricted to few customers in the eastern part of the country.


For a country deeply submerged in imports from around the world, the idea of quality products being locally made was taken with a pinch of salt.
To increase sales and acceptance, producers began labelling their products with names of established foreign brands. Made in Aba shoes became ‘Made in Italy’ designer shoes and Made in Aba clothes became ‘Made in Paris’ luxury wears.
‘’They have the concept that because it is foreign, it gets attention and patronage’’, says Emma Onuoha, a Media Personnel at the organised Made-In-Aba body, with which the present government is trying to drive acceptance of Aba products.

In the past, poor quality could be traced to the mundane production process. Pressing Irons were put over burning stoves to generate heat for the production process because there was no electricity to power electric pressing Irons. Fists and hammers were used exclusively to knock parts of shoes or other materials together. Things are gradually taking a different shape. And the state government has put in place an agency to ensure particular standards from particular products.

In the past, it was said that if you were drenched while wearing Aba shoes, your shoes would dissolve and you will be left barefooted. “That never happened,” says Pa Amos Odumodu who has been making shoes in Aba since 1978.
“Look at this boots,” he says holding up a pair of military type combat boot, “touch the leather, I bet you that China will not spend this kind of leather to make boots for sale in Nigeria.”
‘’What the Nigerian government should think of doing is to help us perfect the process of packaging these shoes.’’

When kings visit

The work of the small manufactures of Aba has gained some attention, and received promises. As the recession in Nigeria continues to depress key macroeconomic indicators more Nigerians are looking to consume what is produced locally. Inflation has been sustained at double digit for the greater part of 2016, while unemployment has risen in the first two quarter of 2016.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo tries out some Aba Shoes in Umuahia

Apart from this, the value of the naira has consistently deepened putting pressure on those who would otherwise buy foreign products. “They had to look inward,”Kelikume says, and Aba products are beginning to come across as a good option.
This has attracted Senators, former Presidents, governors and other big politicians to Aba. After trying on some Aba made shoes which were presented to him by government officials in Abia state, former President Olusegun Obasanjo remarked “since the Aba made shoe is nice on my feet, it would also look good on anybody in Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world.”
The effort of the small manufactures has paid offs. In 2016, the Nigerian army bought 50,000 pairs of boots from Aba with revenues between N250-N300 million from the order.

“We have delivered an order for 1,000 pairs of school shoes to public schools in Abia State, ordered and paid for by Abians in the United States and they promised a repeat purchase this month,” Sam Hart, Project Manager for the Made In Aba project says. ‘’Manufacturing companies are contacting us from Lagos to order for factory boots, fashion designers are engaging our merchants to mass produce for them’’, he adds.

The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) has also made huge demand for shoes and uniforms from Aba. All of which have made the market more visible.

Elephant in the room

But the small manufacturers of Aba still have big challenges. Power supply remains epileptic, there is the occasional case where substandard gum floods the market and affects quality, while there is no solid packaging system to ensure that Aba products are presented in the best of light.

Senate President, Bukola Saraki is shown some Aba Shoes in Abuja

‘’We are living on the promise that government has given us that things will be better here’’, says Nwafor.

Emma Onuoha, a Media Personnel at the organised Made In Aba body the present government champions, says the government in its bid to promote Made in Aba products has gone into partnership with electricity company Geometrics Power Plant Aba. The plan is to light up the city 24 hours seven days a week to ensure continuous operation of these mini industries. The deadline is December 2017. Solving the problems that go with manufacturing in Aba will take a long time to achieve, but the small manufactures trudge on.