The Paradox of Aba

It is not uncommon to hear people say made-in-Aba goods are inferior. But is this true? There are no simple answers, writes Charles Ajunwa and Solomon Elusoji. We entered the Ariaria International Market in a cloud of dust, via Faulks Road. Above, the sun was a rain of steam that hammered our heads without mercy.
The traffic was clogged and there was little space for even the hordes of pedestrians streaming in and out. It seems like everywhere you go in Aba, a city in Abia State, there is a market. But the Ariaria stands out. Its vastness is unrivalled and the population of traders under its auspices are said to be more than two million, making it, arguably, the biggest trade centre in all of West Africa. However, as many have pointed out in recent times, Ariaria is not just about trade. It is also about production. This is a market where things are made, from bags, to shoes, to belts and all sorts of leather products. “In a month, I can produce up to 1,000 bags with three people supporting me,” a bag maker, Paul Eke, told us. We found Paul, alone, inside one of the shops clustered inside the bag section. He was hunched over a sewing machine, treading through a piece of zip. Some of his completed bags are hung around his small store, all neatly crafted. In industrial countries like China, bag makers are equipped with sophisticated machinery; but Paul Eke has no such luxuries. We watched him work with his old sewing machine and nimble hands.

“There is no support from the government,” he said. “We just do it ourselves.” At the shoes section, the story is the same. Chukwuemeka Onuoha of Prince Shoes Company was delighted to show us through what is being produced inside that part of the market. The array of quality shoes on display was stunning as we moved from store to store. “We are working with our hands,” Onuoha said. “We are supposed to have machines – cutting machines, smoothening machines – but we don’t. The government just keeps promising.” The shoes and bag sections are not alone in blaming the government for their woes. We took a trip to the fabrics section and got told the same story, albeit from a slightly different angle. “Most of the fabrics you find here are imported from China,” a fabrics trader, Kingsley Nwaobilo told us. And that, for people like Nwaobilo, is a big cause for worry. With the slump of the naira against the dollar, passing on the rising cost of importation to the consumer would definitely slow down business. For a country which once had one of the best textile industries in the world, this is a tragedy. “There are some big brains behind it,” Nwaobilo said. “There are some people in authority that don’t want this country to move forward.”

The dollar conundrum also found its way into our conversation with an automotive paints trader inside the Ariaria market, Felix Agwu. Agwu told us that although it was possible to source materials locally and produce the paints at home, it was more cost-effective to import, even with the inefficiencies trailing the country’s foreign exchange market. “The exchange rate is making us lose money,” he said. “But there is no way we can even think of producing here. We will lose more money. Some big companies started some years ago, but they failed. It is cheaper to import.” It is this, the romanticism of importation, which appears to be Aba’s Achilles heel. It’s been said that there is nothing that cannot be produced in Aba. To a large extent, this is true. So many local innovations have their roots in the city. But what holds Aba back is the high cost of production, which makes it more sensible to import basic necessities that could have been manufactured locally, creating more much-needed jobs in the process. To be sure, the high cost of production is a consequence of the lack of basic infrastructure like stable power supply, good roads, potable water and access to funding.

“There is no road in this place,” the bag-maker, Paul Eke, told us. “When it’s raining season, you can’t pass through this place. We don’t have electricity; we don’t have water. There’s nothing we enjoy from government.” Eke’s “there is nothing we enjoy from government” might be an exaggeration, but his point is valid. The Ariaria International Market, despite its vastness and popularity, lacks the basic amenities to make business and industry function smoothly. The same can be said for most of Aba, although the present government has said it is working on changing that narrative. “Government doesn’t even look at people that are producing things,” the shoemaker, Onuoha, said. “They are careless about us.” So, to compete with foreign goods, the average Aba manufacturer is incentivised to reduce the quality of his goods, raise the quantity and hope to make a profit. Since he doesn’t have the infrastructure and technology of his counterparts abroad, he can only survive by constant innovation, sometimes unethical. In a world where free trade has been enforced on developing nations like Nigeria, it would be foolish to expect otherwise from these local producers.

Judging from our observation of the city’s productivity, however, Aba has the potential of being a key manufacturing hub that could transform the Nigerian economy, as the government tries to diversify away from oil. The significant move will be for government to provide the basic infrastructure, the funding, and the technology to kick-start the process. The private sector should also be seduced to invest in the city. This appears to be what the present Governor of Abia State, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, seems to be doing. In his address at the just concluded Aba Urban Development Summit, held in Aba, Ikpeazu described Aba as a confluence city linked to all the states in the South-east and South-south regions of Nigeria. The governor revealed that the dream of his administration is to establish a megacity that would not only have a seaport, but also industrial clusters that can converge Port Harcourt and Aba into a mega-industrial hub. He observed that power, which is seen as a major challenge to industrialists in Nigeria and Aba in particular, could be overcome if the cluster concept is implemented in the country, stressing that such arrangement would attract more investments in power.

“I want to assure us that our greatest challenge is not power, it is because we have not done enough, even in the face of industrialisation,” Ikpeazu said. “I asked somebody one day, which one is more important, power to drive industries or industries to attract power? “And I am of the considered opinion that the power we seek is probably power for us to watch television and home video and enjoy our air conditions. Power vendors, who invest in power for purposes of profit, care less about those who use power to watch television because this group of people can’t pay. “Those who can pay for power are those who have industries and I know that if you put 15 to 16 industries in one place, a power vendor will volunteer and come to that location, because he knows that those companies can pay for power, if it is provided in a regular way.” He also urged indigenes at home and in the Diaspora to begin to invest at home, noting that Aba is one of the best places to invest. “There is no business that has come to Aba and failed,” he said, “and I have tried to analyse it and part of my findings is that the geography of Aba favours progress in this region.” It remains to be seen how Ikpeazu’s plans will play out, but one can only hope that the “China” of Nigeria can find water in its current desert.

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