Aba the commercial nerve centre of Abia State is not only known for trade and commerce that flourish in the city. Apart from buying and selling of goods, the city popularly called Enyimba City is also known for leather works which include shoes that can favourably compete with those produced outside the shores of the country.
At the Ariaria International Market, there are many sections solely designated for shoemaking. At the market there are many clusters of shoemakers who produce various types of shoes. At the section known as Shoe Plaza, shoemakers there produce female shoes only.
At Bakasi or Umuechilegbu shoe section, the shoemakers only produce shoes and bags for men. Also, a section of the market called Powerline is made up of shoemakers that also produce shoes for women.
The shoemakers at the Ariaria International Market are so gifted that with stove, gums they join leathers to soles to produce shoes that find buyers not only in other part of the country but also in sub Saharan Africa.
The volume of trade that goes on, on daily basis is such that it accounts for a large portion of the state’s internally generated revenue. But with the recent plan by the state government following Governor Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu’s trade mission to China and the signing of memorandum of understanding between the state and Chinese shoe manufacturers for the establishment of a shoe factory in the state, shoemakers in Aba have expressed mixed feelings.
Mr. Joe Iko is a shoemaker at Shoe Plaza Ariaria Market who has been in the coupling of leather and soles to make shoes said the decision to bring in Chinese shoemakers is a wrong step. He said: “Our grouse is that we were not consulted before the state government took the decision.
Bringing foreign shoe manufacturers into Aba will throw us into the labour market. What government should have done is to find a way to bring in machines that will assist the shoemakers to go into large scale production and abandon the use of stove and other crude methods that we have been using.
I have lived in and made my living in Aba in shoemaking. I don’t know how to do any other thing apart from shoemaking. If I am thrown out of the business by the Chinese, where will I go? I am asking this because they, the Chinese, will throw us into the labour market.” Okemili Izuiuzo said he started as a cobbler in Aba and later learnt how to make shoes especially for women.
I have made money from shoemaking to train my four children who are all graduates. The act of shoemaking in Aba is now on another level; all we need is to be given machines. “We are not afraid of the Chinese shoemakers but all we are saying is that before they resume, we should be equipped to enable us to compete with them effectively,” he said. Government, he said, should position them to meet the standard of modern ways of shoemaking.
Shoemakers in Aba are also producing male and female shoes that are used within the country and in sub-Saharan Africa. The shoemakers, according to him, are grateful because the state government has publicized t heir w ork , add ing that m u c h needed to be done still otherwise they will lose out in the end. Another shoemaker in Bakasi shoe section of Ariaria Market Mr Igwe Oti also described the move by the state government to bring Chinese shoemakers as a wrong one.
“My question is will the shoes produced by the Chinese bear made in Aba? With the introduction of these Chinese experts, no shoemaker will be able to have apprentice to learn the trade as is the case now,” Oti said.
Mr Oti stated that that the move by the government will negate the call for self-employment and development of craft. “My other worries is that the price of shoes produced by the Chinese will be low because they are going to produce in large quantities using automated machines.
The result is that we will no longer be able to sell our own shoes,” he added. The Abia State government after a tour of China brokered N81.5 billion deal for the establishment of a shoe industry in Aba the commercial nerve centre of the state. According to the state a Chinese shoemaker Mr. Zhang Huarong has signed a memorandum of understanding in the state to invest in the Aba Huajan Shoe industrial city which will be located in Aba, with the capacity to produce 5, 000 shoes per-day and employ about 10,000 people directly and indirectly.
In the MOU, the state government will provide the land while the Chinese experts will fund the entire project. The state government stated that the government’s intension to bring the Chinese people is to shift emphasis from Made in Aba to Make in Aba. Government said that the need to bring in the shoe investors is to keep up the pace of shoe manufacturing in Aba.
The spokesman for the government said that if the state allows shoemaking to remain what it is, the monopoly will be lost in the future if other states decide to bring in foreign shoe producers. Government also argued that the best way to develop the country is to adopt the Chinese model of public and private partnership for rapid industrialisation.
To further assure the shoemakers that the proposed Abia/Chinese partnership in shoe production will not throw them out of business the state governor met with the leadership of various shoe makers in Aba under the aegis of Omenka Shoemakers.
The governor said the meeting was to brief shoemakers on the gain of having Chinese investors in the Aba Shoe industry. He assured them that their business will be protected by the government. Governor Ikpeazu challenged them to take advantage of the coming of the Chinese to improve on their skills and learn new ways of making shoes.
He said: “We will do everything to protect the business interest of Abia shoemakers and will in the same vein do everything to counter attempts to frustrate government efforts to attract foreign investors into the state.” He told the shoe investors that what the state government did is a step further to boost made in Aba shoes.
He assured them that the government is working to ensure that the shoemakers get access to automated machines for increase production. He further assured the shoemakers when he said: “As those in the business I must brief you and assure you that the coming of the Chinese will not any way affect your business negatively, as your brother and governor, it is my duty to protect your interest and that I must do. But let me challenge you to take advantage of this coming to improve and upgrade your processes and systems in the industry.”
He also announced to them that efforts by the state government to improve their production include the concluded plan to send over 100 shoemakers from Aba to China for training in modern ways of shoemaking that will impact positively on their output and quality.The governor conclude by saying that the move by the government is to hold strongly the leather industry to increase the revenue base of the state and realise the much talked about technology breakthrough.