by Victor Akhidenor
16 years ago, Jude Okereke decided to become an entrepreneur.
After learning the ropes from his elder brother, he took the plunge and became a manufacturer of bags in the famous Ariaria market in Aba, Abia state.
But in all these years, the 38-year-old father of three has not made a single bag for his children.
“I don’t make school bags and won’t make one because of my children,” he says.
“I can make it though, but won’t even for my kids. I specialise only in ladies bags and I don’t have time to make school bags. There are people who do that.
“I buy my children’s bags and don’t mind the cost. It’s less stressful that way.”
Aba, the commercial hub of the South East is renowned for production of leather products such as bags, shoes, boxes, belts, and boots. The city is also known for production of soap, cosmetics, drinks, dye, roofing sheets, plastics, paints, toilet papers, fabricated machines among other things.
The famed Ariaria market houses a lot of these local manufacturers who are into the production of various goods.
Okereke, who completed his secondary school education in 1998 and has a diploma certificate in computer studies, would have been doing something else other than being in Ariaria market had he found a white-collar job.
“Because of unemployment in the country, I had to join my brother who was already a bag maker in this market,” he says.
“Before I came into the bag making section, I checked other areas and found out that bag making is more convenient and economical; other lines like shoe making, belt making require more capital to set up than bag making.”
Out Of The Box
Bertrand Onwuka, stopped his education at the elementary level in 1977. Afterwards, he began trading sports equipment at Ariaria market. Lack of money to grow the business, coupled with dwindling sales led him to close the business, after which he moved to making boxes in 1999.
“I ventured into box making because I was fascinated by it; the process of making it from raw material to finished goods excited me,” he says. “I learned it for four years before I started mine.”
“I started from Olumba street which is close to A-Line,” he continues. “I get the raw materials (plywood, gum, aluminium) from Onitsha and Aba.”
“It takes a day to produce a bag but with more hands I can make more,” he says, speaking about his work with a vigour that might confound the untrained eye, wondering what is meant to be special about these boxes.
“It’s special because I use foreign materials which stand it out from others,” he says. Our design is very attractive and it’s acceptable and presentable. Ours is durable too. You can’t sit on other boxes unlike ours. It’s very strong and uniquely made. I bet you can’t see these types of design elsewhere.”
Beyond that, he understands the importance of the personal in his business.
“I am well known in the market and beyond,” he says. “So it’s quite easy marketing and selling my product. Some place orders while some are walk-in customers.”
Like Okereke, he also needs money to grow his business.
“I need finance to support the business. We have some equipment that aid our work but we resort to manual use with a saw because of lack of electricity,” he says.
“I would love to own a delivery van but no money for that yet. I can hardly meet up demand in Onitsha and Port Harcourt because I don’t have a delivery van.
“There was a time the government promised to give us loan to boost our business but nothing came out of it. What we need most is electricity. With it we can produce faster and with less stress.”
Walking the talk
Ejike Nmamadi, an Imo native, came to the market in 2000 looking to learn the art of shoe making.
“My destiny led me to shoe making instead of any other handwork,” he says, explaining that the rudiments of the work took him two years to grasp.
“I love making shoes,” he continues. “It takes me and my four assistants two weeks to produce 1,100 pairs. I don’t do the entire process myself because we have tailors who do the sewing and we also make use of the people that do stamp. My job is to turn it into a shoe.”
His brand, “Ejico Shoes” has amassed a popularity beyond his immediate environment, getting regular patronage from as far as Kano, Maiduguri, and Lagos.
However, the business isn’t without its unique challenges in today’s Nigeria.
“The people that import the raw materials have increased their cost price.” he says, lamenting the current exchange rate woes facing the country. “Before we sold a shoe for N400 but now it goes for N450.”
“Another challenge is getting enough soles for the shoes we make. The company that sells it to us complains about shortage of materials. There are soles made locally but it’s not as good as the foreign ones.”
Like the others, he sings a familiar tune about the need for infrastructure. “I want the government to provide good roads inside the market and those leading to the market,” he says.
“The president of this market is trying his best. Early 2015 he fixed the road to a manageable state but it caved in around June 2016.
“Now it’s left for the government to fix it properly. The bad road discourages customers from coming to the market and that obviously affects sales.”
Tempo Opriko, a belt maker, shares similar feelings. “We make our belts manually but with industrial machines it will be faster,” he says. “On the average, I do 600 belts per day with my two staff but with a good machine, we will do more.”
“If the government can provide us with industrial machines it will really go a long way in boosting productivity and sales.”
He is quick to stress the huge potential which exists in the business.
“We supply at Onitsha, Idumota, and even here in this market,” he says. People from Cameroon come to buy from us and also from the northern states of the country,” he says.
“The turnover is quite impressive but it depends on your capital. If you have N50,000 you could make N300, 000 at the end of the year. So imagine what you will make if you have N3m or 5m to play with.”
Beyond Biafra is YNaija’s citizenship series for the month of April. Find more entries in the series here.