By Ijendu Iheaka, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
Aba, a city in Abia, has had age long affinity with trading and business transactions, serving as a traditional market town for the Igbo in pre-colonial era.
It later became a British military post and a commercial centre for farm produce such as palm kernel and other agricultural products.
Observers of commerce activities in the area note that Aba market presently presents various trading activities that generate a lot of revenue for the state government.
According to them, apart from its major trade item in the pre-colonial era — palm kernel — Aba market has expanded its coasts and operational areas in other five major markets in the area, including Ariaria International Market.
The market, holding more than 11, 000 shoe makers and 50,000 garment makers, has included production of leather works, garment design, metal fabrication, auto spare parts and cosmetics and plastic products making.
Observers also note that the concentration of creative workers in Aba’s shoe and garment sector is the fulfillment of Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu’s promise to develop industrial clusters in Aba.
They recall that the governor promised to provide an enabling environment for the finished leather and garment sectors to thrive and also to boost the state’s revenue source in his electioneering.
Due to the ongoing numerous commercial activities in the market, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, also described it as the hub of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises in Nigeria.
In spite of this development, concerned traders observe that plan to establish industrial clusters for creative, artisanal sectors has been delayed.
Mr Okechukwu Williams, President, Leather Products Manufacturers Association of Aba (LEPMAS), observed that industrial clusters were fundamental to the leather and garment sectors.
“A cluster assembles the small and medium scale manufacturers under one roof, provides them with common facilities such as power, water, access roads and machines.
“Clustering the sectors together would ensure increased productivity, creation of jobs in the affected sectors and fostering competiveness,’’ he said.
Williams said that the LPEMAS members had been anticipating the realisation of the promised cluster facilities for them at Umukalika, Obingwa Local Government Area of the state, by the state government for a long time.
Similarly, Mr Onyebuchi Nwaigwe, President, Association of Tailors and Fashion Designers (AFTAD) in Abia, said that there were many problems facing the realisation of a cluster facility project in Umukalika.
“We do not have clusters but we have been anticipating that; we brought United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) here sometimes in 2009 and it tried to do that sort of thing for us but due to government policy the effort failed.
“UNIDO built a common facility centre at Industry Road, Aba, and brought some equipment for shoemakers and tailors with the agreement that after three years the state government will hand it over to the manufacturers.
“After three years, government refused to hand it over to us but it has been given it to contractors who do not know its purpose, resulting in non-use of the facility and the rusting of big machines,’’ he said.
He said that the realisation of a cluster facility for leather and garment workers in Aba would require government knowing what the off-takers or end user would need in the facility and what they were willing to do to have such facility.
He also said that the people were made to oversee the projects are not sincere, causing the delay and non-commitment shown over the years in the project.
Nwaigwe, therefore, urged the state governor to hand over the Umukalika cluster project to sincere people.
He also suggested that government should take a census of the leather and garment sector workers in Aba to know their numerical strength before deciding where to relocate any of them.
Mr Paul Ukasanya, the Information Officer of LEPMAS, said that the shoemakers would prefer a place bigger than Umukalika and closer to them, observing however that many leather product workers in Aba would not want to move to Umukalika because of the distance.
He also said that if the government could give the leather workers a piece of land supported with documents, they could build their own facility.
He said that another problem facing the cluster project in Umukalika “is the instability of the contractors who will come, sell interest forms, collect money and abandon the contributors without doing the project.’’
Ukasanya said that LEPMAS members had become cautious of taking part in the project, adding that if government would hand the project with documents over to a credible group of people, the project would be successful.
But Mr Emem Coffie, Managing Director, Reticulated Construction Nigeria Ltd, handling Umukalika cluster project, said that the company was waiting for guarantee from the state government to start work on the site.
He said that since they took over the job in 2015, he had only collected N200, 000 from sold forms to off-takers and as a result could not do much until the end-users had made enough commitment to the project.
According to him, the Umukalika cluster project is Public-Private Partnership (PPP) as contained in the agreement his company signed with the government and the off-takers.
He said that the off-takers were to buy the forms at N7, 000, fill and return it with initial deposit of N50, 000 to show commitment before his company could go to work.
He said that these were the terms on which his company could get the assistance of a bank to commit to building the project.
A visit to Umukalika cluster project site showed that the site was vacant at the time of visiting with only one block in its concrete foundation level while weeds covered other ditches dug for the foundation of some of the facility buildings.
The only cluster facility where work was ongoing was the Ovom Mechanic Cluster for motor spare parts dealers and mechanics.
Chief Henry Ikoh, the state Commissioner for Industry, however, said that the problem with the Umukalika Facility Project was its PPP model and the core investor.
Ikoh said that the government had created and was working on what he called “the mechanic cluster’’ at Ovom Community in Obingwa Local Government Area for motor parts dealers and mechanics.
He also said that work was going on in Umukalika, noting that government had acquired a 500- KVA generator for its operations.
Ikoh said that his office had not received any complaint of extortion of stakeholders in the project by government agents.
He, however, said that the N7, 000 that off-takers were asked to pay was a “small amount of money’’ for form to know the type of shop each would need.
He said that government was committed to clustering major businesses in Aba, insisting that “Umukalika Facility Project is for real and it is going to happen’’.
Expressing concern about how the land has been lying fallow in the host communities of Umukalika, Umuelendu, Umuokahia and Umuola, the residents of the area said since the land was taken from them in 1979, they had not been farming on it.
Mr Chigbundu Ikpoko of Umukalika and Mr Chinyere Iheonunekwu, residents of Umuokahia, said that the state government should do everything to actualise the project.
“The government should develop the land quickly to enable the host communities reap the benefits of it since they have ceased farming on it since 1979.
“The Federal Government should come and take over the site and build the facility so that Umukalika Facility Project will be actualised soonest,’’ Ikpoko advised.
According to him, the promise of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to encourage Aba local manufacturers to compete internationally would be realised with a cluster facility for Aba creative industries.
Stakeholders also note that Aba market would return in full to what it used to be — “Japan of Africa’’ — in high quality goods production if the leather and garment sectors are housed in a cluster facility.
They said that building a cluster facility for these two sectors in Aba would also make Abia economically independent improve the country’s foreign exchange earnings.