By Innocent Eteng/Port Harcourt
His hands danced rhythmically weaving a nexus of cane into a-near complete native hat. He whistled to himself as though intending to wade off external distractions. He smiled slightly, looked almost askance, and then compared the size and beauty of the yet-to-be-completed hat to a ready one.
But his efforts towards getting a loan facility to ease and expand his cane business have proven abortive, yet he seems to retain a tinge of pride and self-fulfillment.
“This is what I do for a living,” he said. “Apart from the money it brings, it gives me a sense of nature because cane craft adds to our culture and tradition,” he said.
Lucky Ebong, 43, is the chairman, Cane Workers Association in Oyigbo Local Council of Rivers State. He is also one of the 71 percent of micro, small and medium enterprises, MSMEs, that a 2015 survey by The Credit Crunch (commissioned by the Central Bank of Nigeria) said lack access to financial credit due to factors like “lack of required collateral, high interest rates, and a lengthy documentation process.”
The father of four ekes out a living through cane crafting at number 34 Aba Port Harcourt Road. He has been in the vocation for 23 years and it has been pivotal to his livelihood, right from childhood.
“As a child, I used this business to train myself in school. This is what I used to do my marriage. I train my four children in school from this business. I trained my three sisters and brother with this business until two of them (girls) got married and one of them is in the polytechnic,” the Akwa Ibom State indigene said.
Being a vocation that involves the production of furniture and artistic works with skeletal components from willow, natural thick canes and bamboo stems; does cane craft deserve any government and private sector investment? Can it contribute significantly to the reduction of unemployment and boost export?
To these questions, past experiences from the cane weavers lend a resounding yes.
Raw materials for cane products are abundantly found in Akwa Ibom and Cross River States as well as in some other places in the Niger Delta.
Finished cane works range from traditional tents and walkways for traditional marriage ceremonies to cane hats; from baby beds to different categories of chairs, cupboards, stools, baskets etc. Hike in the prices of iron and wooden upholstery furniture has, in recent times, given relevance to cane furniture, which is priced lower.
Beyond the Nigerian and African shores, cane craft has assumed a universal recognition as it is well consumed in Europe and America. It is no wonder that Ebong and his colleagues once had patronage from foreign expatriates who worked with multinational oil companies in the Niger Delta. “The business was very attractive and fast-moving. I know foreigners and oil companies that used to come here and buy in bulk from us”.
But following surge in militancy and high level kidnapping, most MOCs and their expatriates moved their offices from the Niger Delta to Lagos, thus halting patronage to cane crafters like Ebong. “When many oil workers left this place because of kidnapping, it affected our market.”
However, consolation came from sudden and recent recognition of cane works as giving a traditional colouring to traditional marriage events through the used of cane tents, walkways, baskets and others.
“In the year 2000, there was the introduction of marriage cane tents and walkways into traditional marriages. That has attracted good market for us,” said Akan Sunday, another cane crafter.
Sunday, 39, and father of three said well-built cane furniture and products are durable and can last for between “10 and 15 years”, hence can compete with wood furniture in terms of durability.
The challenge however is in the lack of necessary machines to move from manual production and give top-notch finishing touches; an aspect the crafters said they need government to come in since loan acquisition is almost beyond their reach.
“The future of cane craft is a good one. But if government comes in, we can afford to introduce machines for making the products. Some of these machines we need for scraping of wood, drilling and sawing are very expensive. For now we do all these things manually using nails and hammer. For example, the light we use to bend the willow is ordinary burning fire that is why you are seeing those black spots there (pointing at finished cane chairs),” said Blessing Ekop, another cane craft professional.
Lucky Ebong’s elder brother, Effiong Ebong, is also into cane crafting and said prices for the required equipment can be as high as N1.4 million. For example, he said wooden pole grinding machine costs N1.4 million and table saw costs up to N600,000.
Nigeria should learn from Ghana that set up one with N127m
In February 2015, the government of Ghana recognised the potential of cane craft and followed suit with the establishment of a craft centre at Ayi Mensah in the Greater Accra Region, at the cost of $416,000 (N127m). The centre; known as the Bamboo, Cane and Rattan Village; houses bamboo, cane and rattan artisans, with many empowered by the government. That venture saw the return of many Ghanaian cane craft practitioners who were hitherto in Nigeria returning to Ghana.
“I had Ghanaian colleagues here working with us. But when their government invested in cane craft, they left us and today they are doing very well. Their government takes it (cane craft) very serious and they (government) ensure that it is well taught in schools. This is what our government should do,” the senior Ebong, who is also a tutor to potential cane crafters, said.
On its employment potentials, 38-year-old Blessing Ekop who takes care of his family of three (two children and a wife) from the proceeds he makes from crafting cane, said: “We want government to see with us that this is something that can create employment for youth in this country. They (government) should make it popular by giving it the required attention. We need machines to make this work easier and to give good finishing like the foreign ones we see.”