Despite a production capacity of over 40,000 pairs a week, hubs like Aba's Shoe Plaza are still largely underrated.
Few towns or cities in Nigeria can lay claim to the reputation that Aba has earned. Nestled in the eastern state of Abia, the city was first created by the Ngwa Clan of the Igbo people as a market town before a military outpost was placed there by the British colonial government.
Nowadays, Aba is a commercial hub, arguably the center of indigenous manufacturing and handicraft in Nigeria. Every day, thousands of artisans create hundreds of thousands of products, from shirts to furniture, in imposing, crowded storey buildings.
One of these buildings is Shoe Plaza, where artisans work at crafting slippers and shoes of all shapes and sizes from locally sourced leather.
The “Plaza” is actually two long one-storey buildings made up of an endless row of shops where the artisans create and store their wares.
The structure may be imposing to some degree but it does not even begin to indicate the scale of the operation that it houses.
According to Hon. Christian Okoro, Head of Shoe Plaza, about 40,000 pairs are made in the plaza every week.
“If it’s slippers, we can produce over 30,000 pairs in a week.”, Okoro says. “But if it's shoes, we produce more than 10,000 pairs. Because if we produce 200 pairs of shoes, it will take you between 3–5 days to finish building it”
Such numbers are a feat, considering that there is next to no automation and the artisans work with their hands, ripping, molding and sewing at any given time.
What is perhaps more interesting is that in a place where each artisan’s proclivities will always reflect in his craft, the people who make up Shoe Plaza have very interesting stories.
The eastern leg of #Pulse36 took Fu’ad Lawal and Chris Chukwuedo to Ariaria market, and Shoe Plaza, where they met Paul Andras Chidiebere, a student of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, who makes shoes at the plaza.
Paul’s story with leather and threads started in 2013, in the middle of an infamous ASUU strike that lasted the better part of 6 months.
“I was in year one. After our 1st and 2nd semester, and just before our exams, there was a strike.", Paul told Fu'ad. "For about two months, nothing was coming up for the strike to be called off, so I had to find something to do".
"I needed a better job that could help me fund my education, so I came here and learned the work. Within a month, I started working”, he continued.
Paul now makes an average of 40,000 naira every week at Shoe Plaza.
For all the impressive innovation and production that happens within Shoe Plaza and other similar structures in the area, Aba and the products that emanate from within the city are still largely underrated.
The mere mention of the term “Made in Aba” is often meant as a derogatory term, one that is meant to inspire derision and humor at locally made products perceived to be sub-standard.
It comes from a typical Nigerian tendency to associate originality and quality with foreign products. Rather than patronize local alternatives, the average Nigerian would rather fork out half a fortune on Gucci bags and Fendi slippers.
Ironic, when you consider that most of these “high-end” products are fake, imitations made, of all places, in dimly-lit rooms and warehouses in Aba.
Recently, efforts led largely by the administration of the Abia State’s Governor Okezie Ikpeazu have done much to correct the image of Aba and the products made there.
A massive campaign has been launced, on and off the internet, exhibiting the best “Made in Aba” products and inviting the artisans and patrons alike to carry the tag with their chest; “Made in Aba” is made for the Nigerian, sturdy, long-lasting and beautiful.
“We talk to our people to let them know that any of our products should carry our name”, Okoro says. “If you don’t want to write your name, then write ‘Made in Aba”.
Gradually, artisans are also catching on to this shift in portrayal and perception, and it is not unusual now to find a pair of shoes with “Made in Aba” proudly embossed on the sole.
“As our governor has introduced “Made in Aba” to the world, our people have started branding their shoes”, Okoro adds.
Those 40,000 pairs a week do not vanish into thin air; it is clear that Nigerians buy and wear shoes made in Aba.
As such, the move to rebrand the tag is a big step in the right direction; however, more must be done to improve production and build the Aba industry into one that is efficient and sustainable.
With the right amount of investment and the introduction of automated systems, Aba can produce all the shoes and slippers that Nigeria needs.