Wednesday, 31st May 2023

ABA… Untapped Economy Bedeviled By Poor Infrastructure

By Chuks Nwanne
04 October 2015   |   4:17 am
ANYONE from the Southeastern part of Nigeria will easily tell you how economically viable the city of Aba is; it dates back to history.

Aba-CopyANYONE from the Southeastern part of Nigeria will easily tell you how economically viable the city of Aba is; it dates back to history. Popularly called Enyimba City, ever before the establishment of a British military post here in 1901, Aba was a traditional market town for the Igbo race.

The Enugu-Port Harcourt Rail Line constructed by the British Colonial Government around 1916 opened a new vista in the development of Aba, into a commercial nerve of the defunct Eastern Region of Nigeria. And with the friendly disposition of the indigenes of the town to visitors, it didn’t take long before the city became a home for all.

By the 1930s, Aba had become a settled urban community and was naturally destined to blossom into a cosmopolitan settlement; certain factors were to combine to give the city a distinction of its own. For instance, the Aba River that joins the Blue River at Azumini provided a natural flow of human traffic in and out of the city, giving a boost to trade in palm produce in those days. On the other hand, the Ekeoha Market was the centre of attraction, as traders from different parts of the country settled in the area.

By the end of the Civil War in I970, many Igbo decided not to invest much outside their enclave as a result of the ‘abandoned property’ saga, which saw most of them lose their properties. With that fear in mind, Aba, therefore, became the second home of almost every Igbo man. This philosophical upsurge made Aba, not only to grow in numerical strength, but also in geographical size.

With a school of arts and science, secondary schools, a teachers training college, and several technical and trade institutes within the locality, it was no surprise that the city eventually became a large industrial and commercial centre, and has assumed the headquarters of handicrafts in the country. Many prefer to call it The ‘Japan’ of Africa.

But in real sense of it, there hasn’t been sufficient investment in the city. Though different administrations in Abia State mouthed plans for the commercial town, no concerted effort had been made to rebuild the economic hub of the east, take it beyond cottage level and earn foreign exchange.

Record shows that infrastructural challenges in Aba have had a long history. Many administrations, including the immediate past government led by T.A. Orji made series of efforts to address the situation, which seemed overwhelming. Notwithstanding, a recent visit showed that the town had seen good days. Aside from the introduction of illegal structures that has distorted the original master plan, the headache in Aba is usually man-made. Though government is not forthcoming with developmental plans, people here are not environmental friendly either.
For instance, on social media, the popular Ariaria Market in Aba remains a hot topic: it turns up everyday like a bad coin. To many, especially Abia natives residing outside the state, Aba is a good example of how not to run a town. But despite the enormity of the challenges associated with Aba, there has been a clear upsurge in the population accumulation of the town; reasonable cost of living seems to be the magic. And with the Enyimba Football Club of Aba still active in continental football, residents still have something to cheer.
Rough Ride To Aba

When you think of going to Aba, your first challenge is road, worst is it during rainy season. No matter the axis you choose, be rest assured it’s not going to be a smooth sail; the roads are terribly bad. Yet, most of them are Federal roads.

If you are approaching Aba through Umuahia, you have to go through the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, a Federal road, which is in bad shape right now. Though there are signs of ongoing construction work, that project has remained perpetually ‘work in progress’ for years. And if you are coming from Akwa Ibom axis, through Ikot Ekpene Road, be ready for a rough ride. For years, that Federal road has been a death trap, despite the level of movement between both states.

Coming from Port Harcourt axis into Aba, the story is not different. Ask any of Aba based importers and they will tell you how many billions they’ve lost on that road, transporting their containers from Onne Port to Aba. At the end of the day, it reflects on the prices of goods and services.

Despite the rowdy atmosphere, with horns blaring from commercial buses and Keke NAPEP, business activities thrive here; people rake in money daily, sometime under harsh conditions.

For instance, in this rainy season, canopy makers at Osisioma are in business, making colourful canopies of different shapes and sizes.

“It’s not as if business is that good, but we are making sales. Anybody doing business in Aba will tell you what we are going through; we’ve been crying to the government to help us. But I thank God that Okezie (Gov. Ikpeazu) is showing serious concern in Aba. If you look round, you will see caterpillars opening blocked drainages, which is the reason Aba is always flooded,” John, a canopy maker said.

At Ariaria International Market, the story is not palatable; rainy season seems to have compounded an already tensed situation. Over the years, the market has been in deplorable state, especially the roads and drainage system. Accusing fingers point at greedy natives, who built shops on drainages, thereby distorting free flow of flood. Poor environmental condition of the market seems to have forced some customers to look elsewhere.

“Business is low now because of the rainy season; getting into the market is not easy and customers don’t want to ‘swim.’ Even at that, they will come to collect levies from us. Government has been talking about what they intend to do in Ariaria; we hope they keep to their promises,” Uche Ojukwu, a trader in the market lamented.
Importers, Industries Lament High Duties, Multiple Taxation

LIKE the traders, industries in Aba are currently struggling to break even, after high duties and multiple taxation. The state of infrastructure, especially road and electricity remain a major concern for manufacturers, who are not having it easy with Chinese made products that come into the country cheaper.

“The issue of high duty we are paying here is affecting our business. There’s also multiple taxation; you pay environmental fee, warehouse fee, operational fee, sanitation fee and all sorts of fees. We’ve been battling with this over the years and at the end of the day, it adds to the cost of products,” Otems Ema, president Association of International Traders, said.

While urging the Federal Government and Abia State Governor to look into their plight, Otems, who is also the MD, Otems Nig. Ltd, said, “it’s not like we don’t want to pay, but let them streamline it, so we know what we are paying for. In Aba here, you have touts moving around and colleting money from us. At the end of the day, the money ends in private pockets. Let the government come clear with the tax policy; even if it’s to the local council, we can go and pay. We don’t want these touts to be disturbing our members.

“The area we are operating is a place where people don’t want to buy expensive goods. By the time you add all those taxes, it affects the pace of the business; you have goods in the warehouse for months. That’s slowing us down,” he said.

According to Otems, security challenges in Aba is on the rise once again.

“We don’t offload at night anymore; we used to, but now, when you offload at night, you have these boys with guns coming to harass us. After dealing with one group, another group will come; that’s what we call multiple taxation.”

Obviously, the poor state of roads in Aba, especially the Enugu – Port Harcourt Expressway, is digging holes in the pockets of importers and manufacturers.

“The Aba end of the Port Harcourt where our containers come from is very bad. Most times, the containers fall on the road. Again, before you lift a container in Onne Port, you have to pay about N200,000 to bring a crane, that’s after you must have paid at the port. Even if you try to take the expressway, the Ariaria road is very bad. At the same time, you have to pay labour to carry those goods to your warehouse. The environment is not very conducive; we don’t have good roads,” he noted.

The ACCIMA Intervention
OVER the years, the Aba Chamber of Commerce Industry, Mines And Agriculture (ACCIMA) has been in the forefront of strategic efforts to uplift Aba to international standard. Serving as a link between the investors and government, ACCIMA’s years of intervention seems to be paying off, as the current administration has shown signs of collaborating with the chamber to reinvent Aba.

Particularly, on July 7, 20015, governor Ikpeazu invited chamber members for a meeting in Umuaha, where he released a blueprint on his administration’s policy thrust for developing the state and extended a hand of fellowship to the organised private sector towards the realisation.

“At that meeting, we informed the governor without reservation, of our readiness to work with him for the success of all people-oriented programmes embarked upon by his government and we will not renege in our promise,” Chief Anthony O. Enukeme, President of ACCIMA, said.

From all indications, ACCIMA seems to have keyed into the Aba renewal project, with members eager to witness that needed infrastructural development. At a business luncheon hosted recently by the chamber, the body language showed that members are already adjusting to the blueprint of the new administration on Aba.

However, Enukeme, who is also the CEO of Tonimas Group of Companies, noted that various levies demanded by government agencies, poor electricity supply to power production plants and lack of access to fund in aid of micro, small and medium enterprises, remain challenges. To him, lack of both local and international credit is a barrier to business expansion.

“It is our belief that government evolves a working partnership with the relevant agencies to check the many bottlenecks usually associated with obtaining grants, to enable our people benefit from the schemes. There’s need for development of business clusters to assist small and medium scale industries, as is the case in China, Japan and India,” he said.

Just recently, Aba was granted an International Trade Fair status on leather, textiles and allied products by the Federal Government. However, non-availability of a permanent Trade Fair ground has made it difficult for Enyimba City to host a trade fair of such international status.

“Most of our local trade fairs have been organised at the Enyimba Stadium, Aba Recreation Club Field, Ngwa High School or the state polytechnic field. Our efforts to have a permanent trade fair complex has not materialised because the previous administration in the state failed to honour their promise to allocate land for the project. It is, therefore, our desired that Ikpeazu’s administration will help us by allocating a parcel of land to the chamber for the project,” Enukeme pleaded.

Untapped Aba Dustbin Economy

ABA carried for some time the unenviable tag of the dirtiest city in Nigeria and the reason for this was not far to seek. This city, which is renowned for its manufacturing and commercial activities, was plagued by the problems of insecurity and environmental disorder. Many visitors have also been quoted as saying that the city stank horribly, just as they criticised its bad road networks.

As at the time former governor, Theodore Orji, appointed Okezie Ikpeazu Deputy General Manager of ASEPA, his main task was to keep Aba clean on a sustainable basis. It was a challenge Ikpeazu accepted, by assuring the people that he would transform Aba to one of the neatest cities in the country.

A biochemist and former Head of Department of Applied Chemistry, Enugu State University of Technology, whose main focus is biochemical toxicology, Ikpeeazu made noticeable impact in the town during his stint with ASEPA. And with his emergence as governor, expectations are high.

“From what I’ve seen so far, I think he’s determined to change our environment. However, the situation in Aba is overwhelming; we need to educate our people about indiscriminate dumping of refuse. Once it’s raining, you see people dumping refuse in drainages and when they are blocked, the same people complain of flood. Yes, government has major role to play, but the people need to also change,” Chinyere Okere, a civil servant said.

Leo Ike Okoye, an Aba resident, hinted: “We appreciate what the governor is doing to keep Abia State clean. He did mention that he would clean Aba during his campaign and we are also observing it right now. Most of us that live in Aba today can see that the government is desilting drainages. As I’m talking to you now, Aba River is being desilted,” he said.

But Prof. Agwu Amadi, a renowned Professor of Public Health at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) is of the opinion that, beyond desilting and hauling dirt away, waste management is an economic asset.

“Everyday, if you stand by the road, you see lorries hauling irons, passing through Aba, Owerri to Lagos. Anytime I see such lorries with metal scraps, I ask myself, ‘does it mean there are no business men in Aba that can stop the hauling of these metals to Lagos to recycle and bring back to Aba as iron?’ Businessmen and women in Aba should consider setting up recycling plants in Aba. When we do that, we will not be talking about unemployment,” he said.

Amadi, who was born and bred in Aba, noted that electronic wastes in Aba could be turned into a major economy, if government and private sectors could partner and take advantage of the situation.

“Aba is known as Japan of Africa in those days; my brother taught me how to trade on secondhand clothes in Aba (okrika). From where these clothes come, they are wastes, but when they come here, they are very useful. These electronic wastes have been imported by us and are no longer useful, including phones, laptops, iPads etc. But some of them could be recycled to something very useful.”

In countries like China, according to the university don, human and animal excreta have been used as source of generating cooking gas and electricity.

“Every family collects their own excreta in a small chamber to produce biogas. If you put them together everyday, every month in a biogas digester, you don’t need to buy cooking gas and you can use it to power your house. In FUTO here, we used cow dungs to generate gas for cooking and electricity for the laboratory; it has been tested,” he said.

For those seeking new investment opportunities in Aba, this could be an option.

“Imagine what will happen if you pass five grams of excreta two times a day, and we are about 2 million people in Aba. As a good businessman, if you can haul it, you see that we will not complain of energy. Those of you who go to China and India, this is a very old technology; it’s not a story. Every community has it; every municipal has it, but what is happening in Aba? We throw them away,” Amadi lamented.

To the professor, what people call waste in Aba is an economic opportunity waiting to be tapped.

“If you go towards Ogbo Hill, what we call the abattoir, you see how we waste animal carcass; these are resources that can give you money. Nobody has taught of using those parts that can decay to think of making organic manure, but you can go for NPK, with all it’s health problems. The NPK fertilisers, which you use, have done a lot of damage to our health; that’s why most of our young men and women have cancer,” he said.

Over the years, Aba River has suffered severe pollution from industrial activities unchecked. But to Amadi, the river could be source of power generation.

“Those who lived in Aba in the 60s will tell you that Aba River has been shrinking due to pollution. In those days, we used to go there and swim. The same cannot be said of the river now. What people don’t know is that most of these things we pour into Aba River could be used as resources,” he said.

Aba Artisans Are Creative, But…
NO doubt, Aba artisans are creative. However, a good number of them lack basic discipline to up their game, because most of them are owner-managers, there’s no room for supervision, which in turn affects standard.

From shoemakers to tailors, carpenters, welders and Aba artisans in general, apprenticeship is usually the entry level. And because the setting is not formalised, the discipline is usually not there; everybody is a champion.

Basically, most artisans are in business to earn daily bread, which explain why business expansion is usually not given serious attention. The knowledge is necessary because it will broaden their horizon and help them plan bigger things. If not, most of them are fine with where they are today; they don’t want to grow their games.

“There’s also poverty mentality among artisans; they naturally see themselves as poor people, who are not worth something big. The feeling is that as a tailor, there’s a limitation to your achievement; a tailor is not supposed to have more than one room or two rooms or one car and stuffs like that,” and artisan told The Guardian.

Availability of raw materials in different varieties is also an issue that must be tackled. For instance, most fashion items that come from China are far from standard. The availability of petrochemical bye products has helped them to keep production cost moderate. For instance, research has shown that Nigerian made leather products are better than that of the Chinese, largely because they have leather properties in them; the same thing with clothes.

Most of the clothes coming from China don’t have natural fabrics; they are mostly petrochemical bye products, which means they can multiply up million or billion yards of material. But when it’s natural, like what you have in Aba, it has limitation of expansion and it’s a better quality. Presently, the Chinese have advantage over Aba when it comes to price. tionalised. If you look round, you will see that these are the people we need everyday of our lives, why are we looking down on them? Why do we keep thinking it’s cheap work? These individuals need to be put inside our educational agenda because what they are doing has gone beyond what we’ve been thinking that it should be.