Abia State is known for many things—its large cattle market, oil wells, and colorful festivals—but one of its biggest economic exports remains its dynamic shoemaking industry that has grown from a local market with a questionable reputation to a billion-naira industry whose products reach the shores of Cameroon, Senegal, Greece, China, Ireland, Canada, and Italy.
Located in the bustling commercial city of Aba, the shoe market is a testament to the state’s history of innovation-led industrialisation in the face of economic hardship. Most of its activities are situated in Ariaria International Market, nicknamed the “China of Africa” for its production of a wide selection of shoes and textile available at affordable prices. It has become the country’s foremost destination for those seeking indigenously-produced leatherworks and other accessories.
Its fame, and sometimes notoriety, helped it attract global attention. Certain key players in the industry have been able to woo Chinese, Brazilian, and Italian investors who are willing to spend top-dollar in developing the industry. With over 30,000 stores operating in the industry and producing two million shoes every week, it is regarded as a goldmine awaiting excavation. Though it remains unregulated and operates informally, estimates of the industry’s total worth go as high as N150 billion.
Aba’s shoe industry, however, has not always enjoyed this level of attention. Its troubled history makes its recent success all the more intriguing.
Under the order of Commander Ndubuisi Kanu, the then military governor of the old Imo State, Ariaria Market was established in 1976 as a way to provide relief for traders who had lost their shoemaking business during the infamous Ekeoha Market Disaster, which saw an entire market burn down in a mysterious fire. Losing their source of income was a two-fold tragedy for the mostly-Igbo traders who were still recovering from the economically-disastrous Biafran War. So the rise of the Ariaria Market was welcomed with open arms.
Over the years, artisans showed excellent craftsmanship, creating leatherwork that rivalled those made in technologically advanced factories in foreign countries.
However, the industry struggled to attain legitimacy in a country where imported fashion items had become the sole definition of what was fashionable. “Aba-made” became a term for low-quality and undesirable items. To ensure the stigma of their products did not affect their income, the traders took to slapping labels of foreign brands like Nike and Valentino on their shoes. These shoes flew off the shelves.
The opportune location of Abia and its functioning railway system allowed it to transport its product with ease. The shoes started to find their way to neighboring countries and became hot fashion items. Eventually, buyers started to place orders from the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Togo, Ghana, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As its economic potential became apparent, the industry enjoyed considerable assistance from the government. In 2018, the Bank of Industry launched a scheme that provided N400 million to artisans in Aba’s leather product manufacturing industry. In 2017, the Abia State Government finalized a deal with Huajain Shoe Industry, a Chinese firm, to set up a new $1.5 billion shoe market in the state.
In October 2020, the Federal Government announced a public-private partnership that would see to the establishment of shoe and leather factories worth N5 billlion in Abia and Kano States. In February 2021, the Enyimba Automated Shoe Factory delivered 3,000 commissioned boots to the Nigerian Railway Corporation.
It remains to be seen where the industry is headed, as investments pour in and the government provides more assistance to the traders, giving them the needed tools with which they can compete with their rivals in China, Spain, and Italy.
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.