By Nneka Chile and Abraham Achirga
LAGOS/ABUJA (Reuters) – Two men in gray jumpsuits brush glue onto rubber soles, while factory machines whir in the background. Elsewhere, women perched behind industrial sewing machines attach leather swatches to sturdy-looking men’s shoes.
The production line could be anywhere in the world. But Bertram Dozie, the chief executive of the newly opened Bata Nigeria shoes plant, hopes this Abuja facility heralds a renaissance for Nigerian-made shoes.
The factory, which opened in late 2019, can produce more than 500,000 shoes annually. It employs roughly 120 people.
Bata Nigeria is a franchise tied to Bata, a historic shoe company based in Switzerland, and present in 70 countries. The Nigeria franchise has stores in the capital, Abuja, the southwestern megacity Lagos and southern oil city Port Harcourt.
Bata Nigeria also sells shoes directly to Nigerian schools, for pupils as part of their uniform, and stocks other stores in the country.
Nigeria’s government hopes companies like Bata can spur the local manufacturing sector, create jobs and reduce Africa’s biggest economy’s reliance on oil sales.
It has tried to stimulate this with its long-running “Made in Nigeria” agenda, which included placing import restrictions on shoes in 2007.
The shift to locally-made goods is slowly taking effect. In 2010 Nigeria imported $180 million worth of footwear. By 2018 this figure had fallen to $100 million, mostly from China.
Dozie, surrounded by shoes in one of the company’s showrooms, described the market opportunities for locally-made mass-produced shoes in Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million people as “glaring”.
Bata, once a household name in Nigeria, closed its factory in the country around 20 years ago. Brand recognition has helped its return.
It sells everything from strappy heels and protective work boots for adults to black leather school shoes. Prices range from 34,000 naira ($111) for leather boots to just under 6,000 naira for plain casual shoes for children.
Dozie, 39, remembers wearing the shoes as a child as part of his school uniform.
Bata was founded 126 years ago in what is now the Czech Republic. A local company began marketing Bata in Nigeria in the 1930s, and manufacturing the shoes in the west African country in the 1960s. Reuters archive footage from 1971 shows a Polish delegation touring a thriving Bata shoe plant in Lagos.
Nigerian manufacturing still faces serious disadvantages due to frequent power outages, poor-quality roads and jam-packed ports that push up the cost of raw material imports.
The absence of reliable supply chains of rubber can also pose problems.
But Dozie is not alone in hoping that the “Made in Nigeria” label will become a source of pride for consumers.
Tokunbo Onagoruwa, chief executive of Lagos-based shoemaker City Cobbler also said attitudes have shifted.
“When I started I wasn’t putting my label on the shoes. I didn’t want people to know they were made in Nigeria,” Onagoruwa said, adding “now people wear ‘Made in Nigeria’ with all pride.”
It helps, she added, that a good quality locally-made shoe costs around £35 ($45), compared with £150 for a high-quality import.
Dozie said, “Our citizens are working for themselves and producing these shoes, so people enjoy that story.”