Sam Hart, a Lawyer, is the Director-General of the Abia State Marketing and Quality Management Agency. In this interview with NIYI OYEDEJI, he speaks on how his agency has been able to oversee the production of over one million face masks while engaging the service of over 3,000 entrepreneurs.
YOU recently embarked on mass production of face and nose masks, What inspired this project?
It was the idea of the Abia State Governor Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu. At the onset of the pandemic globally and when it got to Nigeria, there was a dearth of medical essentials and even the ones imported and sold in Aba, the commercial nerve center of the state where unavailable. The governor then gave a charge to local producers to replicate most of the medical essentials that had become scarce and were in high demand. He then followed that up with grants to the producers to motivate them as these items were outside the scope of what they usually produced and they were not sure of patronage. The governor also ensured that the Abia State COVID-19 Task Force patronised the local producers for the medical essentials used by health workers in the state. My Agency was tasked with coordinating this revolution and we moved into the clusters and identified producers who were capable of meeting the demand and signed them on to commence production with samples of the foreign variants. We then leveraged social and traditional media to give publicity to what our tailors were producing and that was how the fire caught on. We are grateful for all those including your medium that showed interest in what we were doing and gave it massive publicity.
When was this agency established?
It was established in 2015 and I became the Director-General in November 2019 but Aba has always been in the forefront of local productions, so we did not reinvent the wheel. We only stepped in to standardise their production and give them massive coordinated publicity which has brought them to the limelight. We got orders from NGOs and corporate bodies and served as aggregators who could interface with any strata of clients and channel the demands to capable producers.
How many face and nose mask have you produced so far?
As of April 30, 2020, we have produced over 1 million facemasks within a period of 1 month. Verifiable.
In how many cities have you been able to circulate your products so far?
We have distributed to about 20 States in Nigeria so far. We handled the supply of Facemasks to Internally Displaced People in the entire North East Geographical Zone of Nigeria, we have orders coming from Kano, Kaduna, Benue and even Sokoto and it is a daily race to meet with the urgent orders.
What other things do you produce apart from nose and face masks?
We have also produced Coverall Personal Protective Gear for Health Workers and the surgical gowns worn by health workers. We get new samples daily to replicate and repeat orders means we are matching what they demanded for. Corporate organisations are also contracting us to produce personalised branded products materials for their free distribution to beneficiaries. We also produce hand sanitizers.
What distinguishes your products from others out there?
Our standards. Our products have been tested and certified by Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA). We submitted what we are doing for critical tests. We use ultraviolet rays to sanitize our products. Lots of products exist in the market which do not pass these tests and which were not produced to standard but in our case, we are adhering to the guidelines approved by Standards Organisation of Nigeria, the National Centre for Disease Control and other such regulatory bodies.
How did you ensure your products are of high quality?
We ensure that the workers who handle production are well protected while producing by enforcing the wearing of gloves, masks and other protection while handling the masks and PPE. We also ensure the elimination of germs and other contaminants by passing the final products through Ultraviolet Rays before final packing in waterproof casings so with our products, you are guaranteed that they meet the requirements of standards and effectiveness both in terms of protection and materials used.
How many employees do you currently have?
Aba currently has over 100,000 tailors scattered around the city working at their individual capacities. We are directly working with over 1,000 of them while a whole lot more are producing independently. I would say we have an average of 3,000 tailors we are working with directly while another 200,000 are working independently in associated ancillary services.
What are your expansion plans?
The Abia State Governor has already commissioned the building of an international garment centre equipped with all the modern equipments needed for fast and reliable production and that will come on stream before the end of the year. We are also in discussion with African Export-Import Bank to establish an Export Trading Company which will aggregate our products and sell to other African countries.
Why did you decided to take up marketing considering your degrees in Law
Oh well, Marketing was actually my first love before I took a Degree in Law. I have been Northern Regional Head at a Cosmetics Trading Company, creating market access for our relatively new brand and displacing other established brands in the market through innovative models like credit lines and guaranteed supplies and after sales support which ensured that our customers remained loyal to our brand. Over the years, I have also taken courses globally in marketing and business support from reputable institutions and this helped me to apply what I learnt to this current assignment. I am also blessed to be working for a boss (Governor Okezie Ikpeazu) who is a genius and always comes up with ideas ahead of the curve.
How was your journey to becoming the Director General of Abia State Marketing and Quality Management Agency.
I have been in government for some time now. I joined government in 2003 as Special Assistant to the Governor on Media. I worked in different capacities until 2011 when I took a sabbatical. I returned in 2015 as a pioneer aide of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu working as his Senior Special Assistant and later, Special Adviser. I was honoured to be asked to drive the Made in Aba Campaign at the onset of the Ikpeazu administration through which platform, I drove the passion of the governor for local production. It was in the course of the Made in Aba assignment that I was asked to Head the Abia State Marketing and Quality Management Agency which was the Agency directly responsible for the assignment I was already carrying out as a passion alongside my duty as Speechwriter to the Governor.
What are the challenges entrepreneurs are facing in Nigeria?
They are legion but I’ll address 3. 1 is access to finance. The average SME in Nigeria all have to source their own funds to start up business. Capital is tough and banks are only paying lip service to SME support. The interest rates on loans are prohibitive so it is suicidal to access loans from commercial banks at over 20% Interest rates and this is even after you have provided commensurate collateral. A lot of small businesses do not have the collateral required to access funding from commercial banks and that is a big problem. The Federal Government has tried to set up intervention agencies like the Bank of Industries and the likes but governance and management politics are a barrier. The second challenge I will point out is access to power. All businesses in Nigeria have to rely on alternative power to produce and this comes at a prohibitive cost. The effect of alternative power supply on small businesses in Nigeria is killing and this eats deep into the production cost of small businesses threatening their continued survival. The third but not the least is competition with foreign brands. Most Nigerians have a foreign consumption complex and automatically believe that foreign is better. This creates a distrust and unappreciation of indigenous brands and reduces market share. Once Nigerians begin to trust local products the more, additional capacity will be created and local businesses will truly thrive.
How do you think these problems can be solved?
By effective government policies. I will use what we are doing in Abia State as an example. On access to finance, the Abia State Government set up a Micro-Finance Bank which is providing low-interest, non-collaterised loans to small businesses in the State. The Federal Government has Agencies and Development Finance Institutions that are set up to offer these services but the barriers to accessing the funds are are detriment. On access to Power, the Abia State Government worked with the Rural Electrification Agency to set up an Independent Power Plant at Ariaria International Market, Aba which is currently providing uninterrupted power to over 35,000 businesses. This can be scaled with the right support. On Foreign Consumption Complex, again, the Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu led a personal campaign by insisting on wearing only made in Abia attire from his assumption of office in 2015 till date.
He also embarked on the co-option of political and social influencers to support the Made in Aba Campaign. This has bolstered the confidence of local producers who see their creations being adorned by the Governor and other influencial personalities which created a knock-on effect and generally boosted the acceptance and appreciation of local producers.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs out there?
To believe in themselves and the awesomeness of their creative expressions. To not think outside the box but rather, not see any box at all. To break barriers and step up to the plate and assert their creative ingenuity. The world will always embrace anyone with fresh and bold ideas meeting a need. A need always exists waiting for someone to tweak what has always been done and come up with functional but different approaches to solving them. And lastly, to not concentrate on the challenges but look at the possibilities and launch out.
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