Chief Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma is the Executive Chairman of Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company. He is a man of many parts and an employer of labour. In this interview with The Union editorial team, he bares his mind on a number of issues concerning the growth of manufacturing in Nigeria. Excerpts:
We saw some men of the fire service at your vehicle manufacturing company. What were the reasons for the visit?
I have a product that will suit them and then I invited them to come and see.
After taking them round your company, what was their impression?
Well, they said that they never knew that such a factory existed but they were satisfied with what they saw. And they promised that they would start buying from us because of maintenance.
When we were at your office earlier, we noticed a lot of awards and the awards keep coming. Last week, you were honoured by Silverbird Television and many others are still coming. How do you feel gathering all these awards?
I believe that for people to recognize and give me such awards, it shows that they are interested in what I am doing. That makes me happy and encourages me to put more efforts.
As it is now, is the government cooperating with you? Because the problem most industrialists like you have is government interference, policies not being favourable?
I do not have any problems with the government. Government is happy with what we are doing. And also, we are happy with government.
Very soon, there would be a change in government which may necessitate a change in policies. Do you ever envisage that some policies would change when the President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari, comes on board?
Buhari was a military man and he knows what is good and what is bad. I do not think he will bring any change that will not help us. I believe any change he brings would favour Nigerians.
You are hopeful and optimistic that the good policies Jonathan started would continue with Buhari?
When Buhari takes over, anything he feels is not good in the government, he has the right to change it. He would do his own so that we would see it and know whether it would better our lives or not. We do not need to tell him what to do. We believe him; that is why we voted him in.
So far, is everything going well in your business?
We have no problem in sales, business is going well. The patronage is there, Nigerians are buying our vehicles.
What about the government; are governments at all levels buying your products and keying into your vision?
Yes. They are all buying.
You have engaged a great number of Nigerians. How many people are on your workforce at the moment?
I have a staff strength of 7,500
Sometimes, people think that made in Nigerian goods are not okay. In other words, some Nigerians prefer foreign goods to locally produced goods. What assurance are you giving Nigerians that vehicles manufactured by Innoson can compete favourably with vehicles produced in any other part of the world?
Vehicle manufacturers in Nigeria can compete favourably with their counterparts anywhere in the world. Vehicle standard is the same standard anywhere in the world.
What are some of the challenges that your company is facing with the introduction of automotive policies by the Federal Government?
Policy or no policy, the issue is that if Nigeria wants the automotive industry to grow, everybody must try to support the production of cars in Nigeria, because when Nigerians support the local manufacturing companies , it would help in so many ways. The automotive industry is in need of manufacturers; the issue of labour force would be settled because many people would be employed and that is our major headache.
What of affordability, because part of the things people say is that Tokunbo vehicles are cheaper but brand new vehicles whether locally manufactured or imported, are expensive; not many people can afford them. What do you have to say about that?
That is the reason we started manufacturing cars locally. We have vehicles of N1.4 million which is the same price compared to the Tokunbo cars which also go for one point something million too. It is cheap now because they are locally made.
On the issue of spare parts for the vehicles, can they be accessed everywhere or must someone come down to your manufacturing plant in order to get them?
Like other vehicles, the spare parts are everywhere. This means that they can be easily sourced from anywhere. But if one has any difficulty getting the spare parts, all he needs do is to simply call us and we will direct him to the exact shop where he could get the parts.
We also saw trucks and luxury buses at the plant. Does this mean that you also manufacture trucks?
We manufacture buses but we haven’t started manufacturing trucks. We manufacture from 50-70-seater buses.
Where do you see this business in the next five to 10years from now?
I believe that in the next five to 10years, Nigeria would be home to auto-manufacturing; so many companies are coming to join. So by then, Nigeria will dream about being big in Africa in the auto industry.
What informed the decision to go into the manufacturing of vehicles?
I have done a similar thing on motorcycle manufacturing in Nigeria. Before I went into motorcycle assembly, I was a spare parts dealer for both motorcycles and motors. That was when I noticed that it was expensive to buy motorcycles in the country. I decided to find out why and I observed that there were only four companies importing motorcycles into the country. They are Leventis which brought in the Honda motorcycles, Yamakum that brought in Yamaha motorcycles, Boulos brought in Suzuki and CFAO that brought in Kawasaki. The way they brought them in was by shipping about 40 motorcycles in one 40- feet container and the freight charge would take about 40 per cent of the cost and this was the main reason why motorcycles were being sold for about N150,000 in Nigeria. So when I travelled abroad, I discussed with them and they gave me the motorcycle in pieces, in spare parts; so I brought them here, assembled them and sold them for N70,000 which is half the market price. Based on my selling price, people started buying new motorcycles again foregoing the fairly used ones.
After a while, I looked at it again and noticed that motorcycles had a lot of plastic components on its body. This made me to set up a plastic plant in Enugu to support the motorcycle plant. Having set up the plastic plant which now enabled me to produce the plastic parts, I further slashed the price to N60,000 which is the selling price of motorcycles in the Nigerian market today. I am the one responsible for that.
You appear to be into so many things at the same time, is it not better to concentrate on one?
As I mentioned earlier, it was the establishment of the motorcycle plant that led to the establishment of the plastic plant. It is a chain business. One cannot function without the other. Though I have a tyre plant that manufactures motorcycle tyres, it is just to support the motorcycle plant too. But for my innovative intervention, motorcycles would not be sold at N60,000 in Nigeria today; if you stop them, the price of motorcycles would go up again.
Industrialists face a lot of challenges – power supply, roads etc. Does this affect the cost of production?
My factory has 24-hour power supply. If the national grid goes off, I have generating sets on stand-by to provide power. It does not really affect the production cost per say because even the national grid is not cheap. It is the masses that pay not me.
Looking at your payroll, what percentage of foreigners do you have or is it 100 per cent Nigerian?
I have 7,500 staff who are Nigerians and 40 foreigners. Which means it is 100 per cent Nigerian.
Was it the 40 foreigners who trained the Nigerians or you sent them abroad to undergo training especially on the new technology?
Any one we are doing, we bring foreigners who know about it to train Nigerians on it. And once the Nigerians have understood it, the foreigners would hand over the machine to them.
Any other advice for aspiring entrepreneurs on what they need to do or know to be like you?
I believe that anything anybody is doing, if you are serious about it, you would develop it even bigger than you thought. Whatever the profession, if you work hard at it, you would become better at it and others would learn from you.