“Sometimes I ask myself, ’Why am I wasting my time manufacturing, as those who went into trading are richer than me, all because I chose to help my country’”
If you are looking for a Nigerian who walks his talk when it comes to advocacy for the patronage of made-in-Nigeria products, Chief Eric Umeofia is your man. You would be wrong if thought his advocacy stems from a selfish desire to sell the tomato paste his company produces. For, his Western suit made from local fabrics – which presents quite a unique picture – would leave you in no doubt about his genuine commitment to the Nigerian cause.
Yes, Umeofia believes in the Nigerian cause. It’s a cause that has pitched him against powerful forces in virtually all sectors of the national life – governments, importers, financial institutions, regulatory agencies, etc. He has fought many battles in demonstration of what he believes in, some of which have put his patriotism to test. Were it only for profit making, he would long have closed shop in Nigeria to relocate to other parts of the world where he has thriving businesses that do not give him the kind of headache he is getting from doing business in his own country. But his commitment is not all about money.
Umeofia is interested in seeing Nigeria take its rightful place in the comity of nations, economically speaking. His passion to grow the country’s economy is perhaps unparalleled. He had read about how five people made America great, and resolved to be one of those to make Nigeria great.
It is the reason he shunned importation of tomato paste, which most of his contemporaries do, and which offers quicker return on investment, preferring, instead, to take the rather long and winding route of manufacturing, not minding the myriad of problems that include inconsistent government policies, multiple taxation, virtually docile regulatory agencies, unfavourable exchange rates, competition from cheap and substandard imported tomato, etc.
He recalls an instance when he approached one of the big banks in the country for a credit facility to build a tomato concentrate plant in Kano in 2009. The bank pointedly advised him to import tomato paste, rather than waste time on local manufacture, reminding him of the concern of its directors and shareholders for dividends at the end of the financial year, which the uncertainty of manufacturing cannot guarantee. “They are not interested in committing to development”, Umeofia says, on the attitude of banks to industrialization. “All they are after is buying and selling”.
Umeofia says doing business in Nigeria is perhaps more risky than fighting Boko Haram. “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why am I wasting my time manufacturing, as those who went into trading are richer than me, all because I chose to help my country’”, he said recently in an interview. Such feelings, however, do not slow down his desire to contribute to Nigeria’s economic growth.
He has President Muhammadu Buhari to thank for providing a ray of hope for manufacturers in the country, through the decision by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to deny importers of goods that can be manufactured in the country access to foreign exchange. “Before the advent of this government, some of us manufacturers felt we made the greatest mistakes of our lives by being investors”, he said. “If not for President Buhari, I would have shut down this business by now or take it elsewhere”.