By EMMANUEL AZIKEN, Political Editor
First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, who calls Mr. Innocent Chukwuma ‘my son’ is obviously not the only proud Nigerian excited about the entrepreneurial skills of the 53 year old Nnewi born billionaire. Just about any Nigerian that would tour any of Chukwuma’s factories in Nnewi, Anambra State or Enugu, Enugu State would show a kindred spirit to a man who has used sheer ingenuity, robust energy and what some associates say unusual honesty, in positioning Nigeria at the threshold of an industrial revolution. Chukwuma in 2011 put Nigeria in the league of vehicle producing countries after his Nnewi factory rolled out the first truly made in Nigeria vehicles.
The finished products from Chukwuma’s factory are in every way comparable to the imported vehicles from abroad. While many Nigerians would be delighted to know that the IVM GS 2.4L SUV made by Chukwuma’s Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing, IVM compares in every respect with any of the foreign made SUVs, the real thrill for many would be seeing for the first time, the first skeleton of a vehicle being made in Nigeria. Right from scratch! Our editorial team had the rare privilege of being conducted through the motor factory at Uru Nnewi.
Engines for the vehicles are, however, for now imported as Completely Knocked Down, CKD parts. A number of other accessories are also imported but mostly in raw material forms. The most conspicuous element imported is the flat iron sheets, and that, because the ambition by Nigeria to produce flat steel sheet through the Ajaokuta Steel Company has remained a pipe dream after billions of dollars were wasted.
Chukwuma’s IVM factory has five large halls each measuring about 100 meters by 50 meters from where the first skeletons of each of the 12 different types of vehicles are churned out. Innoson which started production with the double cabin pick up and 15 seater mini buses in 2011, today produces mini buses, 45 seater buses, 37 seater buses, 23 seater buses (comparable to Toyota’s Coaster buses) and giant garbage trucks used for refuse disposal. If it is an automobile, just place the orders and it will be made to specification, here in Nnewi, Anambra State.
The icing on the cake is the plan for the first time to commence the production of motor cars in the plant. The first car is expected to roll out from the factory in April, just a couple of weeks away. Quite unlike the specialised auto roll out lines in the Western world where one production line is programmed to roll out a single vehicle, Innoson has two production lines used in making the 13 product ranges that come out from the factory. One production line is used for the mini buses, double cabin pick-ups and the SUV product ranges. The other production line is used for the heavy vehicles, buses and trucks.
Once the factory sets out to make a particular brand, moulds and other configurations adapted for that particular brand are set in place till the determined number of vehicles to be produced is reached. At every stage of the process, quality control staff who have a station in a cubicle within one of the production lines check to ensure that the shape, complement and component meet the quality standardwith regard to speed, stability, integrity and so on. The quality control staff go about their duty with a checklist to ensure that every stage of the process is standardized and certified before the next.
The very first stage in production is the welding of the iron bars that hold the framework for the vehicle. Once the bars have been joined together by welders, the frame is set on a trolley. The trolley is Innoson’s own manual adaptation for the automated rolling line that is found in advanced countries.
With the vehicle frame upon the trolley, it is then pushed to the next stage where the flat sheets welded together to form an entity at another site within the hall, is now set with a pulley upon the iron bar skeleton to give the vehicle shape. Thereafter, other additions are progressively added with the vehicle still on the same trolley which is rolled by workers from one production stage to the other. At the end of the mechanical and electrical installations, the vehicle’s body shape is perfected with the fitting with body fillers, the removal of all grease before painting in an oven
At the end of the process, the vehicle is subjected to at least four key tests including rain test, speed test, brake test and stability test. In the rain test, the vehicle is brought into an enclosure where water from various hoses is directed at the vehicle to check for possible leakages. The speed, brake and stability tests are all done in the factory on devices impoverished with computerised screens to allow assessment of the vehicles in real life situation.
Also remarkable are the spin offs that are coming from the Nnewi factory. Many Nigerian companies from near and far are now flocking forward to provide vehicle components for the company. Ibeto Industries supplies the brake system used in some of the vehicles.
Cutix PLC, an electrical cable company, is also said to be developing auto cables for IVM vehicles. AZ Petroleum is providing lubricants and a number of local companies in the Nnewi area are also producing components for the IVM vehicles. A number of plastic components are also sourced locally especially from Chukwuma’s plastic factory in Enugu, which according to some reckoning is the biggest plastic factory in Africa.
Indeed, Chukwuma’s venture into manufacturing of motor vehicles followed a seven year study that came after he had earlier ventured into the assembly of motorcycles. Through his motor cycle assembly business, he successfully ran tokunbo used motor cycles that dominated the local market ten years ago out of the Nigerian market. With tokunbo motorcycles selling for about N80,000 and Innoson’s brand new motorcycles selling for N60,000, it was not difficult for many Nigerians to choose.
The plan to commence car production as from next month is exciting many Nigerian stakeholders in the auto industry. IVM buses are already taking a substantial proportion of the fleets of many local transportation companies including state transport companies of Delta, Anambra among others.
Given the revolutionary effort in industrialisation, one would have expected Chukwuma to be based in Nnewi supervising the venture. But no, the entrepreneur operates about 110 kilometers away in Enugu, in another state entirely. In his efforts to beat down prices as a way of sustaining his dominance of the motorcycle market, Chukwuma had at the turn of the century opened a local plastic industry to manufacture plastic components of the motorcycles.
The plastic making venture which started after he bought over the then moribund Enugu State owned Eastern Plastics has today grown to become what many say is the single largest plastic business in Africa. The Innoson Technical and Industries Company Limited, Enugu, has spread to the manufacturing of high quality household and industrial plastics, health and safety accessories, storage containers including jerry cans, fixtures and fittings, electrical components and accessories.
The production outfit spread out across a wide expanse of land along Abakaliki road in Enugu produces many goods that many in the country would have otherwise believed were produced abroad. The factory which works in eight hour shifts, and many times into the night is besides Chukwuma’s other industrial concerns that include a foot mat making factory in Enugu and a motorcycle factory in Nnewi.
Chukwuma has undoubtedly succeeded where many of his fellows have failed. He has overcome the common challenge of poor infrastructure and epileptic energy in the country, braved the odds against his limited educational qualifications and shrugged off the political permutations that favour only the well connected to put himself in the records.