New automobile policy’ll boost Nigeria’s economy –Innoson Vehicles boss

Chief Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, CEO, of Innoson Vehicles Manufacturing Company Limited, a leading auto manufacturing company based in the Eastern part of Nigeria. In this interview with OLUSEGUN KOIKI, Chukwuma talks extensively on the new automobile policy as announced by President Goodluck Jonathan, its impact on the future of the country’s automobile industry, among other issues. Excerpts:

About few weeks ago, the Federal Government introduced a new National Automotive Policy, which seeks to end importation of vehicles into the country and encourage local manufacturers. What is your say on this policy?

I think it was about time someone gave serious thoughts to the issue of developing the country’s automobile industry. I think it was about time someone opened the eyes of the nation to the huge losses the country have been incurring in importing motor vehicles into the country. I think it was time the country got energised to move forward and recover the several years of opportunities that have been lost by following the easy way out of making everything valuable to Nigerians, but denying real value of the economy. Having said this, I must commend the present government under President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan for the bold steps that have been taken towards not just ensuring the reduction of the importation of fairly used vehicles, but also the encouragement of local manufacturing a serious matter of government policy.

The government notes that the country would save a lot of money when local capacity in vehicle manufacturing is developed. But what they did not capture is the massive boost the economy would get in terms of employment generation and what in economics, is called localisation.

You see we have been in this business for more than seven years driven solely by faith in our country. It has been tough. But I can assure you that when this policy takes root, and the industrial cluster begin to develop in our region, Enugu and Anambra, many more allied industries that will feed factories like ours will develop and that would even create more jobs, more capital injection, more hands on training and development for the industry and more research that can afford us the truly Nigerian cars, like the ones we are building at the moment. I bet you, Nigeria is in pole position to rule the African motor vehicles market if this policy is followed to the letter.

If this policy is fully implemented, what impact do you think it will have on the economy?

At Innoson, we are already making the difference by taking the bull by the horn to market truly Nigerian cars – original in design and brand. We are not selling franchises. We are not an assembly plant for some foreign franchise. We are original Nigerian brand. I am sure you know the perception challenges such a project could face, but we confronted it head on and to me, that is a major difference. But taking this further, we will be buoyed by this to really begin stronger push of the IVM brand, engage in more research to improve on what we already have and convince smaller investors to place their bets on the sector so that some of the components we need to make our vehicles can be made available on demand and at value cost to the business. When this matures fully, you can be sure that Nigerians would be able to buy tasteful brand new cars, made truly for Nigeria and at very low cost. You can be sure that with this policy, cost of motor vehicles in the country would progressively drop. And as a player, I see cars costing 30 to 40 per cent less.

There is a perception about product that is produced in Nigeria, with this perception, how successful do you think made in Nigeria cars can go?

We have had to deal with that since we started, but I think that is exaggerated and I have facts to support this. Before Nollywood, Nigerians were feasting on Hollywood and Indian films. Chinese films were also very popular. But now what is the situation? With the emergence of Nollywood where Nigerian and African stories are told with steady improvement and with touch of the African passion, most of us have forgotten that there was a time we thought Nigerians could not make films that would sell. The same revolution happened in the music industry. In the field of fashion, we are seeing the same thing. The truth is that, Nigerians like good life and good life comes with quality products and services. The revolution that happened in these industries is what would take place in the motor manufacturing industry in the country and I am optimistic the country will soon begin to flaunt Nigerian motor vehicle labels. At Innoson, we are already looking at the larger African market.

Apart from selling your products in Nigeria, do you market beyond the shores of the country?

We are in various parts of Africa at the moment. For instance, our vehicles are now bought and sold in Ghana; we are selling in Cote d’ivoire, Mali and Chad at the moment. And the interesting thing is that in these countries, our vehicles are so well accepted; you would think we had been in the market for several decades. Their satisfaction is not just from the mere fact that we were able to give them good quality motor vehicles. They take pride in the fact that this is an African initiative that might be a test case for the kind of leapfrog the continent could witness if all talents are harnessed towards that purpose. In other African countries where we have sold these vehicles, the joy that we have seen is greater than what was the case in our home market, Nigeria.

What was the initial fear you nursed when going into auto manufacturing business?

I knew there would be some challenges, but I was also aware that, as they say, Rome was not built in a day. I am also aware that there are other great brands that looked like late entrants, but which went ahead to upstage the so-called established brands.

When we started, we were not bullish. We knew the challenges that lay ahead and that was why we started on a very small scale, believing we would grow when the market sees the values in what we are offering. And this has worked for us because we have been growing significantly since we entered the market and I can assure you that those heights that the likes of Honda, Toyota and others have been able to reach, we will also get there one day.

What were the challenges that confronted you at the initial stage?

The important thing for us then was quality assurance. We had it at the back of our minds that when something is good people would want to buy and get good value, they tell others and before you know it, everyone in at your doorstep seeking to be part of the good news. I have global benchmarks of standard driving our hands and having ensured this, I was sure the market would be there for us. So far, we have not been disappointed.

Apart from the Government who are your primary clients, what other companies patronise your products?

You can find my vehicles everywhere in the country. A good number of transporters across the country now use Innoson buses because they are more comfortable with the vehicles and have discovered that their maintenance is easy and their spare parts are available everywhere. If you go to E. Ekesons today, they have a lot of my buses on their fleet. The list includes Young Shall Grow, Autostar, Orizu Motors, and many of the popular transporters in Benin and Lagos.

Given the level of your success, what do you think is responsible for the over dependence on importation in the country?

I think there is a lot of confusion in Nigeria. The fact is that most of us are not alive to the fact that there is no one from outside the country that can develop this country except Nigerians. We have kept looking outside the shores of the country for development direction when we should be looking inwards to determine our own peculiar development imperatives and design such the way it would suit us. We have Indians and Chinese all over the country masquerading as foreign investors, but these are businessmen that are interested in how much they can earn here and repatriate to their home countries. I am sure you are aware that the present government has many initiatives designed to make Nigeria industrial haven. They are doing so many things to encourage local enterprise. They are providing avenues for local enterprise. They are providing avenues for local capacity building in so many areas, especially manufacturing.

What form of support has your company received from Government since you commenced operations?

The government has been of help to us in many ways. I have not gone to them for any issue without getting their listening ears. We were able to get some tax rebate in motor manufacturing. There has also been patronage from them in terms of purchase of our vehicles and this has helped a lot. We have also been dependent on government handouts in driving this project. In the market, I can tell you for instance that we have sold our cars to private individuals than government.

When President Jonathan opened Innoson auto plant in Nnewi, he committed himself to promoting ‘Made in Nigeria’ products, including vehicles from the factory, how far has he gone with this promise?

The Federal Government has kept its words, because many ministries and agencies of government have purchased vehicles from the factory. Ministries have been ordering vehicles from us and we have been supplying them. Many state governments have also been buying our products like buses, patrol pick-ups for security purposes, refuse disposal vehicles, and others.

For those who are using your vehicles, what sort of response are you getting from them?

They are happy with the Innoson buses they are using. They have been telling me that with the quality standards they have seen in the vehicles, there will be no need for them to use imported buses anymore. They have found out that the Innoson buses are built for this country and are happy about that.

Innoson plant started with mini and midi buses, double cabin pick-ups and SUVs. Have you expanded the range now?

We started with 45-seater buses. We have 35-seater, 33-seater and 26-seater buses. There are also 22-seater and 18-seater types. And we have double cabin pickups and we have SUVs. The range also includes refuse compactors, but they are built only on request. We have built the refuse compactors for some state governments. More models will be introduced in future. In fact, we have plans to extend the factory to another place.

Your company was known for motorcycle right from the outset, but it seems less focus is placed on this now, why the diversion of focus?

Yes, I started from motorcycles and we grew up with motorcycles. At a point, we had only the motorcycle plant in Nnewi. But today, in addition to the motorcycle plant, we have Innoson Technical and Industrial Company Limited in Emene, Enugu, which manufactures a very long list of industrial and domestic plastic products. We have General Tyres and Tubes Company Limited also in Enugu and a component plant where we produce some of our auto components.

So, today, we have about five industries, each operating on its own. You heard a lot about motorcycle before, because that was the only company then. You can’t continue to focus only on motorcycles alone, because there are now more companies within the Innoson family. The auto plant, for instance, is doing well in both government circles and among private users, and every body is taking about the brand.

Where do you see Innoson products in the next few decades?

What you must understand is that our growth target is for the long haul. And our environment is not just Nigeria, but the entire Africa. We are positioning Innoson Group to be king in Africa, especially in the area of motor manufacturing. We will be all over Africa, satisfying their desire for a truly African automobile brand capable of giving the same utility as those imported from Europe, America and Asia. And from our footprints on some of the continent so far, we believe this is achievable.

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