Tuesday, 29 September 2015

We are facing lots of deprivations – MD of Ukpongson Nig. Coy Paper Mill

Elder Okon Ukpong
Elder Okon Samuel Ukpong is the MD/CEO of Ukpongson Nigeria Company Paper Mill. In this interview with THE INK, he spoke on a wide range of issues including what government should do to promote private and indigenous companies in the State. BY UBONG INYANG. Excerpt;

Can you please introduce yourself sir
I am Elder Okon Samuel Ukpong, the managing director of Ukpongson Nigeria Company Limited paper mill, established through the help of Bank of Industry in the year 2007. The bank gave us money to buy the facilities and machines used and we are sincerely working with them and we are also developing this business for the entire south-south states and they are patronising us very much. The business is moving forward.

How did you start?
I started this business through a business plan I did with a friend who is now late. I have come to see the business as a progressive and a very lucrative one but we still face some challenges and loopholes which I will talk about as the questions keep coming in.

As an indigenous industrialist, how has it been so far?
I’ll say it is good considering the level we are now which is at a 40 percent, 50 percent stage, I think it is okay.

Are you having any challenge so far and what are they?
(cuts in) yes we have so many of them. One of them being the poor state of the road leading to this place, which is Ikpong road. His Excellency Chief Godswill Akpabio asked the then commissioner to tar the road for us and it wasn’t completed hence, the road is not motorable. Another problem we are having is electricity. The available voltage of light right now is too low and unable to carry the production machines. I tried connecting electricity from the main road over there I even bought up to seven poles, bought wire to link the light which can be able to power the big machines used in the factory and it is supposed to be accompanied with a transformer which will give us a three face light but we have no money to buy the transformer.
Another major problem we are having is government partnership. The previous administration did their best in partnering us the industrialists with Bank of Industry in which I want the current administration to sustain the partnership agreements with the bank.

What made you choose book production business from other available businesses?
What made me venture into this business is because I was in the defunct NNMC at Oku Iboku...I worked there and I saw how paper business was flowing so when I came and conducted a study, I found out that no one is doing the paper business even up till today, nobody is importing paper today in Akwa Ibom. You only see printing press etc but there is no company in Akwa Ibom that can use up to 100 reams of paper a day except here in which we use over 200 reams of paper a day to produce finished products. What made me choose this business was because as at that time when we conducted the study, we discovered that we had five to six million children in the primary and secondary schools and we calculated that if one of them would be using up to 10 or 15 exercise books per term, then our production output and profit will be good and this really makes it a good business and we try our best to produce as many books as possible to our people and also prevent them from going outside the state to look for exercise books. It is a very good business if you ask me.

Ever since you started this business, what has been the level of patronage from Akwa Ibom people?
The level of patronage is fantastic. If you came earlier, I would have shown you delivery notes that we sent to different local governments like Eket, Oron, Uyo, Ikot Abasi and even Calabar and Portharcourt. As at now, we have more than 50 customers from Portharcourt which are private schools and individuals

Sir, you talked about NNMC...what do you think made it collapse?
I think the problem of NNMC was that of management and lack of partnership. Oku Iboku had no Bank and nobody to fall on because this business needs an organisation or a bank to serve as a backup when the business is no longer moving forward. Partnership is very vital in business. One may ask why government should be concerned about private companies; yes they should because we are also helping the government by employing many people and also help students on their industrial attachment.

What is your human resources strength?
I think we are up to 35 including the security man for now.

If you go to Akpan Andem market and other popular markets as well as schools and see exercise books being sold and used, are you benefiting from these markets?
No we are not. We don’t have the capacity. Before you can produce one lorry load of exercise books which is about 800 cartons you need more than five million Naira.

800 cartons would be how many exercise books?
if it is packed in hundreds per carton, it will be about 80 thousand copies. So before you can produce that and more, you need money and if we had such money to do it, it would have influenced the price of books and also prevent people here going outside to buy.

Do you have competitors?
The only competitor we have is Vista in Lagos and they import paper in reels.

Are you saying that most of the exercise books we use in Akwa Ibom are brought in from Lagos?
Yes. That is what I’m saying. These exercise books come in from Lagos.

Do you feel your production strength can match that of Vista if you have the capital?
Yes because looking at what we are doing now in terms of the level of patronage, if we have more funds to put into the raw materials, we can meet up. I’m not saying we can defeat them but at least, we can cut a little and also reduce the quantity our people would have bought from them.

How much of government patronage do you get?
 We are still looking forward to doing business with the new administration and we are trying our best to get to them and you know how difficult it can be since the administration is just starting.

Have you gone in to partnership with schools especially the private ones to produce and supply books for them?
Yes we are being patronised by many schools within and outside the state by producing to them while they sell to the students.

You talked about having a man-power of up to 35, how do you get them? Do you train them or they come already prepared?
In fact, this will be one of the challenges which the industrialisation policy of the new administration will face. I’m talking about lack of training of the labour force. Majority of our citizens are not trained. For my factory, we train our operators for two years on how to use the printing machines. There is even a machine which was being installed by the Malaysian technicians and it took 12 days for them to train the operators on how to use the machine but even at that, the time was too short for them to have a grasp of the functioning of the machine.

If the state government gives the company people to be trained in printing skills, do you have the capacity to do it? 
Yes we are capable of doing it. This is because training is good and there’s no better place to receive such training than in the workshop where the machines are functional and not in the classroom or seminar ground. Some of the people we train here who come from the secondary schools take about six to nine months to get familiar with the machines and we pay our apprentice undergoing training as well so as to encourage them to be serious in what they are doing.

What kind of certificate do you give out?
They will be tested by the Ministry of Labour and Productivity for trade test certificate one, two and three and when you complete all three, you can proceed to sit for what we call printing graft or computer graft which is equivalent to OND.

This administration is talking about industrialisation as their main focus, are you impressed so far with what is done towards achieving this?
Yes, the foundation had been laid and it is going to be a blessing for Akwa Ibom State. The Godswill Akpabio administration laid the foundation by building roads, providing electricity and the new administration, looking at Governor Udom Emmanuel’s plan, will succeed in industrialisation and there will be showers of blessings for Akwa Ibom people.

Are you already keying into this industrialisation plan and how will you benefit from it?
Yes I support the plan. If there are industries in the state, even if I don’t benefit directly, I can benefit indirectly because it is still our people that will work in these industries and I could serve as a member in the board to advise which would be beneficial. There is something I know, had it been the industries built by former Governor Clement Isong where maintained properly, those industries would have been working now and I believe the present administration will make an enabling law to sustain the industries which will be built by them and also partner these industries with an industrial bank because if you establish an industry and you keep it on the ground for people to walk in and out, at the end, it will fail. So if these industries partner just as we are partnering with Bank of Industry, they will be monitored and this will prevent a collapse.

How long have you been in this industry sir?
Like I said earlier, I started this factory in 2007 and we are about eight years old in the business.

In Akwa Ibom State, is there a body of indigenous industrialists?
Yes we have so many of them but a lot of them have been weighed down by one problem or the other. We have Chambers of Commerce in Uyo and Ikot Ekpene, there is Nigerian Association for Small Scale Industrialists (NASSI) etc but so many of them have not projected the industrial development to a foundational stability. These unions are supposed to have an agenda and present it to the government and government will adopt it. Look at the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN), who just paid a courtesy visit to the Governor and they had what to present to the Governor which he replied them by promising to build a town farm for them which shows how an organisation holding the industrialists should do but some of them are keeping quiet and I really thank God for Honourable Ezekiel Essien who is now the national chairman of NASSI. He has made a blueprint for government to adopt in order to help the industrialists in the state. Last week, he hosted us in a seminar which exposed us to know what the federal government is doing at the national level so that we at the state level can benefit from it.

What should the state government do to ensure that this business grows beyond this level?
Well, what we are looking for is their partnering with us by granting us access into the Central Bank loan facilities and that will give us the working capital that we need to do the production. We also need deliberate policies which are favourable to the industrialists through grants, counterpart funding to Bank of Industry, timely issuance of Certificate of Occupancy. Another thing is patronage from local industries because it will be a thing of joy if you have customers who are from the same place with you rather than going to places like Aba to buy which is totally wrong.

I believe when you started this business, you had a target or a benchmark for yourself and the company. So far, have you really achieved or met your expectations?
No we haven’t. The process is still going on. It is obvious already because if we had money, you would have seen this place being painted and the floor would have been landscaped and so far we are struggling to achieve all this. We are struggling to have electricity, struggling to buy diesel for generating plants etc.

What is your vision or how do you see this factory in the coming years?
I am seeing this company in the coming years as one of the leading producers of paper and books in the state.

Are you satisfied with the number of your labour force or you need more?
If we have working capital then we will need more labour force. This industry is supposed to employ up to a hundred people if it is stabilised.

On a final note, as Akwa Ibom State will be celebrating its 28th anniversary of creation, what advice do you have for other industrialists in the state?
The industrialists need to come out and be heard. They need to dialogue with the government for the government to know their needs because the industries in the state are dying gradually. If you go around the state and see the number of filling stations and industries being closed down, it is because of lack of capital. When petrol was about 300 to 500 thousand Naira per tanker, sales at filling stations were going on but since it got up to seven million per tanker, the stations are now closed because they have no money and the banks are not helping them with loans. The banks in Akwa Ibom are not working well with industrialists. They come up with unnecessary excuses not to give out loans such as inability to come up with a turnover and they mess us up with it. These banks are only interested in readymade industries and they are unwilling to work with start up industries.The banks are messing Akwa Ibom people up!!!! They are not giving us money. With the help of the state government partnering with us, knowing our problems, I think we will get there and the people will be happy seeing our industries moving.

Thank you very much for your time sir
The pleasure is mine.

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