The announcement by the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, that Nigeria will begin manufacturing pencils is a welcome indication of the nation’s return to the benefits of home-grown industrial capability.
Speaking during a visit to the Projects Development Institute (PRODA), Enugu in Enugu State, the minister said it was unthinkable that Nigeria was still not able to produce pencils after 55 years of independence. Some 400 000 new jobs could be created as a result, especially given the potential for expanding into the West African sub-region, where local pencil manufacturing is similarly non-existent.
It is truly surprising that the country is unable to overcome its inadequacies in the area of light manufactures despite the profusion of raw materials, cheap labour and ready markets. Processed foods, clothing, shoes, fruit juices and tools are all profitably imported.
In spite of Nigeria’s status as an agricultural power, agro-allied industry has never attained its full potential; Nigeria is Africa’s second largest producer of tomatoes, but it still spends an estimated $1-billion annually importing processed tomato paste.
The country’s inability to produce pencils is particularly galling. It involves relatively simple technology, and is dependent on raw materials like wood, glue and graphite which are available in the country. Countries like China, India and Indonesia strategically focused on this kind of manufacturing as the launch-pad of their industrialisation policies.
Locally-produced pencils, biros and exercise books also drive educational growth by ensuring that vital consumables required to enhance educational activity are not priced out of the reach of the ordinary citizen.
Nigeria needs to reinvigorate its manufacturing sector, and focusing on the expansion of light manufacturing is a sensible way to begin that process. The vital urgency of this policy has never been greater, given the sharp fall in the global prices of crude oil and the subsequent contraction of the country’s revenue base
In coordination with the ministries of Finance, Solid Minerals, and Budget and National Planning, Dr Onu must draw up a list of products that can be profitably manufactured in Nigeria in the short and medium-term. These should include agricultural products, basic educational materials, medical consumables and equipment, agricultural implements, and sporting goods.
Once identified, research agencies like PRODA, the Federal Institute of Industrial Research (FIIRO), the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology (NARICT) and others must be mandated to come up with processing and manufacturing technologies which would enable them to be produced locally.
Governmental procurement policies must be reconfigured to make the purchase of such local manufactures mandatory. Educational institutions, for instance, would be required to purchase consumables like paper and writing materials only from local manufacturers. Comprehensive enlightenment campaigns could educate Nigerians on the benefits of patronising indigenous manufacturers.
Government must also ensure that manufacturing is not hindered by obstacles which stymie its growth. Power, roads, water, proper regulation and policy frameworks are vital to ensuring that the costs incurred in local manufacturing are kept down to the extent that they can be competitive. All the goodwill in the world will count for nothing if cheap imports continue to undercut locally-made products.
The Onu initiative on pencil manufacture has offered Nigeria a viable path to industrial resurgence. If it is followed up with proper planning and the contributions of stakeholders in industry, research and commerce, it could signal the country’s rise to its proper place as Africa’s industrial giant.