There is a section in the work plan of every staff of Abia Marketing and Quality Management Agency that elaborates on our mandate of seeking out people, their crafts and products with the goal of showcasing them to the world.
It is the mantra which the Director General of the Agency, Sam Hart drums into our ears daily and was the core reason Okezie Ikpeazu set up the Agency in 2015.
It is this part about my job I love the most, the part of discovering; discovering new products, new places and most importantly discovering people doing good and contributing positively to our environment with their life’s work.
Discovering the work of Bentley and Chidinma Chukwuemeka, the Husband and Wife founders of the Footwear Academy, an outfit dedicated to Footwear production and training young footwear makers at little or no cost has been one of such fulfilling moments.
When Chidinma accepted a blackberry invite in 2013 from Bentley, little did she know she was accepting an invitation that will lead her to love and a journey that will take her from Ajah in Lagos to Academia Riaci in Italy before settling in Aba, Abia State.
The highs and lows make the journey and Bentley was happy to share as he and Chidinma told me about the earlier days at the company.
Before they won their first grant, trained under Angelo Imperatrice or got any support from anyone, all they had then was the passion for making shoes, empowering willing youths with the skill and a desire to reduce the unemployment they saw around them.
“We had no money those days and we thought funding was our major problem” Bentley offered sharing a knowing laugh with his wife. “It was not” Chidinma cut in now wearing a serious look.
“Getting skilled people and the right team was” he offered, obviously aware of my confusion. Another point of confusion was the idea of leaving Lagos for Aba despite not being Abians and the level of bad press that Abia gets.
Also getting the right trainers from the old generation of shoemakers didn’t work out as planned as their training methods varied from what they had in mind and for months they had to do all the trainings before they adopted a train the trainers program which turned out successful.
“They don’t tell the whole story about Aba” Chidinma said when I pressed her about her experience since they moved. A painful reminder on the effect of the single story that has been told about a town with enormous economic potential due to the ingenious nature of its inhabitants.
They credited the promotional work of the Okezie Ikpeazu administration with putting the option of moving and setting up in Aba fresh from Italy in their faces and despite discouraging pleas from friends and family members they made the move.
“There was a time I thought about reaching out to Sam Hart because I was already frustrated”, Bentley said while confessing that their first months in Aba had them wondering if they had made the right move but after a period of adaptation which also included a house change, they got settled and business has picked up.
Listening to them talk about the process in the journey that has led them to this point and seeing what I saw at the Academy reinforced my belief that collaboration between government and key players across important industries will lead to solutions that have so far eluded us.
From winning a Ford Foundation grant which has helped them train over 300 youths to getting the attention of shoe production schools from around the world, the Footwear Academy is already on the right path to meeting their core goals of social impact while building wealth that will be passed down to the next generation.
Last week found the Director General of the Abia Marketing and Quality Management Agency, Sam Hart mentoring students of the Academy. By the end of the day he had provided support funding for two students and teaching equipment for use by the Academy.
There is still a lot more to be done by the way of institutional support but one gets the sense that the Footwear Academy is a gift that is still unwrapping, a positive story of love and impact that is still unfolding.
For us at the Abia Marketing and Quality Management Agency, we will be here cheering, supporting and promoting ventures just like theirs and borrowing from their final words “We will not just export foot-wears but also export those that will shape the future of footwear production”.