The General Manager of West African Ceramics Limited (WACL), Mr Bhaskar Rao, in this interview explains how his company survived for 30 years in Nigeria while others were folding up due to a variety of difficulties. Excerpts:
Daily Trust: The West African Ceramics Limited has been operating in Nigeria for 30 years now, how are you coping?
Bhaskar Rao: Before, we were operating in Suleja, Niger State, as Royal Ceramics, but due to the gas and fuel price increase in the country, we moved to Ajaokuta in Kogi State in 2008 and operated as West African Ceramics Limited. Our brand of product still remains Royal Ceramics.
DT: How would you describe the journey of your operations in the country?
Rao: We went through many struggles for the 30 years that we have been operating ceramics business in this country. We were the first to establish a ceramics factory in this country, there were over 20 others after us and they have all closed shop. We have been able to survive because of our technology; we have also been able to use local materials. We are the first to use clay, feldspar. We did the exploration of solid minerals also. Almost all of what we are using is local raw materials and we have been consistence for 30 years.
For any industry to continue, the use of local raw materials is very important. Once you use local materials and local manpower, you will be able to survive business. We are sustaining the business because of our local raw materials, local manpower and domesticating our technology. These are the three main strong points for us in the industry. The other companies all collapsed because of use of imported raw materials, they used imported manpower and they were unable to sustain that. We moved to natural gas, the first time in this country that any ceramic industry would do that because it is an energy based industry. Based on the time and situation, we are increasing our technology and skills.
DT: A major challenge of local manufacturers is imported mercantile, how have you been coping in the market with imported tiles and ceramics?
Rao: China tiles are mainly imported. China used to make use of less quality materials. If you use imported tiles for four years, ours will be used for 20 years. It means every four years you have to change the tiles while ours remains.
DT: Another challenge is the exorbitant prices of locally manufactured products, how are you addressing this?
Rao: Local tiles are not exorbitant, only 10 or 15% higher in price and this is because we supply good quality, not second or third class quality. The imported tiles are second class quality and are being dumped in the country. The imported tiles may be cheaper because they are not of first grade like ours which is of premium grade. Also, ours have a lifespan three times more than the imported tiles.
DT: The International Housing Exhibition in Abuja has been on for some years. Why do you think these shows are not making the desired impact?
Rao: I have seen exhibitions for the past 20 years that I have been in this country, and there are lots of improvements. In the last 10 years, you could only see two or three local materials, but now you see local companies dominating. You see brick manufacturers, tiles manufacturers, roofing tiles, furniture and others. There is great improvement. You can see lots of locally manufactured products on display. Government has to keep an eye on that, affordable prices should be with the affordable quality not the cheap materials that lead to building collapse.
DT: In the quest to source for local raw materials, what measures have you put in place against environmental degradation?
Rao: We are conscious of the impact of mining and environmental effects. Among our measures is to develop the local communities where mining takes place, when you cut trees down, you have to plant another one, when you dig some areas, you have to refill it and you have to maintain the environment.
DT: It is easier to make claims but the reality on ground contradicts the claims.
Rao: For us, if you are not keeping the people on top, it means you are going down. The environment is related to the health of your workers. If you are not planting the trees, maintaining the environment and minimizing waste generation, it would affect you and your workers.
Many organisations generate waste and dispose any how. We use technology to recycle technology. The broken tiles are re-grinded, the clays are recycled in a purification method, the water we use is not thrown outside, we recycle it through plant treatment.
DT: Apart from meeting the demand of the local market, have you been exporting your products?
Rao: We have been exporting to Ghana and Niger and we are planning for Ivory Coast.
DT: There have been cases of abuse of workers and labour disputes, especially with expatriate companies. In what ways is your organisation taking care of its workforce, especially the indigenous staff?
Rao: For 30 years, people have been working with us. There are people who have been with me from Suleja to Ajaokuta. We have been together for 30 years and we are fine working together.
DT: How about your organization’s CSR to the host communities?
Rao: We give free electricity to the Oguro community, we repaired some bad roads in Ajaokuta. From Geregu to Ajaokuta, we constructed a road of 8 kilometers. We drilled boreholes in some villages, we renovated some schools. When the last flood came, we gave massive relief materials to the people.
DT: What is the cost implication and the prices?
Rao: They are not expensive. Marble tiles are going for N30, 000 per square metres. We give ours at N12, 000 per square metres and at our known standard and quality which we have maintained for 30 years. The tiles market is expending and there are enough tiles for the Nigerian market. But beyond tiles, there are other allied products like granite and marbles. The bathroom slabs. Whatever expansion we are making is in the allied products to serve the Nigerian market. Tiles production is enough to satisfy the Nigerian market. The present administration prefers prioritizing local products and we are fully in support of the government’s drive.
Even the tiles sector is still evolving. The trend in the building technology is growing with request for bigger tile sizes and we are ready for that.