Furniture business, challenges and prospects
Johnson Leslie cuts the picture of a man that would not buckle under any situation no matter the pressure. He is gifted with a pleasant gait with a disarming smile permanently etched on his face.
An accountant by profession, Leslie is the General Manager of Agatha Interior Designs Ltd. He has been operating in the interior design industry for the past 19 years.
He tells you matter of fact that though Nigeria has banned the importation of certain furniture items, such ban is only on the lips of policy makers. He pointed out in a 30-minute chat with Church Times that the industry is a Topsy-turvy one adding however that there is so much to be explored.
Married to Helen and blessed with three children Ruby, Ruth and Rachael, Johnson was born in Sierra-Leone to a Sierra-Leonean father and a Nigerian mother. He came back to Nigeria after his tertiary education to write ICAN and has since been in Nigeria exploring various opportunities. He worked first in Mama Cass and then got the job with Agatha Interiors Ltd.
“We deal in furniture for homes, offices and for hospitality purpose. At the moment there is too much problem bedeviling the industry because in 2004 the government placed a ban on furniture items because they want to develop the local industry.
Furniture industry: The challenges
“The ban is a good idea but the implementation is faulty. The basic infrastructure that could enhance local production like electricity is not there. There were companies that brought in expatriates and tried to develop the industry locally. But many of them closed down because they could not compete with their foreign counterparts.”
He noted that many Nigerians especially those who could afford it don’t mind the cost, they are ready to pay for furniture items irrespective of the cost. “The experience with many of our clients is that they don’t want to compromise quality. But then if we want to compete with the foreign companies the price has to be good. But the infrastructure available to us makes it challenging.
“Another problem is that some artisans are not patient enough to learn. Only a few Nigerians operate in the industry locally. Most of the people who are in the business are Togolese and some other folks from West Africa. Many Nigerians are just not interested. Some Nigerians who play in the industry also don’t live up to expectations.”
Leslie laments that every attempt to build the local furniture industry is being met with frustrations. “Many local players can’t meet up with the global standard. Many Nigerians would rather first enjoy themselves with the initial money you pay for a job before doing the job. That is why some who operate in the industry run into trouble with some clients because the people they give jobs can’t deliver.”
The lackadaisical attitude of some Nigerians is a big challenge. Leslie notes: “Many foreigners come to Nigeria and get government jobs because they are trusted to deliver. But some of our indigenous business men are not getting jobs because of their attitude. They get a job, the first thing they think of is how to get a new car and change their wardrobe. They are always thinking of how to look good and presentable because they know that is what some people look out for. In the process of doing that they eat into the capital they are supposed to use for the job they were paid to do.” He said.
Source of Nigeria’s problem
Leslie who worships in Agape Generation International Church has a deep passion for missions. He opined that Nigeria’s greatest problem has been long military intervention in government. “The late head of state, General Sanni Abacha did not travel to those countries where his loot is being repatriated. But people were paying money into his accounts in those countries in lieu of some favour I suppose. That is why we still get his loots years after he had died. The military did so much damage to the economy. Unfortunately we are still suffering for what they planted in the country during the years they were holding forte”
Still talking about the interior decoration industry, Leslie stated that “It is so difficult to operate in the industry because the ban on the importation has not been gazetted. The ban is still in force but policy wise it is not in force. Many of the ministers, politicians don’t have local content furniture in their houses. They bring these things as personal effect from abroad. But many of them never lived for up to three years abroad. They hide under personal effect to import those furniture and interior decoration items. They bring in the containers but they don’t declare the content of the container. So, they end up not paying the right custom tariff.”
On how his company survives the tough terrain, he explains, “We import things that have not been banned like some of the accessories used in the industry. We engage local artisans in the assemblage of the knock-down that we bring. By that we try to help develop the local industry. It has been tough but by and large we are trudging and making our own modest contribution to the industry and by extension the nation’s economy.”
Business is tough for Christians
He observes that doing business generally for the Christian is a difficult one. “It is not easy for a believer to survive in business in Nigeria because the government is not helping matters. Most of the laws and policies governing business in Nigeria are ambiguous. We have multiple taxes. You pay tax to different agents of government. You can be in your office and they come for all kinds of tax. They ask you to pay for state permit and all kinds of things that are inexplicable. There was a time government officials came inside our office complex to measure the space in the compound and asked us to pay land use charge running into thousands for that space.
“Later the local government came again and measured the compound and said 12 cars could park in the compound and they say for each car space we are to pay N40k that means we were to pay N480k for the entire compound. This is not part of the regular tax that we pay.”
In a situation like this, Leslie notes that the average entrepreneur is put in a box. “If you pay the amount you are charged there is trouble because that will give them the room to bring more charges. If you don’t pay there is trouble because you would have contravened government order. So it is a difficult mix. In situations like that you end up pleading and making case with the government agent. That will mean a lot of back and forth.”
He reasons that the only way righteousness will prevail in the business environment is when the drivers of government policies fear God. “Believers need to wake up and get involved in government as much as possible. Unfortunately we have Christians on Sunday who can’t live their calling in their offices during the week. That is unfortunate. One area I think we can make impact is to insist on the right thing and be ready to pay the price. In that regard we need to ask for special grace to be able to take up such challenge”.
On how he would advise believers who want to operate in the industry, he states, “Well I will advise the person to concentrate on the local content and stay off importation. It’s viable but there are lots of challenges. If Christ is the centre of your business, the Lord will help.”
On what informed his passion for missions, he says, “I appreciate God’s mercy and faithfulness over my life. I reasoned that some people sacrificed for me to be saved, I need to sacrifice for others. When I came to Nigeria I was attending a ministry at Maryland. We, the youths then came together and formed a group called friends of missionaries.
“That was where the passion for missions began. Now as member of Agape Generation International Church, the vision of supporting missionaries have continued under the pastorate of Rev. Toyin Kehinde. The idea is to support missionaries so that they can continue with the task of reaching out to the lost world without distraction.”