Chief Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma, (a.k.a. Innoson) is treading where many ordinary businessmen feared to tread. The good thing is that he is blazing a trail already. Though not many gave him any chance of success in the highly capital intensive, sensitive, technical and technology-driven automobile industry, but he stayed steadfast to his dream. Today, Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing is the flagship of indigenous auto manufacturing companies in the country.
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Perhaps, all of these would never have been but for the hand of fate that intervened to save his life. He had mysteriously “resurrected from dead” at the age of six. That was as a result of a ghastly motor accident in which a Morris Minor car knocked him down. Everyone thought he was dead for over three hours he layed on the road, waiting to be buried. But, he suddenly regained consciousness on hearing a ”loud noise”, to the relief of a distraught father. Ever since, this ‘child of destiny’ has continued to make ‘louder noise’, but this time through his entrepreneurial efforts.
The youngest of six children, Chief (Dr.) Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma, was born into the family of Mr& Mrs Godwin Chukwuma Mojekwu of Uru-Umudim, Nnewi, in Anambra State in the year 1960. He was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. But, whatever he lacked in affluent parental background, he made up for with intelligence, hardwork, discipline and business acumen.- These qualities have continued to interplay remarkably in his many ventures.
The ghastly motor accident
But tragedy almost struck when he was aged six. He recounts the experience himself; “When I was about six years old I was involved in a ghastly motor accident that nearly claimed my life. Because of that incident my father became over protective of me so that I don’t fall into harm again. The incident
happened when one of my elder brothers held my hand and wanted to cross the road. Unfortunately, my toy wrist watch fell off my hand on the road. I immediately disengaged my hand and ran onto the road to pick it. At that instant, a Morris Minor car drove past and ran over me. The incident was so bad that I was taken for dead.
I was covered with leaves and every other thing the sympathizers could lay their hands on. While my brother cried home to report the incident to my parents, the driver ran away. You know in those days the intervals between when two vehicles drive past was too long. After a long time, another vehicle, belonging to my father’s friend drove past. When he saw that I was ‘dead’ he didn’t bother to take me to hospital. Instead, he went after the hit-and-run driver.
He is alive!
When my father arrived the scene he was persuaded to take me to the hospital for autopsy since it was a police case. But he refused and said he didn’t want trouble with anybody and that he would not allow them cut my body at the hospital. My father’s friend later caught up with the driver right at the spot where I have my office today at Nnewi. He took him to the police and got him locked up.
“By the time he was through with the police and returned to the scene of the incident, it was well past three hours. With my father having his way to go and bury me without any incident, he then lifted me up to carry me home. It was at that moment that I made a very loud noise. He is alive, they screamed! I was then rushed to the hospital where I remained for about five months.
Because of the serious nature of the accident, my whole body had stitches. Look at the one on my cheek (pointing at a big scar by the side of his mouth). The whole of my head and body was stitched. Because of that incident, my father thought that I was very fragile and should be protected. My teachers didn’t beat me in school. Even my brothers pampers me, because my father had pleaded with all of them concerning that.”
Does failing an exam really mean that you are not good enough?
As is always the case with students in secondary school, every child dreamt and talked about the course to read in the university. And for Innocent, he never hid his desire to be an engineer. But sad enough he was not one of the top notches in the class. After secondary school in 1978, while he waited for his results to be out, he decided to report to the medicine store of his elder brother, Gabriel to occupy his time. While working in that store with his brother, he immediately discovered that he had a natural talent for trading. He was really enjoying what he was doing probably more than he enjoyed reading books in school.
When his result came out he was unable to make the grade required for him to proceed to the university. The result was so poor that he couldn’t get admission at all let alone studying engineering. That was not in the original script, but then, he had already made up his mind to be a businessman, anyway. So even before the result was out he knew that whatever his score may be is now purely academic. That helped him to accept the result in good fate. He was then sent to serve Chief Romanus Eze Onwuka.
The master apprentice
In 1979, Innocent returned to his brother Gabriel. Gabriel promptly registered a motorcycle spare parts business under the name Gabros International and asked Innocent to manage it. Innocent was given the sum of ₦3,000 to start the business, and he was allowed a free hand to run it. It was from this money that he rented a shop and bought his first merchandise. By the end of the year 1980, the company took stock. The stock result showed that Gabros International under Innocent’s management was making more than ten times the income that the medicine store (managed by his brother) was making.
Then came the Innoson brand
At that point it was very clear that this is where Innocent career and future lies. With the knowledge of the trade now under his belt, in 1981, Innocent ventured fully into the trade under the name Innoson Nigeria Limited dealing specifically in motorcycle parts and accessories. The early tutelage Innocent got from his brother and chief Onwuka became the veritable foundation he needed to demonstrate an innate flair for trading, especially in motorcycle and automotive parts.
From importing to assembling
In 1984, due to difficulties associated with importation of spare parts, Innocent was forced to source his products from China and Taiwan. When it became very expensive to import he made enquiries from the other four companies that were importing motorcycles into Nigeria. First was Leventis that was bringing the Honda brand. The second company was Yamaco that was bringing Yamaha. The other company was Bolus that was bringing Suzuki. And the fourth was CFAO that was bringing mobilette. From his enquiry, he found out that they were importing motorcycles in crates which occupied a lot of space. Each crate contained 40 pieces of motorcycles in one 40 feet container.
By a careful study he found out that if he could dismantle the motorcycles, he could actually import more. So, he had to awaken the ingenuity in him and with the experience gained from spare parts trading he was convinced he could assemble them. So, he packed 200 pieces in one container and automatically the freight charges dropped. This automatically brought down his selling price of new motorcycles by 40%. And that was at a time, demand for used motorcycle was high as the cost for new ones was out of reach. With Innoson crashing the price of brand new motorcycles, nobody was interested in tokumbo any longer.
He had a sell-out
The first five containers Innoson brought took about three months to sell. The reason was that people were afraid that because they were assembled in Nigeria, they might be of inferior quality. But by the time the company brought in the second consignment of ten containers, they had gained customers’ confidence. And in less than a month the stock sold out. The demand for new motorcycles soared while that for tokunbo continues to fall. Then Innoson went ahead and imported twenty containers which took one week to sell. And by the time he imported another fifty containers, before the goods arrived, people had paid for them in advance. It was after then that others discovered his secret and adopted the same method he was using to also bring down their prices. That was ingenueity at its best.
Thus, Innoson Nigeria Limited prompted a revolution in the motorcycle industry in Nigeria. The ripple effect of that lingered in the Nigerian market for years. Having grown to become one of the leaders in motorcycle parts in the country, Innoson later launched into importation of the products from China, and by the turn of the nineties, had become so popular that its products were doing very well across the country and in the West African sub-region.
Time to domesticate the production process
A typical entrepreneur will always have a very sensitive sixth sense and it was working optimally in Innocent. So, as a farsighted investor he quickly realized that the time was now ripe for Innoson Nigeria to domesticate the production of the motorcycles with substantial local input. This development had the attendant benefits of enhancing the company’s grip on the market and contributing positively to the development of the nation’s economy. These happened through technological transfer, employment opportunities and competitive pricing of the motorcycle.
Partnership that pays
To realize this dream, Innoson in 1994 entered into a symbiotic partnership with some Chinese motorcycle manufacturers. And that resulted to the establishment of a facility in Nnewi, where top quality motorcycles were produced. However, the targets of comparatively low prices and transfer of the production technology were not fully achieved immediately. That was because the assembly process was totally manual and did not make for high volume production. So this usually forced the price of assembled motorcycles up and at the end the company was making little or no profit.
Innoson however, never relented in its efforts in breaking through the dream of making sure that motorcycles are sold to the masses at very affordable prices. This explains why only one year later, in 1995 Innoson defied a major industrial boundary, by installing an automated assembly line at the Nnewi plant. With that Innoson Nigeria Limited became the very first fully indigenous motorcycle maker in Nigeria. It joined Leventis and Boulos Enterprises in the league of companies producing the machines in Nigeria. Playing a vital role in the successes recorded by Innoson Nigeria is Midway Ventures Limited. Midway was the vital marketing arm of the company which helped to make the products very popular throughout the West Africa sub region.
Implementing backward integration within the system
As the business progressed, less than 10 years after going into making motorcycles locally, Innocent discovered that motorcycle has many plastic components. The business wizardry in him was once again called to action as he reasoned that it does not make so much ‘business sense’ to keep importing all these plastic components when he can produce them in Nigeria. He therefore branched into plastics manufacturing primarily to support the motorcycle business. This was when Innoson Nigeria Limited, in 2002, sired Innoson technical and Industrial Company Limited, located in Emene, Enugu.
The manufacturing of first-grade plastic products for household use, industrial applications and export, bears even more astonishing testimony to Innocent’s reputation as a turnaround “wizard” with a Midas touch. It is worthy of note that the company was formerly known as Eastern Plastics and owned then by Enugu State Government. But Innoson had to acquire it. As at the time Innoson acquired the company it was in a derelict condition and filled with obsolete machinery. But it was later re-equipped with state-of-the-art production facilities. And gradually transformed into the biggest plastic industry in Nigeria. The products are widely acclaimed to be among the best in the market. At the last count, Innoson Technical makes about 150 different plastic
From made in Nigeria motorcycles to made in Nigeria cars
Brimming with so much confidence from the success recorded in manufacturing motorcycles locally, Innoson took the issue of industrializing Nigeria a step further. In 2007 he embarked on what some analysts perceived then as an impossible mission. He incorporated Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited (IVM). The mission was to produce sundry commercial automobiles, utility vehicles and passenger cars. This he did in collaboration with a consortium of Chinese auto manufacturers.
It was the same inspiration to give Nigerians opportunity to drive new cars instead of used ones that motivated Innoson to go into auto-making. With the public display of the first set of vehicles at the second Nnewi International Auto Trade Fair held at the Beverly Hills Hotels in the last quarter of 2009, IVM did not only silence those that believe it was an impossible mission, but made a bold statement about its readiness to achieve the avowed mission of being the first indigenous auto maker to produce truly Nigerian vehicles of the highest quality, that is affordable and reliable.
Brand new car for every Nigerian is possible
Speaking about this new venture Innocent said: “Across the world, you will find out that Nigeria patronizes used cars more than any other country. When those in the western world finish using their vehicles, they dump them in Nigeria. They do this because there is a market for them here.
Because of the revolution I caused, the demand pattern of Nigerians in favour of new motorcycles changed. I believe that with the local manufacture of vehicles in Nigeria, soon tokunbo vehicles will become a thing of the past. “But what I found out is that the reason most Nigerians still patronize used cars is because imported brand new cars are quite expensive. And in reality, these vehicles are not expensive in themselves. The high cost is only a relection of exhorbitant import duties. That is why I started local manufacture of vehicles with the Innoson Vehicles Manufacturing Limited (IVM). With IVM, we want to replicate what we did in the motorcycle sector.
Made in Nigeria vehicles will bring down the prices of new vehicles
I believe that with local manufacture of vehicles, the prices of new ones will be more affordable than used ones. With the implementation of the newly introduced federal government policy on the auto industry, I can assure you that in the near future, Nigeria will control auto business not only in Nigeria but the whole of Africa.
I am confident that we will surpass expectations because whatever is obtained overseas, we can replicate here. So, local manufacture will be immensely beneficial to the generality of our people. Especially the common man because we will make the prices of these vehicles affordable and highly competitive. The quality will be such that can compare with global standards. Overall, there will be improvement in the economy as well. We shall equally create more jobs to cater for the teeming unemployed Nigerian youths who roam the streets daily in search of non-existing jobs.”
Five years later, Innocent spoke about the progress so far made in IVM. “We started about five years ago with 14 seater buses. We later introduced 18 seater, 26 seater, 43 seater and city buses. Today, we manufacture SUV, Pick-Up and IVM Sedan cars.”
How well has Nigerians patronised Innoson Motors?
Speaking about the patronage received by IVM from Nigerians so far, Innocent said, “Nigerians have given IVM very good patronage. We receive orders from different parts of the country. And our customers are happy with what they are getting. Nigerians are happy and proud that such products are coming out of Nigeria and they are driving them. IVM market also spreads beyond the shores of Nigeria into west coast countries like Ghana and other African countries. I have seen companies in Lagos that are using our vehicles to ply West coast routes. We started with producing 300 vehicles monthly. Due to increased demand, we increased to 600 and today we produce about 1,200 monthly (as at 2015).
Innocent is of the opinion that Nigeria can actually do away with importation of cars completely. His company alone has installed capacity to produce 5,000 vehicles monthly. And he believes that gradually as more Nigerians continue to patronize them, the factory will produce to capacity. “If we can produce 5,000 units of vehicles per month, and other companies do the same, we will definitely be able to satisfy local demand and nobody will have any need of importing cars into Nigeria” he concludes.
The world is taking note
IVM is today a success story which has attracted effusive commendations and awards from several quarters. From within and outside the country, including from the nations’ seat of power people are taking note. While opening the plant at Nnewi on October 15,2010, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria not only hailed innocent for the courage of venturing into an industry many run away from, but also assured him of government’s patronage. Before the president’s visit, IVM had attracted an official delegation from the Ghanaian government, which through a minister dangled incentives before the IVM boss with an appeal to come over to Accra for talks on how he could set up a similar plant in the former Gold Coast.
Just last month, the Anambra State governor-elect Prof. Chukwuman Soludo announced that all official vehicles of the Anambra State government will be Innoson vehicles.
According to the CEO when he started the IVM factory, he brought in experts to train the Nigerian engineers and technicians that were working at Innoson. He started with 70 foreigners. But in his resolve to transfer the technology, 40 of the foreigners had to leave after a while and the remaining 30 continued to direct the Nigerian engineers. Innocent’s actual target has always been to completely depend on his own people. He trust them enough to do a good job and soon foreigners won’t be needed anymore. He always emphasized that anything a Nigerian can do, he won’t employ expatriates to do them. Rather he made it a point of duty to ensure that his workers keep attending training and refresher courses from time to time.
Giving back to society
Innoson is known as a man of the people because of several developmental works he has done locally. Starting from his commitment to promote indigenous technology, to erosion control. He built a faculty building at University of Nigeria, Enugu campus (UNEC). Chief Chukwuma equally built another one for Enugu State University of Technology (ESUTH). One was also built for Anambra State University. Oko Polytechnic was not left out in Innoson’s kind gesture. Innoson maintains the philosophy of contributing as much as possible to the building of Nigeria’s future leaders.
Innoson Motors has been a major supplier of buses to the country’s transportation sector. On January 8, 2012 President Goodluck Jonathan launched the transit scheme. The automobile guru not only supplied majority of the vehicles unveiled at Eagle Square on that day, but was also engaged to provide a good number of the 6,000 units that were injected into the scheme afterwards. He is ever willing to serve and contribute to the development of Nigeria and its economy anywhere needed.
Where are they today?
From a small trading business in motorcycle spare parts, Innocent Chukwuma has built what is now known as Innoson Group, comprising of Innoson Nigeria Limited Nnewi – manufacturers of motorcycles, tri-cycles, spare parts and accessories; Innoson Technical & Industries Company Limited Enugu – manufacturers of household and industrial plastics, health & safety accessories, storage containers, fixtures & fittings, electrical components & accessories; Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing (IVM) Nnewi – manufacturers of capacity city bus, mini & midi buses, Sedan cars, SUVs, pick-up trucks and garbage collecting vehicles; General Tyres & Tubes Company Limited Enugu-manufacturers of tyres and tubes. The company has provided direct employment to over 7,400 people and several other thousands indirectly.
The plastic industry in Enugu is the largest in Africa producing more than 150 different items. People from different countries have been coming in their numbers to copy the novel way with which Innocent build his company especially the “magic” of IVM so they can replicate such in a bid to develop their own countries.
Innocent Chukwuma is still very much at the apex of the group and has received several awards for his exploits in the business world. During the Nigerian centenary celebration in 2014 he was among the only three citizens (in a country of over 203 million people) to be honoured with the prestigious award of Accomplished Contemporary Entrepreneur.
Advice to would-be entrepreneurs
He said he cannot understand why any young person should sit at home and complain about unemployment in a country filled with opportunities like Nigeria. “Young people want to work in banks, oil companies or to become politicians and get rich overnight. There are a lot of job opportunities in farming, but how many young people want to become farmers? The best way to become rich is to go and become a farmer. All the quick money politicians are making will not last. Young people must use their time as youth to work and build their future”
He advised them to work hard, be focused, and be passionate about their goal. “If you are true to your dream, you will succeed. There is no short cut to success. The key to unlock your potentials lies in hard work. “I believe that whatever any man sows in life he will reap. If you do good, good will follow you. If you do bad, don’t expect to reap a good reward. I am guided by the fact that there is an all seeing God who watches our every action.”