By NBF News
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Zhope Automobile, a wholly owned Nigerian enterprise, is set to establish an assembly plant in the country valued at N9 billion.

This was disclosed by the Managing Director of the company, Mr Marcel Okechukwu Ezemonye, in an interview with The Sun in Abuja.

According to him, 'to begin with, we are looking at N4 billion. But, over a period of three to four years, we should be looking at N9 billion.'

Ezemonye further confirmed that when the factory come on stream, it would create about 14,000 jobs and, therefore, appealed to government to provide the necessary infrastructural support that would enable the plant to flourish.

My names are Marcel Okechukwu Ezenwoye. I am from Aguata local government area of Anambra State. I am also the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of Zhope Automobile (UK) Ltd., as well as Zhope Nigeria Ltd.

Inspiration on the project
The motivation is as a result of the problems we observed about the Nigerian transportation system. A lot of Nigerians have died on the roads because of the use of old vehicles imported from outside the country. Its like Nigeria is the dumping ground for disused vehicles from Europe and elsewhere. They are put on the road without MOT (road worthiness) certification. Life is very important. People have to travel in comfort.

This is the reason why my partners and I sat back to think of ways by which we can contribute to the smooth running of the nation's transportation system. People who do not have the money to buy new buses, go for used buses, popularly known a 'Tokunbo'. In fact, they prefer them to brand new buses and that's why the prices are relatively low. Zhope is coming with a style in terms of technological transfer. We are bringing in Zhope. Though new, but relatively cheap…with safety and comfort in mind.

Why Zhope at this time
A lot recommends Zhope to the Nigerian market. One, the pulling power is there to enable us enjoy a smooth ride with all the infrastructural challenges we face here, the bumpy roads and so on. The shock absorber is reinforced, the air conditioner is rugged because of our climate here. Though we are not encouraging overloading, the buses have enough space for people, who couldn't get in on time to stand, without blocking the driver's view. Our mini buses are called 'elephant bus', which means that even though it is a mini, it is still as big as a Toyota Coaster yet the price is reasonable and affordable.

The buses can be counted on in terms of quality, comfort and pricing. The name Zhope is about hope. Hope in changing the standard of Nigeria's transportation system to something that has never been. Nobody has ever designed or built a vehicle with the peculiar African environment in mind, especially our own cultural way of travelling. So, we are asking the government to enable Zhope Automobile to land in Nigeria and make its own contribution to the transportation system.

The form of assistance you expect from government
Power is the most important. But, before that, we expect government to provide the enabling environment. For instance, the tariff regime has to be looked into. Tariff on imported vehicles does not encourage local manufacturers to the point that they cannot compete effectively and still remain in business. So, why do you need to produce when you can import?

Now, we need capital in the form of soft loans that would enable us to take off, bring in the necessary equipment that would ease the domestication of the product we have in mind. Now, we are talking about expatriates, professional foreigners whom we want to involve that would help us to improve our capacity, in terms of manpower training and other logistics involve in the setting up of this programme. We need immigration rules relaxed for those kind of people.

Tax laws would also need to be looked into. Also, the process of acquiring land for our kind of business should be made less cumbersome. Nigerians need a re-orientation in terms of their attitude to made- in -Nigeria goods. The major stakeholders in the transport sector, especially the major transporters should patronize us to enable us grow instead of patronizing foreign manufacturers.

Guaranteeing the quality of your products
Yes, we are giving a three-year guarantee and warrantee on these vehicles and at the end of the three years, we will recall our buses and replace them if one is buying as fleet.

At no cost?
At a very little or no cost. What we are trying to do is that at any time the Zhope Automobile buses on the road are clean. We can do that. These are some of the things that obtain in Europe and we want to transfer those technology and skill to our people.

Local technology or are you partnering with some foreigners?

The technology is home made. However, in the present world of globalization, there is no 100 percent local content in anything, especially in terms of technology. We are in partnership with different companies. Cummins engines are coming from America, Elton gear box from Britain, as well as the ingenuity and technological know-how from Nigeria.

One of our experts is Professor Emmanuel Ezeugwu, who has been into automotive engineering for over 35 years and is a lead consultant to the Federal Government on the subject. We also have technical partners from China. They are ready to come down as soon as we are ready to go.

Take off date in Nigeria
We are quite ready. We are just waiting for our investing partners and we draw down on the available resources that are already in place so that we can kick start. We are hoping that by 2011 we should be able to set up our first assembly plant.

Prospects for job creation
The prospect is enormous. The reason why we chose the partners we have is because they are 80 per cent manual producers. The project is labour intensive. In fact we are expecting that the initial job creation potential will be 4000 in one location. These will include mechanics, electricians, welders, upholstery makers. We are not highly automated.

We don't want to do much automation so that one or two people can produce a whole bus. That is what is happening in most European countries. We want to do it manually. We produce with a view to employing a lot of people. We will have a central assembly plant. We will have ancillary service centres established in the six geo-political zones. At the end we are looking at about 14000 people working in different places in addition to those who will be servicing the industries-food sellers, restaurants, wine bars and clubs around the factory. There will be so many people that will be involved. So, it is a very huge employment and capacity building project.

Setting up plants along geopolitical zones
Yes, if we are lucky to have some governors who would want to partner with us so that we can establish in their territory. Yes, we will be ready to go there once they give us the land and the security. We would want to be sure that the investment would be secured because this is somebody's money we are talking about. The idea is to establish service centres in at least six geo-political zones but with one big assembly plant maybe in the federal capital, Abuja. Those service centres will be servicing the existing buses or producing and assembling spare parts that would enable the main production centres to work effectively.

Relationship between Zhope and the Automotive Council of Nigeria

We have a beautiful relationship with them. They've been very cooperative. The Director General, Engr Jalal has been to our production plant in China. He has seen what is happening in China and that is why he is encouraging us to bring the production to Nigeria to be able to call it a fully made in Nigeria bus and he is encouraging us to take a soft loan that would enable us buy the equipment for us to anchor this production. Our relationship with them has been very wonderful. We have been working with them on this programme for the last three or four years. They are also helping us to liaise with other agencies necessary for our operations.

What is the capital outlay and how do you intend to source it?

To begin with, we are looking at N4billion. But, over a period of three to four years, we should be looking at N9 billion. The reason is this, as soon as the main assembly takes off, we will be looking at service centres and they all cost money.

The plant alone, some equipment, spray room alone, I know how much they cost overseas. These are the things that when we start, we will be able to produce 1000 buses a month. That should be able to satisfy the West African market. Zhope buses are already in demand in Iraq, Iran and other parts of the Middle East. We started in China but this is what we should have started producing in Nigeria in order to help put people in employment.