Foreign artisans from neighbouring countries such as Togo, Benin Republic and Ghana are now leaving Nigeria in droves.The Nigeria’s building and construction industry has been among the hardest hit as government budget financing for projects, such as building contracts, remains unimplemented and bank financing dries up. The slowdown in construction has necessitated big construction firms to lay off and abandon their foreign workers.

Following the persisting unfavourable policies and a full-blown liquidity crisis that has brought the economy to halt, the heat on the construction and building industry is intensifying.Apart from the effects on construction cost variations on projects that are forcing investors to shift completion dates and increasing vacancy rate in residential property, a significant part of the nation’s labour force resides in the building and construction industry.

In fact, Nigeria has been facing significant skills shortage in the building industry, as local artisans have dumped their trade in preference for riding bikes and tricycles. The remaining few are usually accused of poor workmanship and low efficiency.

Experts say, artisan skills shortages has also impacted negatively in the industry in terms of the quality of work produced, increased costs of projects, delays and a decline in productivity.

Currently, private developers and homeowners have relied on foreign workers such as masons, carpenters, furniture makers, tilers, and spray painters to complete their homes as well as range of engineering-focused skills, including fitters and turners, welders, electricians, boilermakers and earth moving machines.

Real estates developer and managing director of Dessbee Limited, Mr. Babajide Oyetunde, acknowledged that the trend is indeed happening.“We have noticed that the devaluation of the naira has made our environment less attractive to artisans and investors generally. But more importantly is the issue of the slow down in the economy generally. For instance, many construction sites are coming to a standstill. The devaluation in the economy is apparently having negative effects so that artisans, suppliers and even special equipment providers like solar power, are actually leaving the country. So, it does seem like we are losing preferred artisans.”

Oyetunde also noted that more than the withdrawal of artisans from the country is a much wider issue, which he termed the general slowing down of commercial activities. This he said, would naturally translate to artisans’ exodus from the country in search of more vibrant economies because job offerings are on the decline here.

“However, the situation is two-fold. On the one hand, any patriotic developer will try to develop local artisans with skills. For example, in my developments, I had some experts come in to do some highly technical things because there is a particular standard that I want to achieve. But, in the process, I also tried to do some skills transfer to the local workforce. But on the other hand, the situation means opportunity for the local artisans to step up and acquire the skills that they probably did not have before. So, it is a double-edged sword in essence.”

He equally stressed that the government has a part to play in all of this, particularly in providing the enabling environment for business through favourable policy thrust.“The government actually has an obligation to provide an enabling environment for businesses to thrive. What it can do is ensure some stability in the economy because the lack of stability means that you cannot plan as a businessman. So, some stability will help on a broader scope in terms of policies which should also give the developers or entrepreneurs opportunity to continue their projects because it is having other effects even if not on the currency. So, government needs to always have a broader perspective in terms of policies.

For a tiler from the neigbhouring Republic of Benin, Benjamin Hunwi, the free fall in Naira is affecting his income base, which now makes working in Nigeria unprofitable. Many of his countrymen, who could not bear it, have since relocated. For instance, the nation’s currency slumped to an all time low of N400 to a US dollar, translating to N616 to CFA 1000.

He said: “We are being paid N500 per 10 square metres, which also goes for between CFA 1300 and CFA 1500 in Benin. When you look at it, you can see that it is far less than what we receive in Benin. Before, when the exchange rate was not that bad, it will make economic sense to do the job with that price but not with the present rate anymore”. He added.

Hunwi, who brought in some artisans from Benin last week to Lekki said, receiving N500 with the prevailing rate of CFA1000 to about N616 is less than what they earn in their county.

For Segun Jonas, a painter, he is considering exploring other neighbouring countries like Guinea and Burkina Faso because of the fall in Naira. According to him, the only thing still keeping him in Nigeria is the ongoing construction work in Lekki and the proximity, which allows easy access, unlike other countries like Guinea.But other stakeholders believe that the nation might have lost more than half the number of skilled artisans who have contributed to quality in the industry.

With an estimated housing shortfall of 17 million in Nigeria and not less than five to 10 million skilled workers, they feared that the nation’s construction industry might not recover if the migration continues.

The Nigerian Institute of Builders (NIOB) stressed the need for maintenance of quality, insisting that members of the profession cannot afford to ignore training and re-training of artisans and craftsmen in the construction industry.

According to NIOB’s Second Vice President, Mr. Kunle Awobodu, training is important, since skilled artisans would be needed to build at least one million housing units a year in the next 20 years to meet the nation’s housing demand.

Awobodu, who was a former chairman of the Lagos State chapter of the Institute, said the economic downturn is affecting project availability in the construction industry. “There are not enough jobs to do. There are limited jobs, few jobs and fewer construction works.

According to Awobodu, the situation is reminiscent of the General Buhari’s era when many foreign artisans left the country due to the essential commodity issue in the economic management and the value of Naira.He said: “when naira was strong in the early 80s, we had a large number of Ghanaians in the workforce until President Shagari era when we witnessed ‘the Ghana must go’, as we started noticing economic recession. Then, when General Buhari took over, the essential commodity issue came up in the economic management, the value of Naira fell.

So what we are seeing is reminiscent of that era, when what the artisans are charging is no longer commensurate with their currency. “What they are getting is not sufficient to their anticipated pay. Ordinarily, you will experience such a thing. But the dearth of artisans will not be good for the built industry nor for our economy”, he said.“The Nigeria Institute of Building has been on the vanguard to raise the standard of construction works, this could be achieved by training our artisans.

However, their exit will encourage us to develop our own artisans and encourage more youths to key into the training of artisans. It is a welcome development.”
Explaining further on the implications for the construction industry, he said it would definitely affect the cost of projects.Also the National President of Builders and Construction Skilled Artisans Association of Nigeria (BACSAAN), Alhaji Fasasi Mohammed Jamiu confirmed that majority of foreign artisans have left the country due to the currency crisis, which has strengthened the currencies in the neighbouring countries.

He said: “Take for instance, when a contractor collects a job of N15000, he pays such an artisan N1500. With the present currency situation, you can hardly feed, let alone save from what you get. So, I think they are of the view that if it were in their country, they could still fair better”.

Speaking on why Nigerian artisans are not adequately trained like foreign artisans, he said Nigerian government has not deemed it necessary to assist the association in training indigenous artisans adequately with basic skills and facilities, stressing that the failure in providing capacity building for the artisans is a reflection of the reality of a lot of unskilled workers who parade themselves as artisans in the country, thereby creating havocs in the built industry and damaging the image of the organisation and Nigeria.

“The governments of those countries have specially built training centres for the artisans like our conventional secondary and university system and so they become well-grounded and sound as well as thorough in their jobs delivery”.

According to him, if Nigerian artisans have such training, they would do better than the highly esteemed foreign artisan. However, he said there are many of the Nigerian artisans who are better than the foreign counterparts in job diligence, transparency and accountability.

“Most of the contractors that engage them do that with ulterior motives, for instance to exploit them. They would bring them in large numbers, camp them and pay them very small amount of money to execute project which they cannot try with the indigenous artisans”.

• The Guardian