By Temitope David-Adegboye
The city of Abeokuta is one of the major towns in Nigeria. Aside being the capital city and seat of the Ogun State government, it is a choice destination for tourists and lovers of authentic African designs simply known as Adire, a popular fabric that has gained recognition as an African phenomenon. Adire is an integral part of the Egba culture in Abeokuta.
The Kaita Adire/Kampala market, Itoku, is probably the largest tie and dye market in West Africa. The market, which is just a stone throw from the Olumo Rock premises, is one place where local artisans and traders co-mingle with customers like to find a bargain. What greets anyone on arrival at Itoku, are sights of demolished stalls and on-going construction for a six-lane road, expected to be completed in 18 months. According to a government official, the construction works include a flyover at Itoku cenotaph, to ensure that activities at the Itoku market do not impede free flow of traffic to Olumo Rock. Plans are also in the pipeline to build modern stalls in the market.
The combined smell of the various chemicals employed in the manufacture of these African designs can also not be ignored. But one does not get to see where the smell is coming from, as the main production process goes on behind the rows of shops, which has on display assorted adire fabrics, which include tie and dye, eleko, Alababela (batik) and Oniko. To catch a glimpse of the production process is like the proverbial ‘camel passing through the eye of the needle’ as marketers are reluctant to show anyone what they refer to as ‘trade secrets’. Not even a clearance and approval from Ogunfidodo Micheal, Otun Babalaje and spokesman for the market could pull the strings.
However, with persistence and guidance, eventually, one was able to access the production arena, where you are confronted with a labour force comprising both men and women of all ages. Despite having lived with the people for several decades, the process of making adire has witnessed little or no change. Ogunfidodo explained that many people are involved in the process, hence the need for division of labour. The women and men who do the real production just wait until they are assigned the jobs to do. Mrs. Funmilayo Taju, who has been in the trade for more than two decades, gives an insight into materials needed in the making of adire and the process.
They include any fabric that can absorb dye, chemicals such as caustic soda, sodium hydrosulphite, soda ash and common salt, vessels, thread of all kinds like bast, twist, yarn and raffia popularly called iko. You also need spoon for measuring and adding dye, sticks for stirring the dye, scissors, rubber gloves, apron, pins and needles, iron, pencil, chalk or charcoal, ruler and polythene bags (of all sizes). The process consists of tying, knotting, folding or sewing parts of the cloth in a way that when immersed in dye, the solution will not penetrate the tied area of the fabric.
“The first step is for one to get the piece of cloth that can absorb dye. We get these clothes from within the state and sometimes we have to travel as far as to Cotonou or Kano to buy,” said Mrs. Taju. Another popular woman involved in tying the clothes before applying dye in Itoku is Sidikat Ajao, who also has over a decade of experience in the art of tying and dyeing.
“It was passed on to me by my parents who also inherited it from their own parents who were involved in the production process.” Sidikat was seen painstakingly tying every bit of the material with her bare hand into specific knots of varying degrees. When asked why the process cannot be mechanised to make it faster, she replied: “Machines will not do it as good as humans. If you want the ‘tying and dyeing’ process to be perfect, you must rely on human beings.
Moreover, we were taught with hands and machines have not been developed to do this,” she said. How long would it take to learn the art of adire making? Why there is no age limit to who can learn the art, authorities in the market have ruled that for anyone to be certified as having learnt enough of the trade, the person must stay as an apprentice for a year. “With that, we are sure that the apprentice would have had the basic knowledge to perform well because it has to do with creativity, it is a continuous process. Even those of us who have been in this business for a long period are still learning one or two things on a daily basis. We are constantly creating designs.
This market is duly incorporated and we have board of trustees, functional executives,” said Ogunfidodo. The production of adire textile is done in such a way that a part of the cloth is protected before it is immersed in the dye bath. The resisting agent, such as rafia or cotton thread resists the dye so as not to penetrate into the resisted areas. This is what the Egbas called oniko. Some patterns are stitched with needle and thread which is called Alabere. ? Other methods include Eleko, elesun, Egba la’wa, eleso kekere and ele so nla. To make Eleko, the method is achieved on the fabric with application of starch paste made from cassava flour (Elubo).
This starch prevents the dye from penetrating through the cloth. The starch pastes are applied with brush or feather on the surface of the fabric or through a stencil that has been cut into a design and left to dry for a while under the sun before it is immersed into a dye solution. The next important process after the dyed piece of materials has dried is what is termed ‘planking’ done on a wooden platform by mostly men, who spend hours hitting the adire materials on a wooden base and pestle, in a way it would achieve its appearance like a well-ironed fabrics.
The planker, Saidi Olufemi revealed that it was his lucky day as they were able to achieve much because there was “reasonable” supply of electricity for that day. Does epileptic electricity supply in anyway affect Saidi’s job? “Yes, you know that this work is hard. It makes us to sweat a lot. If there is power, I can put on the fan and that will make sure I do not sweat too much. Generally, when you sweat excessively, you get tired easily.” But the power situation, according to Saidi, a man in his late 40s is a child’s play compared to the meagre pay he and others in his line of business receive.
‘Planking’ thirty yards of clothes avails only N200. “They pay us according to the number of pieces you are able to plank. If there is any area I want improved it is in the pay. It is too small. It takes several hours to produce a perfect job, because this is an important aspect of the business.” Perhaps, the energy required to accomplish this aspect of the adire-making process is so much and discouraging for the younger generation. The average age of people involved in ‘planking’ is late 40s, a sign that the future may be riddled with manpower crisis.
The young men who are involved in the process there are not Nigerians but Malians, who are in their 20s. Isiaka Traore, the most enlightened of the bunch said he has been in Nigeria for five years. He said their job, is largely dependent on how well the business thrives. “Each day, we pray that the shop owners sell, because it is when they sell that we are commissioned to work more. If I get a loan, I will like to sell, because that is what brings money,” he said. Apart from irregular power supply, one wonders what other challenges they are faced with in the production of adire.
The increasing infiltration of foreigners, especially Chinese is a major challenge to the traders. According to Biodun Abdulfatai, Chinese come to the market under the guise of shopping only to steal some of their designs. They are machine-duplicated in their countries and exported to the western world. “Some of them will come here and buy a few samples, while they use their cameras to capture the rest. The next few months, the samples are made and shipped to some cities in the western world. That is taking a lot out of our market.” Ogunfidodo buttressed this claim.
“The worst is that the whites have started copying our designs. We have this China imitation everywhere now. When we create a design today, because we used to take those of them who claim to be tourists to where we get these things made, they see the way we make them and barely a month after they leave, we see the print type out in the market. That is really a challenge.” He opined that the only way around this problem would be to patent their designs.
However, in Itoku, everyone is so concerned about surviving today that no one bothers about how to patent the designs. Ogunfidodo also highlighted other challenges to include raw materials and inadequate water supply. “Most of the time, we have to go as far as to Kano to get our fabric. We normally have problems with Customs who accuse us of carrying banned goods.
Also, we use plenty of water. So getting enough water is a problem. Sourcing standard chemicals and funds are also issues. Presently, the governor of Ogun has tried with the introduction of Bank of Industry to us. Some of our members have been able to secure loans to grow their businesses, but many are still waiting to benefit from the loans,” he said. For a business with such huge employment opportunities and prospects of high revenue yield, what are they doing to explore export opportunities? “We have no such funds to bankroll large production.
Though we have regulators such as the Nigeria Export Promotion Council and SMEDAN, in most cases, these organisations don’t come down to the level of those of us that manufacture. I was opportune to attend one of the events organised by Export Promotion Council. On getting there, most of the people that called themselves stakeholders in the Adire industry, where persons I never met before, because there is no way you would talk about Adire making in Nigeria and not talk about Abeokuta, the origin and the home of Adire.
The people I saw were mere scholars, and that is the problem we have when it comes to export business. Just like the normal Nigerian thing, corruption is the bane of growth of this business. People who are not in the system are the ones benefiting from government.” To harness the full potentials of the industry, the imagemaker has this advice for the government: “In the area of raw materials, I believe that if the issue of Customs arresting us is dealt with, then things would be better. I don’t believe trading within Nigeria should be a problem.
Then in the area of export, government agencies should endeavour to come down to where these things are being manufactured to see things for themselves. It would go a long way than just picking just anybody in Abuja who does n