As Nigeria battles youth unemployment, Sikiru Akinola reports that production of special Yoruba traditional fabric known as aso-oke is generating employment opportunities and millions of Naira for youths of Iseyin, an Oyo community.
Iseyin, the rustic town in Oyo State, prides itself as the largest producer of the Yoruba traditional fabric, aso-oke.
Located about 80 kilometres away from Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, Iseyin is the gateway to Oke-Ogun, the northern part of the state with 10 local government areas.
Fabrics estimated at over N3 million are rolled out daily to meet the needs of several Yoruba people holding one ceremony or the other. The venture provides ready jobs for teeming youths who derive pleasure and contentment in earning decent living from it.
For its economic importance and social relevance, demands for aso-oke in all parts of the country, and by the Yoruba in the Diaspora, continues to make Iseyin the hub of local production, and employment generation.
For wedding ceremonies, funeral, landmark birthdays, coronation and conferment of chieftaincy titles, among others, aso-oke remains the toast of the Yoruba people. They come in different styles and quality such as sanyan and alari among others.
Biodun Sangotikun has a post-graduate degree in Electrical Electronic Engineering having completed his Higher National Diploma (HND) in the same field from the Polytechnic, Ibadan seven years ago.
One would have expected him to be working in an engineering company or be self-employed but his case is different. He still weaves aso-oke, even after he got employment with Iseyin Local Government Area. Almost 22 years ago, while in secondary school, he had begun weaving because “as an Iseyin indigene, we inherited the art from our forefathers. Weaving actually began in Iseyin. And it will interest you to know that all my educational pursuit were sponsored with the proceeds I made from this business,” he told Southwest Report.
It was later discovered that Biodun rides a ‘pencil’ camry. He, however, said the challenges in weaving aso-oke are more than the profit.
Revealing how he works for 10 hours per day, Biodun said: “What they (dealers) make in less than two hours is far greater than what we make in three days. Our effort is not commensurate with what we get. There are many challenges associated with this business. The materials we use in weaving this fabric are too expensive. It is expensive compared to the amount we sell the product.
“To make an ipele (shawl), the material will cost us between N2, 300 and N2, 500. What caused this is the fact that we don’t value our industrial sector. There is no help from government. We have seen inferior materials brought from China and people buy them. People from Ghana import materials into the country and government continues to watch. Our hand-woven fabric is better than the ones made by machine.”
In the olden days, you are not completely dressed without an ipele (shawl) for women and an agbada with a fila abeti aja (dog ear’s cap) cap to match.
Apart from the fact that the Yoruba believe that the trade began in the ancient town, everybody is involved. Behind every shop you see, with massive wares, there is a weaving point. You will be delighted to know that most of the residents make fortune from weaving and selling the fabrics.
Southwest Report learnt that people who are into other businesses and have big shops are in the business.
Popular among the Yoruba people and used for every occasion, the fabric comes in various colours, designs and qualities. It takes quality time to weave the fabric because the wool is delicate, though silk can also be used to enhance the colour and material. Aso-oke, which is woven with elaborate unique patterns made from dyed strands of fabric that are woven into strips of cloth, are of three major kinds namely alaari, sanyan and etu.
Biodun further revealed that most of the popular people are trained weavers as all the beautiful houses built in the past four decades were owned by weavers.
To make aso-oke, it involves a tedious process. The thread used in weaving aso-oke is made of cottoný.
Usually planted during the rainy season and harvested between November and February of the following year, it is kept in the bar for spinning. The cotton seed are removed from the wool with a bow-like instrument, splindler called orun in Yoruba language.
After sorting, pattern and designs would be made on the aso-oke while the cloth is being woven. In doing this, akata (propeller), iye (long wheel), akawo (short wheel), gowu and kigun (rollers), aasa (strikers), omu (extender) are used in holding the reels.
To make the cotton into bundles, the cotton reels are put upon the hangers on the sets of metallic pegs on the ground during patterning. With this put in place, the weaving process begins.
For quality and durable production, the thread is first washed, using starch after which it is left out to dry in the sun. It can take up to three hours to finish weaving one piece and can take up to two weeks to finish a complete customised aso-oke cloth. This process can be much longer during the rainy season.
Describing the process, one of the weavers said: “The rolled cotton will be neatly inserted into the striker through the extenders. The weaver will tie iro (filler) on his seat. There are two or more holes on the staff in which a small peg is tagged. On the upper hand of the omu (extenders), there is okeke (wheel or axle) for pulling the omu up and down. There are two step pedals under the extenders (omu) which the weaver presses down interchangeably during weaving.
“The pedal, when pressed, enables the cotton to open and the reeler put through to one side while the striker knocks the reel to and fro to another side. The striker allows the reel to be finely set interchangeably. The weaver handling the oko (motor) throws it inside the open cotton to be received by his other hand. Movement of the motor continues faster as if the weaver is not touching it at all.
“The reel inside the motor will start giving a peculiar sound; sakala – si – sakala – sa, sakala – si – sakala – sa.
“As the weaver continues this way, the cloth is weaved and gradually extends forward. The weaver uses the drawer to pull the cloth towards him and the carrier obeys the force and moves towards him while weaving continues.”
Fortune from an unusual venture
If not for the weaving business, crime rate would have increased in the town as unemployment would have taken its tolls on the teeming youthful population. They youth would have engaged themselves in nefarious activities. Even most people who are into other businesses, according to our source, set up their business with proceeds made from weaving business. As it is, it has continued to provide employment opportunities for the bulk of their population and has contributed to the growth of the local economy.
At Arapa’s compound in Iseyin, Southwest Report encountered a 44-year-old Waheed Isiak. He began professional weaving over 20 years ago.
He said: “I learnt the trade from our people. When I finished my Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE), I intended to further my education but was unable to do so due to lack of finance. Faced with the situation, I then decided to learn a trade. Weaving was what came to my mind. Since I started the business, I have been making it.
“To the glory of God, I have my own house. Two of my children have finished their National Certificate of Education (NCE) programmes while the third one is in his first year at the Emmanuel Alayande College of Education; Oyo.ý It is through this industry that I became what I am today. I have no other means of livelihood.”
He, however, expressed concern over lack of government’s intervention in the business. He said the importation of what he described as tapanpa (damask) almost killed the business during the administration of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. “The importation of damask by government, especially during Obasanjo’s second term threatened our business,” he recalled.
On the gains of the profession, he said: “We have achieved what we never thought. Even if we continue to encounter challenges, we will overcome it.” Pointing to one of his children weaving aso-oke, he said: “He has started his own. I will not allow him leave this profession; but I will encourage him to be educated to the highest level. Moreover, many of our people are currently observing hajj (pilgrimage) as we speak and it is through this business they were able to sponsor their trips.
“Government can project us by making us listed in the world trade. By doing this, we will be known and people will patronise us. Also, they should ban the importation of similar products. Sometimes, we lose; supply is more than demand. However, we make brisk business during Christmas and festive periods.
”If there is no rain, the production is high. If government can provide a factory for us with a covered sheet or tarpaulin, it will help our production as we will work all night.”
He said the importation of damask by late former First Lady; Stella Obasanjo made people to lose interest in aso-oke.
“Our people had to rethink and came up with new initiative. We were using cotton before; we had to resort to the use of metallic thread. It makes our works to shine and compete favourably with damask. People have started using our product again,” he said.
Continuing, he said the trade has generated employment for most of his brothers and friends. “Some of them sell while some of them weave. They are making millions from it. And I must tell you that there is no weaving joint you will get to that you won’t see a graduate,” he said.
Southwest Report encountered some underage children helping their parents and brothers in the weaving just as children between the ages of four and seven years were not left out as they were seen assisting in shifting the okuku.
•A boy with rolls of weaving threads for making of Aso-Oke
When asked if he would like to continue with the trade, 16-year-old Adewale Waheed, an SS 2 student of Faramora Grammar School, Atori Iseyin said he was born into it and will never leave it for anything except his pursuit of education.
“I have started long ago. I started by helping my father separate the wool. And it has not stopped my studies. I want to be a broadcaster in the future,” Adewale said.
The case of Olaide Waheed was not different from that of Adewale. The JSS 3 student of St. John’s Grammar School Iseyin, who wants to be a medical doctor in the future, started weaving five years ago.
In the case of Saheed Awoniyi, he has not made enough from it despite the fact that he started 25 years ago. Though his parents were into the trade, he also learned it as an apprentice. He said their price has not changed despite the inflation in the cost of materials used in making the fabric.
Moshood Lukman Alani said he would not leave the trade even if he becomes a professor as he won’t stop at anything to raise money. The holder of National Diploma Certificate of the Rufus Giwa Polytechnic began weaving in 1989. He learned it from his uncle when he was in primary school.
“I will go to his place and watch as he weaved. Afterward, I became interested. I have never looked back since then. That is the work I do. Even most of the teachers and principals of schools here in Iseyin still weave. The work has reduced poverty.
“If not for this, you would have been able to count all of us in Iseyin. Many people are in the work place. This is the only work that brings youth together. I financed my education with this and established a barber’s shop with it and I am happily married and have children. Government should subsidise the cost of the materials,” he said.ý
Mrs. Iyabode Ayantunde was born into the trade and she said: “At first, I did not have interest in the business until I grew up. I saw the opportunity in it later and I must tell you that it has been rewarding,” she said, adding that “there is no work without its challenges. It is not preventing me from the home chores and other things. I go to pray at the appropriate time. Everything I have done, I got the money from this business,” she said.
How the material gets to the end users
They are either taken to the market for sale or dealers come to take them. One of the weavers told Southwest Report that they want a permanent market in the town to boost their trade. With this, people from all walks of life will have come to Iseyin and it will further boost the town’s economy.
Currently, there are two major designated centres for the trade. One is in Oje, Ibadan while the other is in Ede, Osun State. They attract buyers from Ondo, Akure, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto and even other countries in the West African sub- region.
While Alaari is very expensive because it is used for important occasions, the average price for either of these ranges between N25, 000 and N30, 000 for a complete attire. To get an ipele and gele, the price is between N7, 000 and N10, 000, depending on the chosen design. The high price cannot be unconnected with the high cost of materials and the time it takes to produce them.
To reduce the high price and improve quality, the weavers urged government to resuscitate the old cotton industry to make materials cheaper and accessible. The high price of imported materials is affecting our profit margin. A complete material which formerly goes for N9, 000 is now as low as N4, 500; whereas the cost of material is skyrocketing.
These materials come in different colours and sometimes they are not even available in the market in the desired ranges.
Apart from declining patronage, high cost of materials and unhealthy competition with foreign textile, one other major challenge confronting the industry is lack of access to loan. The inability of the people in the industry to access loans from either the commercial banks or attract government’s direct assistance is partly blamed on lack of credible association to stand as guarantor for them.
N:B: This work, done by the same reporter, was earlier published by The Nation on September 30, 2015.