Aso-oke Industry is Dying

Lola Omotayo, wife of popular Nigerian artist on her aso-oke attire

The aso-oke industry which has thrived over the years is fast on the decline majorly due to changing fashion trend and the importation of similar cheap materials from China

|  By Chinwe Okafor  |  Apr. 21, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT

FASHION comes and goes, but it never dies, so the popular saying goes. It revolves and recycles. This saying aptly applies to one of the Yoruba cultural ways of dressing which has survived centuries of foreign domination against all odds. Amongst the Yoruba people of the Southwest region in Nigeria, the traditional hand woven cloth called Aso-oke has always been a popular fad. In spite of the influx of foreign fabrics like Ankara, lace and damasks into the country, Aso-oke still remains the most revered traditional cloth in Yoruba land and even beyond.

Aso-oke which comes in different shades and colours was the most preferred attire for wedding, burial, naming, chieftaincy and coronation ceremonies among others in the ancient times. During those days, a complete woman’s attire consisted of iro, which is a wrapper, buba, (blouse), gele,  (head-tie), ipele, (shawl) usually tied around the waist and iborun which the wearer hangs on the shoulder.

Knitted Aso-oke designs on display
Knitted Aso-oke designs on display

Aso-oke is so much in demand that many traders who sell the material have made a fortune from it. One of such persons is Sulaiman Olanrewaju, a popular dealer of Aso-oke at Okelele in Ilorin, who told Sunday Sun that he made his fortune from the Aso-Oke business.”To the glory of God almighty, it is through this industry that I became what I am today. I have no other means of livelihood. It is from it that I trained those of my children who have graduated from university and served their fatherland as well as those who are in the process of gaining admission.”

But the glorious days of deal in Aso-Oke business has been is dimming over the years. The sad tale is that the industry that produces the clothing material is fast dying due to a combination of factors ranging from outdated production methods, importation of cheap foreign fabrics, and mostly changing fashion trend among others.  In recent times, the industry has been on a decline due to the dearth of skilled manpower to produce quality material and severe competition from other imported fabrics. Olarewaju expressed concern over the steady decline in production and patronage of the Aso-oke fabric, which, according to him, may lead to its eventual extinction, if nothing is done to arrest the situation.

Olanrewaju narrated the story of the fluctuating demand of the product looking into the trend in the industry in the last four decades. He said that it is by the grace of God that he is still surviving in the business and said he could recall five or four different phases in the ups and downs of the fortune of Aso-oke industry which dates back to 1973. The situation worsened in the late 90s when the fashion trend changed in favour of the use of Damask for gele.

“During the reign of the former President Olusegun Obasanjo, his late wife, Stella introduced a new fashion style by completely abandoning the Aso-oke attire in preference to Tapanpa also known as damask. It then became the vogue for women to use damask for Ipele and gele. I never had it so bad because for months during the Obasanjo’s regime my shop was under lock and key, as there was no one to buy the materials. Some of our colleagues died in the process because they had no alternative means of livelihood,” he said.

Realnews further gathered that the China-made Aso-oke also contributed to the decline of the Aso-oke attire since it found its way into the Nigerian market, particularly Lagos. This, however, constitutes a serious threat to the survival of the traditional industry. Abdul-Mumeen Shuaib, an Ilorin-based weaver, lamented the situation, saying, “The problem we are confronted with now is the influx of China-made Aso-oke into the Nigerian market. We appeal to government to check the importation of these materials to save our economy especially the industry from collapsing.

“When China-made aso-oke first made its appearance in the Nigerian market, demand for Aso-oke was so badly affected that it almost forced us out of business. As a result, we had to organise China-must-go rally in Lagos in 2012 to draw the attention of government to the threat of imported Chinese materials to our local industry. Although it is still in the market, but not as much as it was before we did the rally,” he said, adding that China-made Aso-oke is said to be of inferior quality.

Aso-oke weavers at work
Aso-oke weavers at work

Another aso-oke weaver, who identified himself as Phillip, described the China made aso-oke as a mere tissue paper, which cannot stand the test of time. He said that if it is not Ofi, it cannot be like Ofi because theirs is hand woven, thick and long- lasting. The China-made imitation is machine woven, light in texture and as fragile as ordinary paper. It doesn’t last. So, there is a world of difference. Their intention is to kill our local industry so that they can flood our market with their materials, but God will not allow it to happen,” he said.

Realnews investigations revealed that the only two designated centres for Ofi fabrics in the whole of Yorubaland are the Ede and Ibadan markets, which attracts traders at all times. These centres attract people from all walks of life from Ondo, Akure, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto and even other countries in the Africa sub region. There are the Sanyan and Alaari types of Aso-oke which are the most expensive materials people use for important occasions such as wedding and coronation. At the Ede market in Osun state, the average price for either of these ranges between N25, 000 and N30, 000 for a complete attire. The quantity of the Aso-oke that could be used for only ipele and gele, cost between N7, 000 and N10, 000 depending on a chosen design.

However, Mukaila Agbojulogun, secretary of Oluwakunmi Nigeria Weaving Association, blamed the inability of the industry to keep pace with rapidly changing fashion trend on low working capital as well as scarcity of materials. He said, that fluctuation in the price of imported materials is affecting the industry and that there are some materials that are not readily available. “At present, our working capital is too small to produce at maximum capacity. The elderly ones among us are not so keen on taking loan, but the younger generation needs access to loan in order to meet the modern demands.

According to him, many people are afraid of going for bank loan because the interest is far above the profit margin. “If they can give us access to loan at an affordable interest rate, I will go for it. This is a money spinning industry, but we need loan to meet increasing demand for our products.

Despite these challenges facing the industry, Akilimali Funua Olade, who is a lover of aso-oke, said that it is the most beautiful attire in the world because each time she wears it, she always look beautiful and it reminds her of the age long attire of her people.