I like fabrics, local fabrics, Nigerian fabrics. And I just like ‘Oh, she’s wearing this -’ and it’s made locally, it’s made here in Nigeria: that was what pushed me to the business. I think they are better than the imported ones.
There’s a kind of tradition...this is Africa, not European, not English. That was what really pushed me to it. Especially the Ghana Wax. Because it’s Ghana, the prints are so lovely, so so lovely. You feel, ‘Oh, she’s wearing Ghana Wax.’
When you talk about the design, it’s always kind of unique, and there’s this kind of cotton they use for it that makes you know this is an African wax, not...English.
I started with N500,000, that was a lot then. I had to travel up to the North where you get [the fabric] from -
Interviewer: How many days to travel to the North?
L: 24 hours.
I: On what? Taxi?
L: By bus. It’s cheaper. You can go by air but it’s more expensive. So we go by bus. The bus is going to the market. We charter from the market up to the market in Kano . Once a week, twice a week, depends on the volume of what you want to buy.
Sometimes you go with people, strangers that you’ve never met before. But you get to the bus, you talk to them: Oh, where are you going to? Kano. Oh, which fabrics are you buying? You’re buying from Wu? Oh, he’s my customer. You chat on the way and you get to know each other.
We go to as far as Benin Republic - they have a lot of wax there, it comes from Egypt and I think Ghana, and one other country, I’ve forgotten. I think like, four countries.
We have wax here in Nigeria, made in Nigeria, it’s called Nichem wax, but it’s more expensive. I think maybe because of the light issue or something [i.e. infrastructure problems with lack of electricity] it’s more expensive than the one we get from Cotonou and other places. The one we get at Kano comes from China.
I: How do you meet your buyers? Do you need to be introduced?
L: No, no, you just walk up to them - it’s a big market. You see the cloths are arranged *gestures to show*. If you see what you like you just go into the shop and you tell them, Oh, how much is this? Can I get like 500 pieces of this? Can I get 1000 pieces of this? And if they say yes, that’s it.
I: Is there credit with the people you buy from?
L: When you’re used to...you keep going somewhere every time, once a week, twice a week or even once in five months, the person is already used to you. Okay, I want 1000 pieces of this but I have money for 500. Then he might say, I will give you 200 extra, when you pay for 300 then I will give you the remaining 200. That’s the way it works.
I: So it’s all on trust. You don’t write anything down?
L: At all. Even though they don’t know where you - they just see you in the market as a regular customer. They don’t know where your own shop is as in where you came from: they just know okay, she’s from Ibadan. They don’t know where your shop is, where your house is, nothing about you. It’s only on trust: this person is my customer, she will always come back.
I: Has there ever been a case where somebody tried to cheat them?
L: Many cases. So many cases. Not even all here in Nigeria though. They travel as far as India, they will buy, they give them on credit, and they never come back again.
I: You would think that would destroy that trust relationship?
L: It has. Like China, when you get to China, they will have to follow you down here to Nigeria before they can start giving you on credit.
I: Have you ever been to China?
I: Do you want to?
L: Yes I do!
I: So when you’re buying the made in Nigeria or Cote D’Ivoire cloth, do you still go to Kano for that?
I: Can you tell me any of the particular challenges that you found in this business?
L: So many. Like I can remember a time we were traveling - it was a night bus. I think the driver was asleep or something, and all of a sudden he was going inside the bush. It was around three o clock. We had to wake him up. We came out of the bus in the middle of the bush, we didn’t even know where we were. We had to tell him, okay, you have to go run around for five minutes and then come back. And then there was a time when we went and we got stuck for three days on the road. There was no petrol, we had to send somebody...we sent a luxurious bus going on the way to buy petrol from Kano and bring it down to where our bus was.
And there was a time when we were raided by thieves.
I: Oh my god! What happened?
L: Thieves are on the road, on the highway.
I: Were they armed?
L: Yes. Guns. They stopped us and it was people that had an ATM card with them, that didn’t go with cash, that were safe.
I: Were there any particular changes to the market during the time you were trading?
L: Yes, like price increments. It happens like you buy for N5 today, tomorrow it’s N6, N7. And sometimes it could be, okay you bought for N5 today and tomorrow it’s N3. That means a loss. It’s trading: a normal thing that occurs.
I: What made you to come out of that business?
L: So many things. The risk. And I felt the market was a big market...I had to leave. The competition was much. It was much. Much. And then, the market dropped. The last example I made, I bought for N5 and the market dropped. There was much loss.
I: Did you ever recover your money?
L: At all. That was 2007/2008.
I: So how many years in all were you doing this business?
L: 5 years.
I: Would you ever go back to it?
L: Yes I will. It’s something I like doing. It’s like, the aso-ebi ? It’s like, Oh, she picked our cloth for us and it’s the best! - the feelings: Oh, she was the one that picked the aso-ebi, I got this from Lanre, it’s been 5 years!
I: Let me ask you about the aso-ebi you bought for us just now. What amount did you buy?
L: We buy in bales. That’s for 100 people. We have six yards times 100 in it. I bought a bale for N190,000, and I sold for N2000 [for every 6 yards.]
I: So you didn’t even make that much profit on it, because of family?
I: Please tell me the process. I know people came to ask you to obtain it, so what’s the process you went through?
L: My Auntie just called me and told me We want aso-ebi that will be up to 600-700 people, where can I get that from? I said it’s too late to go to Kano because of the short notice, so I have to go to the local market here, we call the market Gbagi, New Gbagi . I still have friends there that sell wholesale, that can give you [a very fair price]. So I went there, I just told her that this is what I want to do with the aso-ebi, that it’s a family thing. She said okay, I have up to 600 of this, I have up to 500 of that, so you have to choose. I’ll take two samples - oh, three samples! I’ll show it to my Auntie, any one she wants. And I brought them and they chose the one we used.
This is what we picked, and it’s because of the colour. It matches. You can use a blue head tie, you can use a teal head tie, I think this is wine colour? then a black head tie with it. And the price was cheap. It was a very good price, a reasonable price.
I: I’ve seen people wear such expensive lace and so forth as aso-ebi, why didn’t we do this this time?
L: There’s a recession in Nigeria, one. And this matches any occasion. When you buy expensive lace, like for N35,000, you can only wear it once, and [afterwards] then only when you go to church on Sunday. But this, you can always wear it any time. It’s ankara and you can wear it anywhere. To the shop, or to the market. It’s useful.
I: I think there’s no member of the family that couldn’t afford it, which was a great reason also. Plus, it’s really nice! It’s very bright, I love it!
L: *Beaming* Thank you!
I: One last thing: has using mobile phone changed the business in any way?
L: Yes, very well. I have customers that will tell me, Lanre, send samples on WhatsApp. Then I’ll take a picture and send samples so they can pick the ones they want.
I: Can you describe a favorite cloth?
L: I like these fabrics from Ghana. They’re always nice. It’s cool, and you wear it for years, like ten, fifteen years, you’re still wearing it depending on the style.
I like wearing agbada . I like it a lot. It’s easy and you can always wear it any time you like. And that’s it.
Glossary & links
Agbada: big rectangle of material worn as a loose robe.
Ankara: printed cotton cloth derived from classic ‘African’ wax prints. Comprises Genuine Dutch Wax brands such as Vlisco as well as cheaper roller-printed brands known as fancy prints. There are mills printing cotton in Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria and Benin Republic.
aso ebi: cloth worn by the whole family at a function expressing solidarity.
aso oke: traditional hand loom strip-woven cloth; high value, high status.
Buba and iro: loose square blouse without fastenings and a long piece of cloth tied as a wrapper, worn together.
Bubu: not to be confused with buba, is a general name for a woman's loose, wide, full length garment like an agbada or a kaftan.
Customer: in local usage once a buyer and seller transact with each other regularly they are both known as ‘the customer’.
Gele: headtie. May be local hand woven aso oke or imported damask or brocade: it helps if it's quite stiff to hold the desired shape.
Iborun: extra piece of cloth used to carry a baby. Part of women's formal attire with or without baby.
Iro, lapa: cloth wrapper worn round the waist.
Kano: this historical market in Northern Nigeria, established in the 15 Century, was a major centre for trans-Saharan trade in goods and crafts - gold, leather, pottery, weaving and dying. It caters to local commercial interests, trade with the South and with global markets such as China.
Ofi: traditional hand woven cloth as worn by women.
Up-and-down: blouse worn with one short and one long wrapper.
fabric trading and manufacture
Middlesex Textiles, selling to diaspora Nigerians in UK, showing lace, George, ankara, gele etc (not real aso oke.)
#71 “African Fabrics”: the history of dutch wax prints
Vlisco Stories. With every fabric comes a story.
Buying Local, Thinking Global Isn’t As Easy As You Think from African Urbanism.
The Modern Tale of Nigerian Wax-Resist Textiles from WIPO, World Intellectual Copyright Organisation, about the problem of copyright with regard to made-in-Africa fabrics in an era of globalisation.
Buying fabric in Accra a memoir from Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices.
African Queens of Textiles: the Nana Benz of Togo.