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“Lessons from the Poor”: The Nigerian Clothing Design Industry

Posted on Saturday, Sep 19th 2009

By Guest Author Thompson Ayodele

[Last week, Praneetha Manthravadi showed how the Scojo Foundation is helping to foster entrepreneurship through its ‘Business in a Bag’ model for selling eyeglasses. Today, an excerpt from a chapter of  “Lessons from the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit”, edited by Alvaro Vargas Llosa and published by The Independent Institute, shows how Nigerian entrepreneurs have turned the West African tradition of indigo dyeing into a profitable business.]

The adire, or clothing design industry, employs thousands of people in Abeokuta in southwestern Nigeria, most of them women with little or no education who have used their entrepreneurial drive to make a living and create wealth where there was previously only misery. These entrepreneurs have received no government aid. In fact, through action or omission, the government has placed and continues to place many obstacles in their way. Yet they have been able to combat poverty much more effectively than foreign aid and official poverty-reduction programs. By creating thousands of small businesses and seizing opportunities under spontaneous institutional arrangements that offer a good measure of security and therefore a predictable environment, they have generated employment and profits. Even the less well-off among the adire entrepreneurs earn more money than other Nigerians make through the minimum wage in government jobs or formal-sector companies. […] Thanks to the rise in their standard of living, many of these Nigerians have assumed responsibility for their own health care and other basic services.

Indigo Dyeing as a West African Tradition

The Yoruba word adire has its source in “adi” and “re,” which can be translated as “tie” and “dye,” respectively. Adire is a resist and/or indigo-dyed cloth. The emergence of adire dates back more than a century. […] It is interesting to note that originally adire making was not seen as an economic enterprise or an alternative to farming, the predominant occupation of the time. It was a cultural trait rather than a profit-seeking venture.

The Adire Revolution

In the early twentieth century, there was a departure from the earlier practice of adire making. Contacts with European textile merchants ensured access to large quantities of factory-produced shirting material. Apart from being available, this material was also affordable. As the drudgery of having to weave local cotton gave way to abundant shirting material, opportunities for growth appeared. A new dyeing technique that used cassava starch as a resist agent was also discovered and quickly adopted.

These developments brought a revolution to the practice of clothing design. Adire making gradually came to be seen as more than a symbol of cultural heritage and eventually evolved into an industry. Women effectively came to dominate the enterprise.

The Economics of the Adire Business

Taking into account the commercial worth of each of the shops and the number of people involved in the adire business, altogether the industry represents some US$20 million. The adire market is generally competitive, although certain elements of oligopoly are clearly visible. The activities of a few entrepreneurs can significantly affect the whole industry.

In the adire business, transactions are conducted through physical meetings in a shop owned either by the occupant or by another person, on a cash-and-carry basis. The business is highly localized and affords rapid skills and practice diffusion among operators. There is virtually no documentation of deals or recording and keeping of transactions. The business, in short, is done primitively.

Within Nigeria, there are usually no middlemen in the chain of distribution; adire makers and consumers meet via physical contact to conduct transactions. Moreover, government-created transaction costs and a certain ignorance of the dynamics of international transactions on the part of these entrepreneurs hinder direct exports abroad. Adire cloths find their way abroad principally through Nigerian expatriates. Partly for reasons of cultural heritage and partly for profit, Nigerians abroad purchase adire cloths, serving as sales outlets in faraway lands.

[You can read more in “Lessons from the Poor”: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Sprit”.]

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