• Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Aso-oke: History, market size, challenges, and opportunities

Aso-oke: History, market size, challenges, and opportunities

By Stephen Onyekwelu

Aso-oke (pronounced, ashoke), a traditional Yoruba handwoven fabric, has a rich history dating back to the 15th century.

Originating from the Yoruba people in southwestern Nigeria, aso-oke means “top cloth” in Yoruba, signifying its high status and premium quality. Historically, aso-oke was worn by royalty and used for significant ceremonies such as weddings, chieftaincy, and festivals.

What traditionally gave aso-oke its prestige was not only its beauty but people’s knowledge of how costly, difficult and time-consuming it was to produce. For instance, the traditional indigo-coloured aso-oke often required that the hand-spun thread be dyed up to fourteen times to achieve the deep blues desired.

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Furthermore, special techniques had to be used to make the threads colourfast so that they would not damage the lighter-coloured threads or embroidery when washed. The wild raw silk aso-oke called sanyan required that thousands of moth cocoons be collected and their silk carefully unravelled and spun into thread.

These types of labour-intensive activities were common prerequisites before the actual weaving and hand embroidering could begin. When selling aso-oke, market women will often discuss in detail the cost and effort required in making a specific piece and will compare and contrast it with others.

Technically, aso-oke is what is known as a double-heddle narrow loom men’s weave (although in some parts of Yoruba land, it is woven by women). The cloth is made by weaving one forty-foot or more four-inch band of cloth. This long piece is then taken to a tailor who cuts it into pieces, sews it together, and sometimes hand embroiders it.

By purchasing this cloth you are not only acquiring a rare, one-of-a-kind piece of cloth from a very famous West African weaving tradition. You are also encouraging weavers to maintain the skill and knowledge necessary to continue this art form.

Types of aso-ke

Etu: Dark blue, often with a striped pattern.

Sanyan: Light brown, made from beige silk.

Alaari: Rich red, traditionally woven with silk.

Each type represents different cultural significances and occasions. Over centuries, the craft of weaving aso-oke has been passed down through generations, with regions like Oyo, Osogbo, and Iseyin becoming renowned for their weaving expertise.

Market size
The aso-oke market has grown substantially over the years, evolving from local to national and international markets. In 2022, the market for aso-oke in Nigeria was estimated at approximately $20 million, with exports to countries with significant Yoruba diaspora like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil contributing to this figure.

Domestic Market: About $15 million.

International Market: Approximately $5 million.

Despite its cultural significance and market potential, the aso-oke industry faces several challenges.

Modernisation and urbanisation: Younger generations are moving away from traditional crafts to pursue modern professions, leading to a decline in skilled weavers.

Competition from imported fabrics: Cheaper imported textiles from China and other countries have flooded the market, making it difficult for locally made aso-oke to compete on price.

High production costs: The cost of raw materials, particularly high-quality silk and cotton, has increased, making aso-oke production expensive.

Lack of modernisation: Traditional weaving techniques are labour-intensive and time-consuming, limiting the scalability of production.

Limited market access: Many weavers struggle with accessing broader markets due to inadequate marketing strategies and limited online presence.

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Despite these challenges, several opportunities can be leveraged to revitalise and grow the aso-oke industry.

Government support and policies: Implementing supportive policies and providing subsidies for raw materials could help reduce production costs and encourage more people to engage in aso-oke weaving.

Technological integration: Incorporating modern weaving technologies could enhance production efficiency without compromising the quality of traditional designs. This could also attract younger generations interested in technology-driven careers.

Market Expansion: Leveraging digital platforms and e-commerce can open new markets for aso-oke, both locally and internationally. Online marketplaces and social media can help promote Aso-Oke to a global audience.

Cultural promotion: Increasing awareness of Aso-Oke’s cultural significance through events, festivals, and educational programs can boost demand. Collaborations with fashion designers can integrate Aso-Oke into contemporary fashion, making it more appealing to younger consumers.

Tourism development: Promoting regions known for Aso-Oke weaving as tourist destinations can create additional revenue streams. Tourists can participate in weaving workshops, purchase authentic Aso-Oke, and learn about its history and cultural importance.

Statistics and future outlook

Growth Rate: The aso-oke market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7 per cent over the next five years, driven by increasing cultural appreciation and demand for unique, high-quality textiles.

Employment: The industry currently employs over 100,000 people directly and indirectly, including weavers, designers, and traders.

Export potential: With proper branding and marketing, aso-oke exports could grow by 10 per cent annually, tapping into the global market for ethnic and luxury textiles.

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The aso-oke industry in Nigeria, steeped in rich history and cultural significance, faces several challenges, including modernisation pressures, competition from imports, and high production costs.

However, with strategic interventions such as government support, technological integration, market expansion, cultural promotion, and tourism development, the industry holds significant potential for growth. By addressing these challenges and leveraging opportunities, aso-oke can continue to be a symbol of cultural heritage and a valuable economic asset for Nigeria.