Ponmo (processed cow skin) production is a major trade in Ijebu Igbo town, Ogun state with over 300 people engaged in the business and though many people still underrate this venture, YEJIDE GBENGA-OGUNDARE, who went round cottage ponmo industries in the town finds that ponmo has not only made many people silent millionaires but has also brought glory to the town. Her report.
Adegbesan Adenuga Street, off Molusi College road in Ijebu-Igbo, Ogun state is one that will necessarily not invite attention. The reason is not farfetched; the sloppy untarred road is not a terrain one would want to traipse around especially on rainy days; it is not only rugged but also terminates in a swamp which makes some spots dangerous to vehicular movement in the rainy season as cars cannot pass beyond a point except the driver wants to take the risk of getting stuck. In spite of its condition however, the road is as important as any other one in the town as it has one of the biggest cottage industries that could be found in Ijebu Igbo town today situated on it.
Just at the end of the road is a storey building belonging to Madam Abeni Lawal, popularly called Iya Owo Oniponmo in Ijebu Igbo and renowned for her expertise in ponmo production. Iya Owo is one of the pioneers of ponmo trade in Ijebu Igbo, being one of the first three to engage in bringing down cow hide from the north to produce ponmo at commercial scale level and she has been doing this for over 40 years now.
Ponmo, a popular delicacy among Nigerians especially people in the South-West, is cow skin which is processed to become edible and is often used in lieu of beef or such other condiments while eating while to some, the diet is not balanced if ponmo is not included.
There are two major types of ponmo; the brown and the white, Ijebu Igbo people are known for their expertise in the production of the brown ponmo in commercial quantities with so many people engaged in diverse aspects of the trade. And in spite of the multitude engaged in the business, demand is still high, ensuring that every person trades at a profit. Also, Ijebu Ode for long is said to be one of the highest ponmo producers and sellers as they are a major market for people who repackage dry ponmo into packs and those that engage in exportation of ponmo to foreign countries.
Though outsiders also learn the trade, ponmo production in Ijebu Igbo is hereditary, passing down the family line and has no age demarcation. However, children often set out on their own and separate their businesses from that of their parents or guardian. An example of such is Mr. Kazeem Lawal, a ponmo producer and one of the children of Iya Owo Oniponmo. He is also well known in the town as an accomplished ponmo producer and marketer who operates a separate business that has grown as big as his mother’s own.
The procedure of producing ponmo looks easy to the average person but it is indeed hard work for those involved in the process. Nigerian Tribune found out that it not only involves patience, it also needs great perseverance and an ability to withstand heat as the first step in ponmo production involves the application of heat.
Mr Lawal took Nigerian Tribune through the ponmo production process step by step; the first stage in ponmo production after bringing in the cow skin and hide from the north is to get very fat and long logs of wood and arrange in a customized oblong fireplace before setting fire to it and when the fire breaks out, the hide is put on the fire to burn until it shrinks to the smallest form and it is blackened. After this a drum of water is placed on another big but round fireplace and when it boils, the blackened ponmo is put inside the boiled water and cook until it swells back.
After the boiled skin is cooked, it is allowed to cool down and put into big plastic drums filled with water to soak overnight. The ponmo is soaked so that the bitterness of the fire will be eradicated though if this is not done, it doesn’t make the ponmo inedible.
According to Mr Lawal, when the ponmo is to be a dry one, it may not be soaked and some also soak it then oven dry it before cutting to return it to its dry form. “We soak the ponmo overnight to remove the bitter taste, not soaking it does not make it poisonous, it is only that the soup you use it in will have a similar taste to a soup cooked with bitter leaf, not too bitter. But when the ponmo is to be the dry repackaged one, we may not soak it overnight and if it is soaked, it will be oven dried then cut to size,” he said.
And after the ponmo is soaked overnight, it is removed from the drums, cleaned and cut to the specified sizes for customers to come and pick their merchandise. And for many residents of Ijebu Igbo, there is no other business than ponmo production or sales. There are different levels of work in ponmo production; buying of hides from the north, production of ponmo and the sales. Some people do not even produce ponmo on their own but serve as factory workers in various capacities in the various ponmo cottage industries spread across Ijebu Igbo.
For Iya owo, though the ponmo business is not her first occupation, it is one that she had engaged in for decades and she had used the proceeds to do all the things that people aspire to do in life.
“I started this ponmo business a long time ago and it is very lucrative, I can attest that it is a good business. Though it wasn’t my first job, it is what I’m known for. I used to go to the north to but beans and maize for sale and when I got to Ijebu Igbo, I continued this line of business until a neighbor asked me whether I don’t see skin and hides when I go to the North and I told her that I used to see it. She then said I should buy on my next trip.
“I bought it but nobody really knew the processing then, so I was afraid that I wasn’t going to make my money and maybe it was better for me to have continued my maize and beans business but I researched it and got the required information and began to do it and make huge profits, so I involved a co-wife and business was good.
“But another woman heard that we were making money and I had built a house form the proceeds, so she asked to join us but I was reluctant because I believed that we would be too much and business will not be that profitable again but an elderly man talked to me and I consented, the three of us pioneered the business in this town and we are comfortable. And then more people joined us and the northerners realized that it had become a big business, so they also raised the stakes.
“We have since grown from, the original three to over 300 and business is still good, though we aren’t rich like new people in the business but we still call the shots and everyone is still doing well. I don’t regret this work and it is a trade one can hand over to her children,” declared the renowned Iya Owo.
Also confirming that production of cow hides and skin into ponmo is very lucrative is a worker in one of the factories who identified herself as Iya Bimpe, she told Nigerian Tribune that though she works in a factory as one of the people that burn then cut ponmo, she has found that it is lucrative as she sells the finished product. She expressed the wish to set up he own cottage industry once she has enough money to buy adequate hides and the required base of customers.
However, getting Iya Owo and others to talk was not an easy feat, she was adamant that she will not say anything or take anyone through the production procedure. But Nigerian Tribune finally wore down her defenses and she explained that the reluctance exhibited by the local ponmo manufacturers is due to the negative experience of the past,
“We are not difficult people and we have nothing to hide; our ponmo is produced in a strictly hygienic condition and we can’t poison people. We also eat out of what we produce. Our past experience is the reason you can’t easily get us to divulge information.
“One day, someone in this town brought a woman to me that she wants to do a research on ponmo production and because we had helped people with such before, we didn’t suspect foul play. In fact, we thought she was going to do a documentary because she had a video camera and was filming every stage of production.
“The next thing was that she and some other rich and educated people came to our next meeting to tell us that they are joining us in the business and will be doing it on a large scale and that our traditional ways will be phased out, this is a business we started and suffered so much before it became big, we let them know that though they have the means, we will not be chased out of business,” she explained.
According to her, they then moved to Lagos to set up factories using foreign hides that no one can vouch for, adding that the hides are prepared with chemical and look like leather for shoes.
They first came to learn from us under pretence then went to Lagos to start big business. And when people saw that their ponmo are big and thicker than our own, they started buying, not knowing it is a bad product. Then, when they realized it is bad, the council started taking our products in Lagos and were dumping it in the canal, it took a lot of investigations before the council knew it isn’t our own product that is bad.
“That is where the information that ponmo is bad came out from. It is those that just came into the business to make more profit than their investments can give that is spoiling business by using bad hides, that is why I said I will not talk to anyone again. The people that do it on an industrialized scale want to spoil the business for us.
“We use good hides, in fact, the hides they introduced to us and we rejected as bad were taken to Lagos. We don’t use tyre or any poisonous product, you can see its only logs of wood that we use; that one is even a stream of income for us as we sell the charcoals from the logs. No one should spoil our business, we have been doing issues,’ she concluded.
Iya Owo’s stance was corroborated few weeks back by the Ogun State government when it raised an alarm over the discovery of some poisonous ponmo in some markets within the state.
The government speaking through the Commissioner for Agriculture, Ronke Sokefun said some unscrupulous businessmen were taking advantage of the gap in demand and supply of ponmo due to the high demand, to sell industrial ‘Ponmo’ laden with tanning chemicals to the unsuspecting public.
The toxic ponmo popularly called ‘imported ponmo’ is often brownish black, foul smelling, abnormally thick with layers and ridiculously cheap compared to the certified ponmo.
Sokefun had stated that what is being sold is raw hide meant for leather production from African and European countries like Sudan, Italy and Japan. “Tanning chemicals like biocides and fungicides are added along the processing chain to preserve the hides against protein degradation, bacteria and mould growth that would have damaged the hides and skin,” she said.
In spite of the challenges posed by infiltration of imported ponmo, the Ponmo sellers in Ijebu Igbo have continued to wax stronger and are encouraging people th
at have the wherewithal to engage in the exportation of ponmo in order to create another stream of foreign exchange for the country and the South West in particular.
“People should not underestimate this business; if you can invest, join us by exporting and repackaging it to give it class, not by introducing bad products into the market. This business can lift the profile of the Yoruba people business wise. We should all join hands to expand the frontiers,” Iya Owo advised.
The ponmo like many other overlooked resources have been proved to be a veritable source of income to people of the south-west irrespective of their age, social or academic status.