Academic journal article African Economic History

The Production and Marketing of Babban Riga in Zaria, Nigeria

Academic journal article African Economic History

The Production and Marketing of Babban Riga in Zaria, Nigeria

Article excerpt

After a few minutes' delay, we were called to the king...we entered a large lofty hall with a vaulted roof supported by pillars along the walls. On a kind of clay platform in oriental fashion sat a venerable man, dressed simply but in garments of fine quality. His face was obscured by the dark blue face veil.

-Paul Staudinger, In the Heart of the Hausa States'

He bought a gown from Tanimu, an excellently embroidered one, of the type made in Zazzau...

-Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Shaihu Umar2

I. Introduction

While Paul Staudinger, a member of the Africanische Gesellschaft in Deutschland expedition, which traveled in Northern Nigeria in 1885-1886, does not give the details of "garments of fine quality" worn by the Emir of Zaria,3 it is possible that they consisted of babban riga, large hand-embroidered robes made explicitly for him by craftsmen in Zaria City. Elsewhere Staudinger makes reference to handweaving, embroidery, and indigo-dyeing carried out in Zaria, and to the marketing of textiles and clothing in Zaria market as well as in personal houses.4 These observations suggest that the production of babban riga in Zaria City is of some antiquity and represented then, as it does now, an example of an African niche economy. This particular niche economy and the sub-niches that it has spawned reflects a particular political-economic hierarchy,5 associated with the specific sociocultural, technological, and historical contexts of Hausa-Fulani society in Northern Nigeria.

What precisely is meant here by the phrase '(African) niche economy'? Simply stated, a niche economy is one in which a group of individuals, each with their own sub-specialties, supply a product which fulfills a specific local or national or international demand, which for environmental, historical, social and economic reasons, other producers are unable to fill. In the Hausa context, embroidered robe production represents an example of an industry that includes a range of sub-specialties "which are refracted through, and reshaped by, a profound capacity and propensity of the local society and economy to create a multiplicity of niches, each with its own terms of operation, each developing...towards the most institutionalized form of the association, with its ceremonial life and public recognition." In the case of embroidered babian riga production, the demand for these garments-by traditional rulers, by Nigerian politicians and civil servants, and more recently by Northern Nigerians anxious to ally themselves with a historically grounded Hausa-Fulani identity7-helps to explain the continuation and expansion of this market niche.

II. An African Niche Economy

Babban riga production and marketing provide a classic example of a niche economy, fulfilling several key definitional elements of this term, as set out by Guyer,8 which include:

1) "nominalization for product definition, 2) standardization of product and specialist expertise, 3) association of specialists and definition of labor relations, 4) monitoring of competition and price, and 5) the replication of these processes [by sub-niches] for most [associated] goods and services." First, named distinctions are not only made between hand-embroidery on robes, referred to as dinkin hannu (literally, 'embroidery hand') and machine embroidery on robes, dinkin keke (literally, 'embroidery machine');9 there are also named robes associated with particular embroidery patterns (e.g., aska takwas, aska biyu, 'yar Dikwa). These named distinctions continue in ever more specific ways, as in different names for embroidery stitches, grades of cotton damask (shedda), thread (zare), and types of robe finishing by beating (buga). Such distinctions would be commonly recognized by those buying and wearing babban riga robes, as they reflect the quality of materials as well as the amount of labor associated with these robes and contribute to their particular value. Indeed, this accumulation of names not only defines particular robe-'products' but also embeds them in a known social and historical context, in which the weight or bigness of a garment (babban riga, literally 'big robe') is meant to represent the bigness (in wealth, power, followers) of its wearer. …

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