A rather delicious debate has broken out on the internet over the government’s alleged plans to ban the consumption of ponmo (cow hide) by Nigerians in a bid to boost the leather industry.
Vanguard have gone with the headline ‘FG set to ban Ponmo‘ which does the job of sensationalising the matter but this is an example of the government’s reputation preceding it. We know they like to ban things and slap tariffs on them, so it’s not too far-fetched to think they have ponmo in their sights now. Here’s what the Agriculture minister, Akin Adesina supposedly said:
I also commend NIAS for its advocacy and public enlightenment programs on Radio and Television that promote value addition in Livestock, as against sale and consumption of primary products alone, particularly with the issue of curtailing the widespread consumption of hides and skins as Kpomo which ought to be tanned into leather for a very high dollar return to the farmer and Tanneries.
I expect that competent regulations acceptable by all stakeholders will be developed so as to give credibility that our set standards for food safety are being implemented which will boost value addition
Reading that, it seems to me that they are going to make it harder for people to sell ponmo under the guise of health and safety. The whole point being that when people find it hard to sell the cow hide as food, they will then sell it as leather instead. Given how cheap ponmo is, presumably it will be more profitable to sell it on as leather. The question then is, why are people selling it as food when they can make more money selling it as leather? Why do they need to be goaded by government to make more money?
I suspect the answer is that there isn’t much of a market for cow hide as leather out there ergo, eating it makes more sense. But there’s another side to this debate I want to focus on.
In 2011, Professors Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee published a very interesting book called Poor Economics which sought to change the way we think about solving poverty. They went out there and talked to poor people and lived among them. In other words, they did the work and they know the thing. They also founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab which is a remarkable repository of information and research on fighting poverty around the world.
To understand poverty and what it means, the first step is to know and understand that it means a restriction of choices. You might live in a country where there are various kinds of goods in the market but if you are poor, those choices don’t exist for you. This affects the way people behave when they find themselves with some level of choice. Here’s a section from the book that explains the point better:
Ponmo tastes nice. And in a world where choices are restricted to things like garri which don’t taste very nice, ponmo assumes the role of a delicacy i.e an adornment and crowning glory on what would otherwise be a very dreary food affair. Understanding this is quite important because it tells you in advance where your policies are likely to come up against stiff resistance. That using cow hide as leather is better for the economy and jobs and GDP is not a fact that speaks for itself. People who live with restricted food choices on a daily basis are bound to see it as an assault by the government.
Taste is very important. This explains why, despite decades of negative campaigning and ‘de-marketing’, the consumption of ponmo is still going strong. It has been called all sorts of names from useless to nutrition-less but there is no evidence anywhere on record that anyone has stopped eating ponmo because it has no nutritional value. There is more to life, believe it or not, than eating nutrients.
I confess my bias on this topic – the sight of a pot of vegetable soup with a surfeit of ponmo accoutrements, such that it is impossible to dip into it without harvesting several pieces, greatly excites me. This much maligned ponmo can in fact be the piece de resistance in a properly designed meal.
I think the Honourable Minister should leave this one alone.
I left Nigeria in early 2004. I admit that things have changed a lot in that time. I try to visit as often as I can and can see some of the changes myself.
One of the last things I did before leaving Nigeria was to register for the national ID card in 2003. There was a registration stand near where I lived at the time and I still remember the Sagem machines that were used. The story of how that ID card project went kaput is well-known. Suffice to say we never had the ID cards after billions were spent on it by the Obasanjo administration.
This short history thus makes me rather amused that now that there’s another ID card project starting, all the complaints seem to be about the MasterCard logo that will be on the card. Premium Times called it a ‘scandalous outrage‘ while one Is’haq Moddibo Kawu writing in the Vanguard went as far as calling it ‘slavery‘. [Sidebar: Anyone who equates anything, let alone an ID card, with slavery, needs to have their head examined as a matter of urgency].
Like I said, I am amazed at the confidence Nigerians are showing over this. If people are complaining about the logo, it appears to me that they consider the fact that they will actually get an ID card as a foregone conclusion. Where is this confidence coming from? It is like a man with no job complaining that a new car released by BMW does not come in his favourite olive colour. We have tried a couple of times to have an ‘ordinary’ ID card and we have failed spectacularly at it. This time around, we are going a step further by merging a payment card with an ID card – something rather innovative globally – and people are complaining about the logo at the back? Wonders.
It is not everyone who automatically knows that Visa cards start with the number 4 while MasterCards start with ‘5’. This is one reason why payment cards always carry logos on them. I am yet to come across any payment card that does not carry the logo of the card issuing company on it. Or perhaps the problem is that its MasterCard? Would it also have been a ‘scandalous outrage’ if it was the Verve logo on it? Maybe, maybe not.
But the more important questions are being ignored. How is an ID card supposed to work in a democratic country? There are not many free societies – Nigeria is nominally one – where ID cards are used. If ID cards are introduced, it naturally invites people, especially the police to start asking for them at every turn. This is the first step towards something like a police state and is the reason why they always seem to fail when they are tried in a country with entrenched rule of law.
How will ID cards work with other existing legal documents? Not everyone drives so maybe the driver’s licence is not universal enough as an example. But what if you have a driver’s licence, will that be good enough? What familiar spirits will ID cards unleash in our security agencies?
The questions are many and I have not seen one shred of evidence that suggests that the project is guaranteed to be a success.
The thing that makes it interesting is the very aspect that people are complaining about – the payment card. For the first time, a significant number of people might have a direct financial relationship with their government without the need for a middle man. This is something that is taken for granted in advanced countries but is still a big deal in Nigeria. Even the sharing of stomach infrastructure during election season is always done through a middleman – e.g the market women leader – who extracts a heavy transaction cost in the process.
We should be asking serious questions about how this project will work, how data will be stored, who will be responsible for what if things go wrong and how much this will cost.
Making noise about the logo on the back of the card does not qualify as a serious question.