It was a frightening, haunting sight. Piles of ponmo, a very popular meat savoured by millions of Nigerians, sat on a local open oven. Beneath the ponmo, a dark, smoky fire fuelled with pieces of tyre and plastic burnt the cowhide slowly.
A small group of chattering men stood by the fire dousing the ponmo, intermittently, with a blackish oil. The fire and smoke from the burning plastic, tyre and oil rose into the sky, blackening the early morning air and filling nostrils with soot.
“I roast cowhides very fast, just buy it and give it to me, I don’t waste time,” one of the men, a thickset man wearing a short and blue armless T-shirt said. Other men stood around him keeping a watchful eye on the roasting ponmo.
These men are ponmo processors. They were preparing the ponmo for the hordes of traders that contracted them to do the illicit trade. These traders would soon hit the markets with the poisonous cow skin for onward delivery to the food sellers, traders and families who come to the market daily to buy ‘fresh’ ponmo.
Most of the unsuspecting buyers and eaters of ponmo do not know that their ponmo is burnt with dangerous items that have been linked to cancer and other deadly health conditions. They simply buy, take their pieces home and cook them without knowing that their ‘delicious’ cowhide is seasoned with a deadly cocktail of carcinogenic substances.
However, if the unsuspecting buyers do not know that the cow skins that they buy and consume are agents of cancer and death, the processors and traders are aware that they are involved in a deadly trade.
Starting from July, our reporter went around the major ponmo markets and slaughterhouses in Lagos, observing ponmo processing, interviewing unsuspecting ponmo sellers and processors and gathering overwhelming evidence about the sneaky, evil trade that unscrupulous ponmo processors carry out at the back of expansive slaughterhouses in the state, far away from prying eyes.
After paying preliminary visits and observing all that these ponmo processors did to keep their business secret, our correspondent decided to disguise as a university student researcher to gain access to their operational base where ponmo is processed with plastic, tyres and a black oil substance that some people say was used engine oil.
Our correspondent disguised as a student when visited several abattoirs in the Ikorodu Local Government Area; Agege Local Government Area; Barracks and Ijanikin abattoirs in the Ojo Local Government Area; private ponmo processing factories on a wetland in the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education and the Iba Local Council Development Area.
Ponmo or Awo, as it is commonly known in all parts of Nigeria is a cheap protein source sourced from cowhide. Although there are arguments that this part of meat has little or no nutritional value, it is very popular in Nigeria, especially among the poor.
At most canteens in Nigeria, or Bukas as they are popularly called, ponmo is often the cheapest and the most available protein source. Other meat and fish types sell for higher prices.
Mrs Efe Okoro, who runs a Buka in the Iba area of the state, says ponmo is the favourite meat bought by her customers.
Mrs Okoro speaking with our correspondent
“My customers like ponmo more than meat,” she said, while she was busy attending to customers, including our correspondent, who were buying rice, beans, noodles and ponmo.
“I don’t buy more ponmo than meat because I have to wash ponmo, meat is easier to wash, but it normally finishes before meat.”
Mike Adeyemi, an electrician in Ikorodu, says he buys ponmo because it is affordable for his family.
“Ponmo is very affordable and cheap. I have a family of eight and just N300 ponmo is enough to cook soup to feed my family. It is cheaper than meat and fish.
“Although people do say poverty is what will make you think eating ponmo is OK, but I don’t mind since it is what I can afford to satisfy my family. I also eat red meat,” he said.
Ope Falade, a homemaker, who cooks ponmo for her family, said she liked to buy ponmo because it was cheap and her family enjoyed it.
“My children like ponmo a lot, and it is very cheap. I buy meat and fish, but our meals are not complete without ponmo,” the mother of three said.
However, it won’t be entirely correct to describe ponmo as the meat of the poor. Healthy living is gaining popularity and awareness in Nigeria. As a result, many people who are worried about the probable health complications associated with the consumption of red meat, have resorted to ponmo as a reliable alternative.
With a growing population of over 213 million Nigerians, there exists an almost insatiable demand for ponmo among the populace.
Our investigations show that the huge demand for ponmo is one of the major factors driving the dangerous processing practices in Lagos markets.
During our correspondent’s investigations, he found a few places where ponmo is processed with firewood, which experts say is also a dangerous contaminant but less dangerous than plastic, engine oil and tyres.
Disused tyres are a common sight in Lagos. People simply throw them away on the streets or deposit them at vulcanizer shops when they are no longer useful. Used engine oil is mostly emptied into streets or gutters when cars are ‘serviced’ and their oil is changed.
As for plastic, it is very common in waste dumps and plastic manufacturing or recycling factories. All of these provide opportunities for unscrupulous ponmo processors and sellers seeking to cut corners for gain.
Ponmo: The making
Ponmo is usually produced in public slaughterhouses and other private abattoirs across the country. In Lagos, the slaughterhouses are regulated and said to be regularly inspected by government agencies and officials.
There are two types of ponmo: white and brown, and their production processes differ.
A ponmo processor in a slaughterhouse around Ebute, Ikorodu, Sherifat Lawal, described the process to our correspondent. Ponmo, according to her, is processed in two ways: through boiling and roasting. She added that brown ponmo is prepared by roasting cowhide, white ponmo is processed by boiling.
She said, “The making of the white ponmo is done by using a sharp object to scrape the hair on the cowhide. Afterwards, we will put the cowhide inside a pot, add water and boil it to make it soft. That is white ponmo.
“The brown ponmo is achieved through roasting with fire. We set firewood on fire and place a net-like iron on the lit firewood. Without scraping the hair on the cow’s skin, we place it on the iron and roast it for about 30 minutes to remove the hair.
“Afterwards, we then boil it for some minutes and soak in a pot of water for about 13 hours to remove all the germs. We do the soaking overnight. In the morning, we will remove it, use a sponge to wash it with only water and supply it to our customers, who will cut it into smaller pieces for consumption after cooking.”
Our correspondent observed these stages of processing ponmo in all the slaughterhouses that he visited.
Armed with prior information, however, he felt there was more than meets the eye in Lawal’s narrative of how brown ponmo is made.
While walking around the market, our correspondent noticed that most of the brown ponmo processing spots in the markets did not have firewood stacked near the open ovens.
Rather than firewood, our correspondent sighted scrap tyres, pieces of plastic, old shoes and cans of oil — that were said to be engine oil, a claim which the reporter could not confirm. In Lagos markets, the ground plastic pieces are known as Jamanca.
Some of the markets where our correspondent observed the use of these dangerous fuel sources for processing ponmo were Agege, Barracks, Ijanikin abattoirs, including the private ponmo processing factories in the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education (AOCOED) and Iba LCDA, among others.
To ensure that their operations were kept from prying eyes, most of the ponmo processors prevented any form of pictures or video recordings and were quick to question strangers or anyone seen moving aimlessly around the premises.
We roast ponmo with tyres – processor
When this reporter visited the private ponmo processing facility at Check Point Bus Stop around the AOCOED, the reporter observed a ponmo processor, Anu Sunday, processing cowhide into brown ponmo. She used scrap tyres to fuel the fire roasting the raw cowhide.
Intermittently, Sunday was also seen using a bowl to scoop a black watery oily substance from a bucket and pouring the same on the burning tyre roasting the cowhide.
The expectant mother, who was employed by the owner of the processing facility, Bose Ajibade, aka Iya Ibeji, used no fewer than 10 tyres to roast five complete cowhides.
Asked why she refused to wear a nose mask to prevent inhalation of the heavy smoke emitting from the open oven, Sunday said, “I am used to burning it without covering my nose. If there is not much work, I do get paid N1,500, but I get more if the work is plenty. I have roasted about five complete cow skins with tyres today.”
As Anu finished roasting each piece of cowhide, a ponmo trader, who gave her name as Florence picked up the fresh brown ponmo, cut it into pieces and transferred them to her daughter, Kehinde, who was seen splitting spoilt shoes as fuel for another fire. The shoes include leather shoes, plastic shoes and rubber shoes.
‘We use shoes to roast ponmo for profit’
Our correspondent asked Kehinde, dressed in a red gown, why she reroasted the ponmo after the initial roasting with tyres?
“What we are looking for is our gain. If we do not remove the hair, we will have to cut those parts away and it means we are cutting away our gain. So, we have to re-roast it with shoes to remove the hair completely.
“If you use shoes to roast the cow skin from the beginning, it won’t roast properly because the fire is not heavy and that is why they use tyres to start the roasting of the cowhides.
“They use tyres to roast about 100 completely flayed cow skins daily here and we do pay N1,000 per cow skin. They (Sunday and her boss) only help us and other customers to use tyres to roast but we are the ones that re-roast the roasted ponmo using shoes.
“The ones she (Sunday) roasted with tyres still have hair on them; I am using spoilt shoes to roast it again to remove the hair completely and to make the ponmo neat to attract patronage in the market,” the graduate said.
When Kehinde was done, the reporter purchased two pieces of ponmo.
Before his encounter with Kehinde and her mother, our correspondent had visited Ajibade’s facility three days earlier to meet her but was told that she was sick and couldn’t come to work because of her condition.
Other traders and businessmen selling outside the premises of the facility said she was likely to resume on Monday and advised the reporter to check back.
Before leaving the place, our correspondent moved around a bit and found stacks of disused shoes, scrap tyres, plastic kegs stored underneath a makeshift shed.
An imported raw cowhide immersed in salt for preservation was also seen among the collection of stored materials. A blackish stain was visible on Sunday’s face and clothes as brownish stains littered the premises where the roasting usually took place.
The brownish stains were from the remnants of the thin iron wires in the scrap tyres used to roast the ponmo. The waste of burnt metals is usually packed in sacks and sold to scrap buyers.
Unknown to our correspondent, his observational strolls and unapproved facility tour had attracted the suspicion of the traders and businessmen around the premises. Some of them alerted Ajibade that someone was snooping around her facility. But our correspondent’s encounter with her wouldn’t happen on that day.
Our correspondent returned to the facility a few days later. He met Sunday, Kehinde and Florence processing ponmo at the wetland. As he made his way out of the facility after buying some ponmo off Florence, a woman who was waiting at the entry point of the processing facility beckoned on him.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I am an undergraduate conducting research on how to make ponmo.”
“Where is your school Identification Card?
“Are you Ajibade, aka Iya Ibeji (the owner of the facility)?
The woman ignored the question and repeated her question with some sternness this time.
“I am asking if you are Ajibade because I have been coming here for the past three days but the people I met said Ajibade was sick but that she would come today. When I got here, I asked after her and was told she’s not around,” the reporter said.
“If people come from Alausa and discover I use tyres to make ponmo, they will say I want to kill people. I was informed that you came three days ago, but where is your ID card?”
At this point, the argument had attracted the traders and businessmen who quickly gathered around the reporter accusing him of sneaking into the facility.
The crowd looked upset. As the tension heightened, our correspondent knew he needed to act fast to deter the angry mob from assaulting him. He dipped his hand into his pocket, exhibited some pretentious reluctance and brought out his fake ID card.
He handed it to Ajibade who vetted it, returned the card and allowed the reporter to leave the premises. As the reporter walked out of the premises he looked back and saw doubts on the faces of some members of the angry crowd and quickened his steps.
We roast ponmo with plastics – processor
At the Barracks Abattoir along the Lagos-Badagry Expressway, a ponmo processor, Sodiq Ogunmola, affirmed using only plastic to roast cowhides to produce ponmo. But right there and then, his female colleagues were seen using a combination of tyres, sticks and plastics to roast the cowhides.
When asked why they added tyres, Ogunmola said, “They just used it to light the fire,” but our correspondent observed the rubber of the scrap tyres, placed directly under the ponmo, melting into flames and roasting the cow’s skin till only tiny wires of irons were left in the open oven.
Also, the wall of the ponmo section in the abattoir was filled with black patches, tell-tale signs left behind by the constant smoke emitting from the tyres used in roasting the cowhides.
Ogunmola said, “What we use in making the fire is sticks and pieces of plastics; we only use tyres to start the fire. But the tyres usually make the ponmo turn black and that is why we hardly recommend it.
“After roasting the back of the cowhide for some minutes, we will roll the cowhide and change it to the other side and also roast it. We roast one ponmo for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, we will boil it inside hot water for about an hour to make it soft, we will then cut it into smaller pieces and immerse it inside ordinary water till the next day.
“From then, it is ready for eating. The plastics make the fire burn very well and we sometimes usually purchase it somewhere opposite the barracks.”
Tyres, plastics suppliers
Our correspondent traced one of the plastic suppliers, Abdulkadri Baba, to his base opposite the abattoir barracks and he confirmed selling a sack of plastics for N100 per kilogram to the ponmo processors at Barracks Abattoir.
“I don’t select the plastics, they just come, select the plastics they need and put it inside an empty sack. After the sack is filled, I will weigh the kilogram. I sell one kilogram for N100. They use the plastic when roasting the ponmo with fire,” the father of three said.
Around the same vicinity, our correspondent found Abdulkabir Isa, who supplies tyres to the ponmo processors. He said patronage from ponmo processors at the abattoir barracks usually started around 7 am.
He said, “I just went to get these tyres today. I supply tyres to the abattoir at Barracks and I sell each tyre for N100. Around 7am, those who usually roast ponmo in the slaughterhouse will come to my place to buy the tyres.”
No reference standard to run test –NAFDAC
In the course of his investigation, the reporter approached the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control to run an analysis on the ponmo samples to determine the degree of danger that Lagos’ perilous ponmo poses to consumers.
The Director, NAFDAC Food Laboratory in the Oshodi area of the state, Dr Charles Nwachukwu, told our correspondent to return three days later for further deliberations on the test.
Upon his return, Dr Nwachukwu introduced the reporter to one of the agency’s lead analysts who said the agency had no reference standards to run the analysis.
The analyst said, “The analysis is for Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons. But the challenge presently is the (unavailability of the) reference standards. There is no way we can do the test without the reference standards.
“What you are looking for is called PAHs, and there are about 15 European Union priority PAHs that we will look at while doing the analysis. So, you need to get those 15 major standards and when you have the reference standards, you run them alongside the samples.
“But the present challenge is that we have not even got the reference standards.”
Asked how long it would take to get the reference standards, the analyst said, “Mine is to submit the list, but it is the management that connects with the suppliers.”
This reporter later met with Dr Nwachukwu, who affirmed the analyst’s narrative. He revealed that the agency was yet to take delivery of the reference standards it purchased.
“We have not received reference standards; we run it (sample) with reference standards. We have paid for it. It (test) is not something we cannot do,” Nwachukwu said.
Nigeria’s testing standard for ponmo is still being developed –SON
Bent on using a government facility to run the analysis, the reporter visited the Standards Organisation of Nigeria in the Ogba area of the state.
There, the Director, Laboratory Services, SON, Dr Barth Ugwu, said there was no standard for ponmo testing in the country, adding that the standard was still being developed.
He said, “The standard is our working guide; it is the technical document which we have to use to benchmark the analysis. You cannot start going for a test for a product that has no standard. Standards cover every facet of life, both tangible and intangible products.
“The standard for ponmo is being developed and there is a process for standard development. You, first of all, identify the need for it and you assign it to a project officer who will do the preliminary gathering of data; do a test, and then all stakeholders who are involved in it will meet and deliberate on the standard using all manners of available data.
“We will have an internal first meeting which is a working group; then the second one is general which involves everybody that is involved in ponmo in the country. We will call them together and deliberate on it. After that, it goes for approval at the highest standards body and once it is approved, it becomes binding on people to abide by the standards.”
However, the implication of the lack of standards for ponmo in the country is that the entire ponmo processed and eaten by Nigerian consumers daily is unregulated.
Experts say ponmo that is processed with burning tyres and plastic are likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals, including carcinogenic heavy metals.
A Professor of Chemistry, Lagos State University, Rasaq Olowu, said chemicals emitting from the burning of tyres and plastics fueling the roasting of ponmo are carcinogenic.
Olowu said, “Burning of tyres is hazardous to health as it involves emission of toxic chemicals that can lead to cancer and irritation of skin. Burning of ponmo with tyres and plastics will lead to the release of a large number of PAHs, which are toxic to the system and usually affects the central nervous system that makes one die gradually.”
Reacting to ponmo processors’ lack of use of nose masks during processing, Olowu said, “Inhaling toxic chemicals will definitely affect the body system and because they (ponmo processors) don’t have the knowledge of what they are inhaling, they don’t use any protective measures.
“But if they know the health implication of what they are inhaling, they will discover that they are reducing their life span bit by bit because those chemicals they inhale increase the rate at which they can have cancer.”
A Professor of Microbiology, LASU, Kabiru Akinyemi, said, “Relevant agencies like NAFDAC should be saddled with such responsibility of ensuring that the processes and the people perpetrating such act are brought to book and sensitised to expose them to the dangers associated with consuming ponmo that is prepared through such processes.
“It is clear that when you burn tyres, definitely they will emit chemicals. Ponmo is flesh and has some composition that will react with the chemicals released by burning the tyres and plastics, and eventually cause delisarious effects to the consumers that may precipitate cancer, react with free radicals in the body and may eventually cause some respiratory or nervous disorder.”
Studies have shown that when these metals accumulate in the human body they trigger terminal illnesses that lead to untimely death