A forthright Africa

The Redwood blog
Published:  26 February, 2014
Mike Redwood

Opening ceremonies at trade fairs are boring. Necessary, perhaps, but boring. They are an opportunity to get dignitaries to acknowledge the existence of your industry and for some press worthy photos. Hopefully a bit of industry enthusiasm rubs off on them. 

I sat through one last Thursday in Addis Ababa and both the country’s President and Minister for Industry turned up and both made good speeches showing that they knew about the industry and its role in pushing the Ethiopian economy forward. The Minister of Industry clearly keeps himself very much in touch with the detail of industrial development and understands the leather industry, which is remarkable in itself. There is no evidence of these Ministers using their offices for self enrichment. For all the difficulties of East Africa everything I have seen of Ethiopia in recent years is about Ministers who are straightforward and exceptionally hard working servants of their country.

And leather is important not just in Ethiopia but in all of Africa. In rough terms Africa has 17% of the world’s leather making raw material with just 3% of its leather industry, essentially continuing to export raw or part processed. Apart from the Maghreb region in the north and a bit in South Africa not much is happening.

So at an opening ceremony such as last Thursday’s it was time to shout out loud and clear to the very large audience from Ethiopia and overseas that was in the audience. What are the salient points missed that the industry must hear:

  1. Ethiopia’s large raw material supply will only make serious money for the country when finished goods are made from it. $500bn by 2015 seems a long way off from 2013 but is small compared to what could be achieved.
  2. Making articles out of leather creates tens of thousands of jobs in countries in countries like Ethiopia with young and expanding populations
  3. Light industries such as garment and footwear increase the tax take from business and employees so that the state can function without so much dependence on aid. They reduce the opportunity for corruption that comes when exporting raw materials.
  4. Ethiopia has three thousand years of history in tanning and making leather goods. Even today in the countryside superb examples of traditional leather lunch boxes, illustrated parchment religious books and other uses of leather can be found. Ethiopia is not just another source of cheap labour. It is a place to find true craftsmanship allied to competitive costs.
  5. With solar and geothermal energy, along with hydropower there is abundant power for industry.
  6. Given the current interest in locating around the town of Modjo there is a chance to evolve the tanneries there towards a circular economy, which would be unique in the world. True recycling, zero waste and an example to the global industry of how leather should be made.
  7. Of about 200m square feet of raw material per annum in Ethiopia only some of the sheepskins are really top class quality and some of the sectors they compete in like sports gloves are the most threatened by coated textiles and non-wovens. Ethiopian tanners will need to be inventive and creative to ensure they get the best out of these materials, rather than just downgrading them to cheap commodity leathers.
  8. In order to make the most efficient use of raw material the tanner and the maker need to work much closer together than the leather industry is used to. Collocation in Ethiopia makes this possible, along with the much greater involvement of designers at every stage.
  9. Making everything in Ethiopia means that traceability from small farmer to finished article is quite feasible; something most brands with a strong CSR policy really appreciate.
  10. Ethiopia is a big, diverse country with wonderful people. Just a great place to visit.

Ethiopia has never been conquered. It has a long proud past. It is not a country to be exploited but one to work with to mutual benefit. Its population has nearly reached 100 million and is growing fast. In the 20th century I travelled there and despaired for its future. One week to observe what has been written and said about the last few years has flipped this. This is the century for Africa and Ethiopia is leading the charge. I'm a fan. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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