Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

Our industry, like most of our trade magazines, is steeped in Western history and thinking, but the West is generally ageing and maintaining economies increasingly focused on services. The idea once was that this century would be the Pacific Century but somehow even that has stalled with major countries like China stumbling and Japan and South Korea also ageing rapidly. India is growing quite strongly but we can already see ahead to the peak, after which it too will slide into decline.

Africa comes into view as vital to the future as it retains a growing population and sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 1 billion people, half of whom will be under 25 years old by 2050. It is also a continent with a large raw material base for the leather industry, with populations suggested at 419 million sheep, 382 million cattle and 506 million goats.

This is unevenly mixed by country and by quality but mostly such value as is added happens overseas. So, the chances are good that future development of indigenous leather resources can create many of the jobs the continent will require. Leather is one of light industries recognised for job creation, and also for spreading wealth while widening the collectible tax base. This has not been possible with the raw material export of Africa’s major wealth resources – such as oil, diamonds, minerals and some agricultural commodities – that have predominated to date.

Real Leather. Stay Different. focus on African designers

Some African countries, such as Ethiopia, have a long leather history going back 3,000 years and quite a few have strong design capabilities, perfect for contemporary times. Leather and designs skills need to come together in a unified, harmonious network, helping to support the most effective utilisation of its raw material. While exports will be important, so will the African consumer market as poverty diminishes and the middle classes grow.

The Real Leather. Stay Different. (RLSD) 2024 Africa Design Competition, set up by the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA), is an important element in all this. Now in its second year, the RLSD Africa Talent Leather Design Showcase 2024 promotes Africa’s most innovative designers and their use of leather. The spotlight is on small and medium enterprises and emerging student talent, and how they can work to counter the environmental impact caused by disposable fast fashion. There are three categories: apparel, accessories and footwear.

The RLSD initiative is being implemented by the Center for Business Innovation & Training (CBiT), in collaboration with the Africa Leather and Leather Products Institute as well as the LHCA. I am delighted that, thanks to an invite from Beatrice Mwasi of CBIT, I am to join the panel of judges.

Around the world, we are seeing new business models starting up in the leather industry that bring together sustainability, slower fashion concepts, design and craft. A wise colleague quietly suggests that these are just too small collectively to make a difference, but I like to remember that many famous brands began with a saddle, a travel trunk, a raincoat or no more than a US$500 sewing machine on a kitchen table. The more we can support these industries, the more likely that some may prosper, start to populate the leather industry with talented young people and bring its culture towards current times. I see this competition as a catalyst that can help support the needed development through engaging designers and those they work with while gaining the attention of both governments and the wider international industry.

As such I urge the industry to promote this competition through all their African friends to ensure the biggest entry before it closes at midnight on the June 7, and later to widely publicise its results. While in older economies design competitions can help pulling more domestic hides back into more sustainable local supply chains and keep craft alive. In Africa, we have so many critically important benefits in countries that we have a duty to support.

Route from extreme poverty

This large continent, with so much overlooked culture and history, is not in a good state. Many countries are affected by conflict or have fragile governments. Nearly half the population are in extreme poverty, increasingly impacted by slowing economies, getting ensnared in debt, climate change and with all this increasing the friction among a number of its 3,000 tribes. With only three million jobs being created annually for a growing population which needs 12 million per year over coming decades, many such interventions are needed.

Raw material supplies depend on livestock farming, which is often pastoral and usually at the subsistence level. Climate change requires that some of the intensifications of recent years which have pushed out such farming and other communities in favour of machinery intensive cropping will fail and a return to well managed livestock grazed grassland can lead to greater carbon sequestration. As long as the grazing is not allowed to become over intensive, as we have seen in parts of China and Mongolia with cashmere.

A solid raw material base, tanned in units where proper resource has been put into waste treatment and creative designers putting all grades into articles designed with long use and repair in mind could be transformative. It is a point being made by RLSD in some of its posts online. We should all take note.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of “Redwood Comment” remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.