One set of figures sits in the mind. Africa has 17% of the world’s leather making raw material yet only 2% of its manufacturing. Those numbers have drifted a bit over the last few years but the amount of raw material exported still remains incredibly high.

Leather against terrorism

So two things come together at the same time. A growing number of young people without jobs and a large potential for job creation in the leather sector. There is no doubt part of the unrest we are seeing in the Maghreb region and Egypt relates to a peak number of 15-24 year olds. Just look at this opening paragraph in a 2011 UN population report:

One in five people living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is between the ages of 15 and 24, a demographic group called “youth.”. The current number of youth in the region is unprecedented—nearly 90 million in 2010, according to the UN estimates. These young people could become the backbone of strong economies and a vibrant future if they had the right education, skills, and job opportunities. Yet, young people entering the labour force over the past few decades have mostly faced tough job markets. So many have experienced persistent unemployment that today, MENAs unemployment has become a youth phenomenon. In Jordan in 2007, for example, when the countrys unemployment rate stood at 13%, three-quarters of the unemployed were below age 30 and in Egypt, in 2006, well over 80% of the unemployed were below age 30, and 82% of the unemployed had never worked

This is significant as another side to what is being called the “lost generation” is that unemployed youths become easy fodder for activists of every type. While making just a pickle or wet-blue does not employ a lot of people moving up the chain towards garment and footwear manufacturing starts to pull in large numbers of people into what should be stable and secure employment opportunities. With lots of raw material available in Africa now would seem to be the time to really get moving.


Leather to provide employment and skills

Leading the way is Ethiopia, which has had double digit, or near double digit, growth every year since 2004. The northern areas of Africa have used their proximity to the leather industries of Spain, Italy and France quite effectively. Yet there is a huge amount to be done and there is no doubt that countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda are watching developments closely.

One finding in the UNIDO paper is that “countries need to move from lower tech to higher tech sectors, from lower value-added to higher value-added sectors and from lower productivity to higher productivity sectors,” said Li Yong, the Director General of UNIDO. This for leather needs to be expressed as a determination to develop craftsmanship and African design. These appear far more embedded in African culture than in Asian ones and would offer a positive proposition to a world saturated with cheap commoditised items.

It is important that understanding leather, using grades creatively and being able to cut and sew efficiently is given a high priority. Making leather and then producing leather goods, garments, footwear and gloves is famous for being labour intensive. It requires skilled, trained craftsmen who are able to work with their hands. It does not need people with degrees in Business Administration. It offers just what all African countries need – worthwhile jobs for large numbers of people who are not rocket scientists but want to learn skills and craftsmanship.


Leather against corruption

There is another aspect to all this. One clear outcome of globalisation has been the spread of corruption and Africa is full of it. Corruption is much more common where untreated materials are being exported; diamonds and oil are perfect examples. In quite a few African countries raw hides and skins are exported in ways suggesting corruption is deeply involved. Evidence indicates that small and medium sized businesses involving significant numbers of workers earning a good living wage are far easier to regulate. So taking African hides and skins through to finished articles in Africa should help with reducing corrupt payments and increasing the legitimate tax take.

As UNIDO says: “Industry increases productivity and generates income, reducing poverty and providing opportunities for social inclusion”. For all Africa to maintain the legacy of Nelson Mandela a great action would be to push the leather industry forward in the 21st century. 

Mike Redwood

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