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Craftsman goes green with leather

Jacob Mwangi has cut down waste from his artifacts firm by 60 per cent. By doing so he has not only reduced his operational costs, but ensured his trade is eco-friendly

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

Intricately designed accessories on display in an exhibition stand in Nairobi portray craftsmanship infused with an African touch.

Decorated with images of the big five, the Kenyan flag and beautiful landscapes, the handcrafted leather products are a true celebration of Kenyan beauty. Jacob Mwangi, proprietor, Palm Prints African Artifacts, has gone beyond just churning out aesthetically appealing leather products, but also taken a step towards environmental sustainability.

Even though Mwangi has been in leather craftsmanship business since 1996, it’s not until three years ago that he decided to reduce the negative impacts leather production has on the environment.

“When officials of Switch Africa Green, a European Union-funded programme visited my workshop in Thika, they encouraged me to consider adopting sustainable leather production and consumption practices,” reveals Mwangi. Leather, a versatile material that is widely used in making clothes, accessories, footwear and furniture, takes time to decompose.

Subjecting the waste to open incineration contributes to air pollution. Most of the waste from leather processing, therefore, ends up in landfills and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s a major contributor to global warming.

“Joining the programme educated me on how I could minimise waste during the leather making process. I then use the remaining small leather scraps to make pencil porches, key-holders and bookmarks,” says Mwangi. The craftsman uses both soft and hard leather to make bags, belts, wallets, stools and shoes.

Through this approach, he has cut on his waste by up to 60 per cent. By cutting down on waste, Mwangi has not only managed to reduce his operational costs, but also ensure that his trade is eco-friendly.

To further reduce on the negative environmental implications of his product, Mwangi only uses vegetable tanned leather, which is natural and has no chemicals.

The process of tanning leather is mainly aimed at stabilising the collagen on animal hides to stop them from rotting and can either be done naturally or using chemicals. Chromium, one of the commonly used chemicals in leather tanning, is hazardous to the environment and has been linked to lung cancer and sinuses.

Vegetable tanned leather makes use of tannins that are naturally occurring in vegetable or tree barks. Naturally tanned leather products are biodegradable and more environmental friendly.

Tourists visiting the country are Mwangi’s biggest clients. Kenya is one of the biggest raw hides exporter in Africa with the overall leather sector contributing approximately Sh10 billion to the economy.

Planned construction of a 500 hectares leather industrial park in Machakos will further increase the scale of leather processing thus the need to adopt sustainable practices to conserve the environment .

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