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Poor hide carving techniques choke leather industry

Peter Ngila @peterngilanjeri

Low quality of hides is impending the growth of the leather sector which is listed under the manufacturing pillar as an enabler of the Big Four agenda, stakeholders in the sector have said.

Tanners Association of Kenya chairperson who is also the director of Reddamac Leather Centre, Robert Njoka, said despite about five leather companies in Kenya receiving tenders to manufacture finished leather products like bags and shoes, access to quality hides has been a major challenge.

“The tragedy of low-quality hides starts from home, where cattles are not well-taken care of. We no longer have cattle dips; hence we mostly get hides full of tick holes. We also no longer have field officers in the Ministry of Livestock to take care of cattle transportation and slaughterhouses. Many of those officers have already retired, and we would like the government to hire more,” said Njoka.

This even as a section of farmers recently protested lack of markets for their hides which they say were crowding their stores.

Njoka, disputing claims by the farmers, says that leather factories in the country are currently low on raw materials because producers are hoarding hides.

“The industry has capacity to buy more than one billion kilogrammes of hide a month. Farmers should, however, understand that because international market prices have come down, so should the prices locally. We are also challenging farmers to improve the quality of their hides,” he said, adding: “When people say they do not have a market, they should understand that a turner will not invest a certain amount of money just for the sake of investing. We invest to create job opportunities and provide our people with the finished product.”

Exporting hides to Nigeria, where it is a common delicacy referred to as “animal skin”, Njoka said, is also behind farmer’s lack of initiative to improve the quality of hides.

International prices of hides have plummeted due to the tax recently imposed on China by the American market. More than 70 per cent of Kenyan leather products go to China, where demand is high.    

Kitonga Mung’au, a middleman from Kitui County, has been in the leather business for more than 10 years. He echoes Robert Njoka’s complaints saying lack of cattle dips has led to massive tick attacks in cattle. 

Tick holes

“We would like to see cattle dips brought back. Most of the time my hides are rejected by  companies because of poor quality – because they have been slaughtered the wrong way or have too many tick holes. In a day, I get an average of Sh500, but I only buy the ones in good condition,” Mung’au says, adding that due to the low quality, he buys a hide for as low as Sh50. 

“I have been in the leather business for more than 30 years. My store momentarily has almost 15 tonnes of cow hides and almost 7,000 tonnes of goat hides. I have nowhere to take them,” says Baringo-based Ali Osman complainig that business has been really bad in the recent past.

Previously, Osman says, he could sell one hide for as much as Sh450.

Mung’au, Osman and other hide dealers are provided with specialised knives and salt for slaughtering cattle with by Alpharama Ltd, a tannery company that buys hides from middlemen. But sometimes if a dealer has as many as 30 slaughterers, and gets only 20 knives from Alpharama, the rest are forced to deploy the non-recommended normal kitchen knives.

Leather manufacturers are also urging the government to either scrape or reduce the 10 per cent tax imposed on all imported leather products.

According to the firms, hides produced in the country, factoring in their poor quality, are not enough to satisfy the companies’ demand.

Simon Wambua, a board member at Alpharama, believes that the tax will negatively affect the leather industry and the entire economy.

“It will lead to job cuts. We will also lose the competition to neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Uganda – who do not have such challenges,” he said.

Tax suspension

Wambua recommends that the government suspends the tax until all stakeholders chart the way forward. Industrialisation is one of the Big Four Agenda pillars of the government.

Kenya has the third largest livestock poulation in Africa behind Ethiopia and Sudan. It boasts 20.8 million head of cattle, 20.6 million sheep, 33.3 million goats and 3.3 million camels.

However more than 40 per cent of the hides carved from animals is of low quality due to poor slaughtering practices.

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