The sounds of whirling machine pervaded the air as Oghenekwhe Alajabo, popularly known as Lady Cobbler Lagos, fixed leather to the filing machine.
Alajabo had wanted to work as a cobbler as a side hustle having studied Marine Biology. She eyed the oil and gas sector. But fate ruled otherwise, so she faced shoe-making on a full-time basis and rented an office at Surulere area of Lagos where she crafts leather shoes, palms and sandals for males and females.
But the foreign exchange crisis and poor economy had affected customer patronage. Besides, manual crafting of the footwear dragged production and effectiveness of her skills. She, however, persists in her craft and makes footwear with imported leather materials.
She said, “For Nigerian leather, we don’t have the processing power yet to make the real leather free of bacteria and smell. One of the reasons we don’t use Nigerian leather is because of the smell, so it is only good for export because they can work more on it and make it better.
“Also, we work more with imported leather because times are changing and everyone wants to wear a shoe that they can be proud of and the Nigerian leather might not give us the privilege to do that. If it is thick, it is overly thick, if it is light, it is overly light.”
The female cobbler decried also noted that the country’s harsh economic climate was taking a toll on her business.
She added, “Every new day brings an increase in the price of materials because what N10,000 can buy last week is what I’ll have to buy for N11,500 the next week. The price can increase as much as N12,000 to N13,000. These increases further bring a loss on the cobblers such that the customers who had already paid for a particular style and colour of footwear would refuse to listen to explanations of increased market price or add to the agreed price.”
She further said that the increase in the prices of other factors of production such as electricity and rent were challenging to her business.
The female cobbler the degrading way Nigerian customers regarded locally made footwear, stating that “customers expect that because the shoes are handmade and made in Nigeria it should be sold for N1 or N50 or that with N50 they can buy all the footwear in one’s shop but that is supposed to be so.’’
According to cobblers, poor quality of the Nigerian leather, customers’ preference for designs, shapes and leathers of imported footwear forced them to rely mostly on imported leather for their materials.
The rhythmic sound of hammers gently pounding leathers into shape and gums strengthening soles of a manually crafted shoe was the background music at Onyk Leather Hub, Abuja, during a virtual interview by our correspondent.
The business owner, Mr Teslim Onikeku, who doubles as the spokesperson for the Association of Cobblers and Leather Artisans of Nigeria decried the quality of the Nigerian-made leather, He added that the country’s poor economic situation was negatively distressing the industry.
Onikeku said, “The current challenge we are facing is the leather and materials and the finished goods in Nigeria. For the leather, the tanners are saying they are producing leathers but we the end-users are not seeing the leathers. We prefer using the foreign leathers that were originally tanned in Nigeria, exported and then imported as a finished product into the country and we get them on the high side. Apart from them, we use locally made tools. If the tools are in good condition, then it would be fast and give us an output close to the foreign ones. These instruments are also not available, much less the foreign machines.
“Regarding the end product, the finishing touches, the polish and others are not available because the quality of the ones produced in Nigeria is not of a good quality and because we have to depend on imported materials, this caused an increase in the prices of shoes.”
Speaking on customers’ preference for footwear made with foreign or refined Nigerian leather, Onikeku stated that “Nigerians prefer foreign leather to Nigerian leather.”
He further said that he preferred crafting footwear from foreign leather because such leather bring out the quality, finesse and beauty of his handiwork.
On the economic and forex crises, Onikeku added that, “if our economy is good and our production is perfect, we don’t need foreign materials. The dollar is making the products high and our poor economy is frustrating. The quality of the leather produced in Nigeria is low and someone who is not skilled enough in its usage would have a bad production.
“We have spoken to the tanners and they said it was the best they could produce for us because they prefer exporting the leather than selling it to us. Instead of buying the leather they exported and returned to us at a high price, why don’t they produce it and sell it to us at the rate we buy the current imported ones. That way, they can make more profit from them.”
Anastasia Uzodinma is another female cobbler based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, who deftly crafts Nigerian-made leather into wearable footwear.
She also faces the challenge of manually crafting the footwear which has reduced the level of output.
Uzodinma said, “The challenge I have particularly is crafting the footwear manually because I don’t have the equipment that will enable me to produce mechanically and this is slowing down the production number. Also, the finishing aspect of making footwear is tedious because it is done manually. I have priced the machine but it is not something I can afford.’’
Uzodinma, however, differed from her colleagues who preferred imported leather, noting that she liked using Nigeria leather even though sometimes it could rob her of quality production.
Also, she admitted that forex and economic crises, production quality and customer patronage had affected her business.
“Patronage has reduced as a result of the inflation and we cannot produce as much as before because the amount used in buying a large quantity of leather is what we now use to buy a little for a particular design,” she lamented
Uzodinma said that Nigerians now buy footwear made with Nigerian leather, stating that the production of such required a gum of top quality and cobbler’s dexterity in crafting footwear.
In another vein, a cobbler, who has been in the business for over six years, identified only as Michael, said the consumption of (cowhide) had no direct effect on the availability of leather.
He stated that the Nigerian leather was unfit for the production of footwear that could withstand the Nigerian weather.
Michael said, “ is not causing the scarcity of leather for footwear production. Shoes are not only made with cow hide, they are also made with different animals’ skin such as antelope, goat, sheep, among others. Cowhide is minimal in the use of leather for footwear. Moreover, the leather produced in Nigeria is not good for the kind of shoes we do, so 90 per cent of our materials are imported ones and not locally made ones. The increase in shoe prices is not due to ponmo consumption but from the increase in dollar exchange.”
He added that the economic situation had affected the production and “customers who also have been affected with the present economic situation would still haggle the price of finished products despite it being of a higher quality.”
Michael urged the government to help in the procurement of machines and manpower for the leather industry so that it could “generate more revenue for the economy. If the government projects the revenue the leather industry is capable of generating, they should start from what is needed to make the leather a finished and internationally acceptable product. The machines and manpower needed should be provided before the projection can be feasible.”
Like Michael, tanners also faulted the claim that demand for ponmo was affecting supply of leather. Tanners are people who tan animal hides.,
Representatives of two tanneries in Kano State who spoke with our correspondent said that cow hide contributed an insignificant percentage to animal hide needed for the tanning of leather in the country.
One of them who is Executive Director, Finance and Administration at GB Tannery, Kano State, Muzzam Tijani, stated that goat and sheep hides were the animal hides mostly used in the production of leather at the tanneries in the North.
He noted that therefore the consumption of ponmo by southerners had no effect on the availability of Nigerian leather.
He, however, added that the exportation of 90 per cent of unfinished leather to Europe for processing was the factor that affected the availability of Nigerian leather to local users of the product.
Tijani said, “Tanneries mainly in Kano export finished crust leather which is sheep and goat. In the southern part of the country, people eat meat with the skin. But in the North and some neighbouring countries, it is not so. The neighbouring countries around the northern part of the country such as Niger, Chad, also do not consume meat with the skin rather they import them into Nigeria because they don’t have many facilities for processing.
“Therefore, the consumption of the skin has nothing to do with the production of leather. There is even much import of skin hides into Nigeria because it is a different line of business entirely. From Sudan, Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil have big cows including Tanzania because their cows are almost twice ours and the skin is bigger and thicker. People have the advantage of that business so they import huge quantities of those things into Nigeria for sale.”
The tanner added that the reason leather users were buying imported leather for production was because most tanneries were export-oriented and not domestic-oriented.
He added, “This is because the production line is what we call crust level, which is the second to the last stage of production. In Europe they mainly require crust and that is the export approved standard. As such, we export it in the crust stage while they do the final finishing and send it to brands such as Gucci, Prada and others. They still need to process it and that is why our people would have to import it from there.
“Another thing is that our local manufacturers of leather products such as shoes and bags cannot buy the same quantity that we export. For example, in a year, the maximum order you can get for local production is N10m. But if you compare it to the export market, you can get an order of N5bn. So one’s attention would be to where you would get more money and more orders.’’
Tijani noted that lack of awareness on availability and purchase of leathers made in Nigeria was a hindrance to patronage and usage of the product.
He stated, “Still, we patronise local manufactures of leathers. It is just that they don’t have much information on where they can get the products locally. But now there is awareness through many mediums so they are getting to know that they can get the product locally. When they make a request, we try to meet them. It is possible to get a shoe or bag that would be made in Nigerian from the animal hide to the final production.’’
On whether there would be an increase in the availability of animal hides if the consumption of ponmo stops, Tijani said, “Whether they consume it or not, they cannot consume all and we cannot take it all so it doesn’t have any effect on the business. That is why apart from the mechanised factory, there are still traditional and local tanneries.”
Also, another representative of the tannery in Kano who spoke on condition of anonymity corroborated Tijani’s claim that tanneries in Nigeria mostly use goat and sheep hides and not cow hide for leather production.
The representative said, “Nigerian tanneries don’t use cow hide, they mostly use sheep and goat hides because the quality of the cow hide is not so good for leather. The consumption of ponmo is not affecting the tanneries. We are export-based, we export most of our leather because the mentality of the Nigerian is that everything from outside is better and that is why we export to Europe. They make the shoes and import them here and people buy it. If we make shoes for them, they would say it is Nigerian-made and not good. So we are trying to make shoes for the Nigerian market with the Italian product but the Nigerian mentality has to change.
Italian shoes and other brands are the first choice for Nigerian shoe buyers.
A shoe company based in the United Kingdom, Mahi Leather, noted that China, Italy, India, Brazil, Korea and Russia were the top six countries producing tanned leather in the world. Italy is famous as the country for processing finished leather and re-importing them to other countries.
China now makes 80 per cent of the world’s leather products.
According to research published by the company, 65 per cent of leather comes from cows while 15 per cent is from sheep, 11 per cent is from pigs and nine per cent from goats.
Mahileather stated, “Cow hide is by far one of the most popular leathers today. As it is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, it is widely available worldwide but it is also considered one of the most durable and desirable leathers. Cow hide is much heavier than other sources of leather weighing in at between one and 12 ounces and is, therefore, a much better choice for jackets, coats and furniture as it is much sturdier.
“Sheepskin is the second most common leather after cowhide and is often tanned with the fleece intact which means it can drape well so is often used for jackets and clothing. Due to its fleece, it is often used to make slippers and rugs.’’
Also, an international animal protection group, PETA, stated that that most of the leather produced and sold in the United States of America was made from the “skins of cattle and calves, but leather is also made from sheep, lambs, goats and pigs.”
It added that the economic success of abattoirs and dairy farms were directly linked to the sale of leather.
President of Cobblers and Leather Artisans of Nigeria, Ayodele Mosaku, said that the exporting of 90 per cent leather by tanneries was causing a shortfall in the local leather crafting industry.
He further stated that such practice was affecting the contribution of local manufacturers to the economy.
Mosaku also noted that abattoirs preferred to sell animal hides at a higher rate to consumers, rather than to tanneries at a cheaper price.
He said, “The leather industry in Nigeria, particularly, shoe and bag making, is facing challenges that are not encouraging local production. This is because by the time we are through with our production, it is far more expensive than the imported goods.”
The CLAN president stated that the manual production of leather items made some customers prefer factory-made leather to locally-made footwear or bags.
He called on the Federal Government for a private partnership that would help provide machines to cobblers at a discounted rate or one that would be paid in installments. He added that such a move would serve as a motivation for more leather workers and in the same vein, contribute to the growth of the economy.
Mosaku said, “Before one can sell one or two locally made shoes, about 100 pairs of imported ones have been sold and this is not allowing us to thrive because of the poor finishing, constant and unpredictable high cost of materials and products which is reducing the profit margin and zeal to do the work.’’
But on its part, the Leather Product Manufacturers Association, Abia State chapter, insisted that the cow hide consumption and forex crisis were some of the challenges facing the leather industry in the country.
Speaking through its President, Mazi Williams, the association stated that about 60 to 70 per cent of raw materials were imported for the finished leather goods production.
Williams stated, “I disagree with whoever says consumption does not affect availability of leather to the tanneries. A good quantity of our has affected the availability of cow hide for the tanning industry in the country. There have been several campaigns to discourage people from consuming but this campaign has not been really effective. As a matter of fact, it does have a huge effect on the quantity of leather in the market and cow hide is important in the market because its leather is used in the production of military and paramilitary footwear and it is a huge market that needs huge attention.”
He further highlighted other challenges affecting the sector’s growth to include erratic electricity and poor infrastructural amenities.
Williams, on the one hand, stated that he had a 50-50 per cent usage of both Nigerian and imported leather in production, adding that the local leather was the real long-lasting.
He also said that the tanneries should improve on colour variety and styles of leather especially in the crafting of female footwear.
On the impact of the economy and forex crisis on the business, Williams stated that the incentives on export favoured the tanneries more and consequently affected the availability of local leather in the Nigerian market.
“The inconsistency of our currency is giving us big trouble because one can’t predict business and this is affecting the possibility of having appropriate projections of the business and that is why the government need to find a way to fix these issues to make the economy viable. The local leather buyers prefer to export it because they gain more from the global leather price compared to what they can make in Nigeria compared to the currency and one cannot blame them because everyone that is in business wants to maximise profit. Again, there is an incentive from the Export Promotion Council. It is that if one exports a certain volume of product, one gets an incentive. It’s called export expansion grant and because of this, the tanneries prefer to sell their leather across stages to be able to attract this incentive. This is not friendly with the growth of the local industry,” Williams said.
Commenting on the issue, the first Vice-Chairman, Textile Carpet Leather and Leather Footwear Products, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Alhaji Muhammed Haruna, stated that the challenges of the leather and footwear industry were the marginal rise in price due to naira weakness and importation of fairly used leather products, shoes, belts and bags, popularly known as second-hand products.
He noted that the consumption of had no direct impact on the availability of leather products in the country, adding that tanners’ preference for export was caused by leather users’ dependence on imported leathers and materials.
Haruna said, “The tanners in the country prefer to export their finished or unfinished product abroad for no other reason other than the exchange rate would favour export. Due to the weak naira, when one exports products, one would make a higher profit margin and one wouldn’t blame anyone for doing that because the backbone of any venture is to make a profit.
“Also, I don’t think those eating are giving us serious challenges. If the tanners agree to sell internally, we would have excesses. The percentage of the ones being consumed is not that much to cause any discomfort for us leather users. It is minimal. It is like using rubber. Some people use rubber for their input for whatever product they want to make. One cannot say there is no rubber for use because other people are competing with one.
“The tanners in the North use mostly sheep and goats and there is still an abundance in the country. But when you look at the slaughterhouses in the South, they don’t skin them. They eat them, both the meat and skin and that does not cause any shortage of material in the market. I think people are just being sentimental when they say the consumption of ponmo is affecting the availability of finished leather in the country.”
Haruna maintained that it was natural for the end product of the commodity to be more expensive than those made with locally-sourced materials.
“If the price of any of one’s major components goes up, naturally it would affect the price of one’s end product. If you look at the cost of leather, the margin is not too much, it could be absorbed. And a customer who is ready to buy it would be able to pay up the additional cost,” he said
He further stated that the importation of fairly used footwear was a major challenge to the leather crafting industry.
He said, “The real competitor that is frightening the footwear makers is not leather but the importation of second-hand shoes. If you go to the port, these things come in multiple containers. You would be surprised by the number of second-hand shoes that are imported into the country. They would always tell you that these shoes are better than the ones made in Nigeria. But that is not true. People are only being sentimental over them and they do not care about the health hazard that could be associated with wearing fairly used shoes. In fact, using second-hand clothing is safer than wearing second-hand shoes because when you wear a shoe, there is direct contact between your skin and the shoes. You don’t know whether it was a leper or someone with any skin disease that used the shoe from whatever country it was brought from and you could contract diseases through the shoes. But people don’t look at these things because at the popular markets you see people rushing to buy them.”
On measures to support the crafting and leather industry challenges, Haruna urged the government to allocate forex directly to manufacturers, noting that doing so would help in effective maximisation and reduction of the dollar rates in the black market.
“Any serious government anywhere in the world would do everything possible to protect its local industry for the economy to grow. Otherwise, if they leave everything to take care of itself, the economy would always be on the downturn. Therefore, if the government is serious and wants to reverse the downturn of all our manufacturing ends, first of all, it should prioritise the allocation of foreign exchange to genuine manufacturers not to people who do round trip trading with the dollar. They would collect it from the Central Bank of Nigeria then go to the bureau de change to sell it. These are not the people to be getting the official and subsidised rate of the dollar. Give it to the manufacturers and many things would happen immediately. First, labour requirements will rise, second, the marginal price of selling the end products would be reduced making it possible for low-income earners to purchase the goods.’’
Haruna noted that if the government was serious, it should allocate some of the foreign exchange directly to the manufacturers under the umbrella of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, who would know serious manufacturers and would maximise it rather than giving it to contractors.