Abisola OwolawiBy Abisola Owolawi|June 1, 2022|11 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

How Nigerian Leather makes Italian style.

At a workshop in Lagos, artisans painstakingly cut out sketches and drive rivets into leather pieces that will soon end up on the shelves and arms of discerning customers

It takes many hours of manpower and precision to get to the finished product, but the results are well worth it.

For the creative Director of Aaboux leather products, Zainab Aliyu, getting into the leather goods industry was sheer serendipity.

“My first outing was in Feb 2018. There was a social media week. A friend was curating a section of African designers and I had signed up for it. I was initially afraid and thought I wasn’t ready for it but eventually went out there and the reception to the goods was amazing. That gave me the confidence and boost that I needed to start. In June 2019, I found out that I had been selected to go to New York for Coterie which is an exclusive trade show with a number of training sessions that helped me along the way. At my first exhibition, I had my first three international orders” Aliyu says.

Zainab Ashadu, Creative Director & Founder of Zashadu brands can relate to the market’s reception, having worked in the leather goods space for many years as one of the contemporary market pioneers. For Ashadu, commercializing her craft became a no-brainer quite early on.

“I was just getting used to blogs. So, I had thought, if I put the items on a blog, I could then write a little bit about them and people could see what is available and so, I did that without even realizing that a blog is worldwide and so, people started discovering the brand and the pieces from Russia, London, Paris etc. and I began to think of how I would get the products to them as it was an instant hit worldwide. I immediately had to start thinking of how to cater to all the markets. There were initial challenges with exporting as there are different standards necessary to be met but luckily, the Nigerian Export Promotion Council and I found each other and it has been a really great relationship that we have had – being able to support us and get us ready for other markets and it has been a really educative process” says Ashadu.

Nigeria is naturally endowed with enough resources to be placed amongst the top emerging economies of the world. Unfortunately, the country has not adequately utilized and benefitted from the full economic prosperity it potentially holds.

The Nigerian economy from its export perspective is disaggregated into oil and non-oil exports. These are the two sources of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. The country has however been a mono-product economy ever since the flow of oil started in the 1970s.

To date, non-oil accounts for less than 10 %  of the total of Nigeria’s exports- a sobering reality considering the vast opportunities on the ground.

For the Nigerian leather industry, the local market holds certain perceptions that could hamper its growth and I wanted to find out more about this

“There are people exporting skins in thousands of metric tonnes from Nigeria. However, these are unprocessed or semi-processes. So, most of the value is added only internationally according to Aliyu.

On the industry’s potential, Ashadu says this is immense.

“There are able minds, they are able hands and there are products we create competitively against other key players in the sector. I believe the people that need to either man or push the agenda of the leather sector development need to come from the existing leather sector because they already have proven that they care and still play in it. So, they should be the ones creating the agenda because they understand the depth of the realities on the ground.

For Nigeria’s leather industry, the local market holds certain perceptions that could hamper its growth, and to find out more about this, I visited one of the busiest informal leather goods stockists in Mushin, Lagos.

Nonye Onyekwe has been in the foreign leather sales business for about 10 years. She appears convinced that foreign is better than local.

“The foreign leather is of way better quality”, says Onyekwe. Most of my customers come here to request foreign products. The local leather is a lot more expensive though”

Leather trader, Ben Anazodo couldn’t agree more

“Some of the countries we get products from include Italy, Spain, and Brazil. While the local goods are more expensive, the foreign leather is more durable,” Anazodo adds

To get to the bottom of this debate, it was imperative that I got a wider perspective on Nigeria’s local leather process and its true potential. So, it was time for a fact-finding mission

My first stop was at one of Kano’s long-standing tanneries in Northern Nigeria. Abass Hassan -Zein has run his facility for about 25 years exporting semi-processed, sheep crust and goat crust leather over time, and had offered to give me a tour of his facility

“Nigerian leather is one of the best in the world”, he says. “That’s for sure. All the top brands use Nigerian leather because the fibers are strong and so, they are the best for shoes and bags. There are a number of challenges that we face, however, such as the poor supply of electricity, cost of importation, treatment, congested ports, and exports also went down 80% following the outbreak of Covid-19. At the end of the day, our products go to the international brands but because the Europeans always prefer to tag it “Made in Italy” for instance, they say this is Italian, Spanish, or European leather instead but it really is Nigerian leather, made here from scratch. All they do is the finishing and then place a label or brand on it. We, for instance, have sold our black suede to Prada for three years. Prada was bought from the intermediate company and sold as made in Italy but it is in fact, Nigeria- made.  The finest leather, we sell to Europe and then, medium and low quality, we sell to India, Pakistan, and China,” Hassan -Zein says.

Unlike Ashadu, Hassan-Zein has not enjoyed much support from the Promotion Council, nor the Nigerian government, adding that while the demand is there, the cost of production is staggering, and in spite of the government‘s offers of export incentives, it takes a long time to receive payment.

“We used to receive 30% export incentives from the government when the industry was thriving but for about 12 years, we couldn’t receive these payments. We hope that the economy and incentives are stabilised in the future so that we understand how to go forward in the future”, Hassan- Zein adds.

With a predominantly mechanized system, Hassan-Zein’s tannery has its finger on the industrial pulse, which made me wonder how the local and manual tanneries are faring and so, my next stop, was the Majemar Kofar Wambai in the heart of Kano where I met Ibraheem, the tannery administrator

“Any time you see a pair of shoes tagged “Made in Italy”, just know that the leather is in fact, Nigeria-made.

We have the Nigeria Export Promotion Council, a body that has made countless promises to us. Yet, we see nothing. We don’t have capital to run our businesses. Some government official also sometimes request proposals from us with the intention to assist but that has been just as futile a process.  Ibraheem laments

With no machines or industrial processes, this tannery is real turnkey facility as finished products are all painstakingly worked on here from scratch to finish and artsisans are seen hand-stitching new sandals ready for the market

At the Kofar Wambai market, my final stop in Kano, shoemakers and leather merchants lace the stores where necessary finishing touches and sales are made.

From the streets of Kano to shopping shelves across the world, this industry’s potential is undoubtedly immense and the players here can only hope to re-live all the glory it once held