Cluster bomb – Sam Setter’s Limeblast

20 February 2015



As more governments and industry bodies develop misguided plans to reignite their leather industries with new tannery clusters, Sam Setter devours the inefficiency and futility of not only the poor planning, but also the general ineptness of foresight by the relevant parties in his latest Limeblast.


Along with the new industrial leather clusters in Sudan, Egypt, Syria and Bangladesh, two further projects are now on the drawing boards in Kenya and Botswana.

Before getting into the details of the recently announced projects, my initial fear that the new Bangladeshi tanning cluster in Savar will be a lookalike of Hazaribagh seems justified. I have seen design drawings of the Savar tanneries and it is discerning to note that the assigned plots are so small that tanners need to plan production buildings exactly like they have done in Hazaribagh, with no space between the buildings and the boundary walls.

The tanners have no idea in what condition they have to present their effluent to the CETP; hence, sedimentation tanks at the exit of the tanneries are akin to baths when they should really have the dimensions of a swimming pool. There appears to be no precise laws or construction requirements to which tanners can refer and take into account with the planning of the tanneries, and there are no qualified local architects that have even the slightest experience in tannery construction.

Modern tanneries

Botswana championed a modern tannery called BMC tannery in Lobatse, which was the sister company of the BMC abattoir for which it processed all the hides. It had modern, quality equipment including Hüni drums and process control (Aquamix and Prodomix), and was known for its quality wet-blue leather sold mainly to the European market at top prices. However, due to the uncontrolled accumulation of untreated sludge, the tannery was forced to close in 2006.

From what we have seen in Sudan and Egypt, the involvement of the government, which is presented to people as a facilitator, in reality, complicates the development of a leather cluster and the leather industry in these countries in general.

BMC tannery also supplied wet-blue leathers and had founded a finishing plant called TIB - Tanning Industries of Botswana. The closure of BMC, of course, eventually led to the closure of TIB. After the damage was done, Botswana discovered that it had euthanised a promising industry and, in 2009, a variety of interested stakeholders and government agencies started to make enquiries for new projects and offers, but no one had any clear ideas.

The ideas ranged from reviving BMC to the construction of a new tannery and, now, the 'leather park'. Reviving BMC after nine years proved impossible as the previously used equipment is now almost useless. The drums that had been used to salt hides have rotted, for example.

Botswana produces approximately 230,000 hides a year, which equates to 630 hides a day; hence, this is sufficient for one tannery to economically operate. So, one wonders what Botswana is going to do with a whole leather park budgeted at 225 million pula ($25 million).

The Local Enterprise Authority (LEA) claims that there will be 657 jobs created, comprising of 300 hide collectors, 47 jobs from the common effluent treatment plant, 180 from the wet-blue tannery, and 130 from the retanning and finishing plant.

In my opinion, the 300 hide collectors are already there because Botswana continues to export salted hides to South Africa and that can only be done by a collecting structure. But what are the 47 workers going to do at the CETP that will treat a maximum of 850,000L of effluent a day, considering that the world's biggest tannery CETP in Santa Croce sull'Arno, Italy, treats 30 million litres of tannery effluent a day and only employs a total of 40 people, which includes administrative, running, laboratory and enforcement staff? With such a huge payroll, the leather park will be bankrupt before it opens, provided it ever opens.

When the numbers don't add up

LEA continues with its statements and promises - in addition to these 657 jobs - that the manufacturing of footwear and leather goods will create an additional 4,750 jobs made up of 2,000 from footwear, 2,000 from leather goods and 750 from upholstery, making the total number of jobs for the leather park 5,407 - equating to nine people for each daily produced hide. Is there nobody seriously asking if such a structure is viable? Is nobody seeing how ridiculous this is? LEA engaged the consultancy of the Indian CLRI, which has, with great respect, superb researchers and trainers, but when it comes to real-life-tanning top echelon, Indian tanners themselves go for foreign (mostly Italian) technology.

Considering the state of the tannery sector in Sudan, where CLRI was also consulted in the resulting creation of a so-called incubator, which used outdated equipment sold at exorbitant prices, I have some doubts. Additionally, in terms of wastewater treatment, it seems that CLRI has not yet found a solution for the mountains of salt created by the otherwise excellent reverse osmosis process that it is promoting.

Kenya: believe it

As well as Botswana, Kenya is reviewing its leather industry and wants to set up a leather cluster, known as its 'leather city'. The country's development plan Kenya Vision 2030 states that the sector has been identified as a flagship project in the current 'National Economic Blueprint'. The idea is excellent and would allow the existing tanneries that are now scattered in various areas in and around Nairobi without proper effluent treatment facilities to use a CETP and centralised service centres.

So how are the officials and departments that are involved proceeding with the plan? They have assigned an industrial area where the tannery cluster should be constructed - probably because there is a river nearby where the planned CETP can discharge its treated effluent water - but, allegedly, nobody has done a survey prior to the assignment to establish whether the area has sufficient groundwater to supply the estimated ten tanneries that would operate in the area.

One tannery that already operates in the area complained that the groundwater level is steadily decreasing, requiring deeper boreholes and forcing it to buy expensive municipality water from time to time. So what will happen if another ten tanneries start production in this area?

The tanners have no idea in what condition they have to present their effluent to the CETP; hence, sedimentation tanks at the exit of the tanneries are akin to baths when they should really have the dimensions of a swimming pool.

In September 2014, the Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development of Kenya invited "eligible candidates for the provision of consultancy services for feasibility studies, development of a master plan and prototype for the proposed leather city". The eligible candidates were supposed to "provide evidence of registration and approval by relevant authorities", show "availability of qualified personnel with the appropriate relevant skills in the leather industry" and "availability of adequate resources [technical and financial] to carry out the assignment". The candidates also had to give "evidence of capability and experience of the past five years to prove that they are qualified to perform the services".

do not believe that in the whole of Kenya there is one company that would be eligible; hence, foreign companies would need to apply. One wonders who the person was that decided to launch a tender that can only apply to foreign companies, knowing that the tender invitation was published locally in Kenya with a 15-day submission time. This was surely an exercise in futility, and a waste of time and money.

Time is of the essence

Unfortunately, that is not all. Once the consultant or consultancy firm was chosen, they had to submit a developed prototype model of the leather city within three months - detailed plans for basic infrastructure and financing models, as well as fund mobilisation strategies. With this incredibly short amount of time allowed, it is no wonder the tender went unattended and was eventually cancelled.

From what we have seen in Sudan and Egypt, the involvement of the government, which is presented to people as a facilitator, in reality, complicates the development of a leather cluster and the leather industry in these countries in general. These operations are not really focused on the industry, but exclusively on the exercise of showing that something is being done. Although the process may start with good intentions, along the way, things fall apart and the spoils are divided, which in the end is seemingly the most important part of the operation.

Sam Setter
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