Hides are tasty to some

10 March 2010



I hope that everybody enjoyed the Christmas and New Year celebrations. My very best wishes to the readers of Leather International for 2010 which we all hope will make us forget the problems encountered in 2009, which at least in terms of optimism and economy ended better than it started. Let’s be confident and say that we are on the right track. Sole leather tanners who had a very tough time for the past two years have at long last received some orders. At least it helps them to clear stocks. The underlying factor is that obviously shoe factories have orders too. Will it last? The Dubai bubble burst showing that you do not have a healthy economy counting on luxury and real estate without an industry, but luckily it has effected the world economy only marginally, so far.


In 2010 we start all over again with best intentions and high expectations. Very few people in the world are aware that food is something very relative. It is said that in China people eat just about anything that moves (except horses). India is the country with the largest vegetarian population. One of the delicacies in Oaxaca, Mexico are the fried champulin or in plain English grasshoppers. In Zambia your host will treat you to roasted caterpillars and in Uzbekistan you’ll definitely love the boiled sheep eye. The Italians can not live without their pasta. I think one can go on and write whole pages of these specialities, but it shows that the world is not only oysters, caviar and chateaubriand (steak).
In Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and some other parts in West Africa people eat hides. That’s right, cattle and camel hides. The hides that are sold for human consumption in western Africa don’t need to be properly flayed, or shade dried under a roof or salted in order to avoid putrefaction
damage which would make them unsuitable for industrial transformation. Hides for human consumption can have flay cuts and holes, they can be misshaped or cut into pieces. Nobody bothers. Drying can be done and is done on the ground in the burning sun or under the pouring rain, or both. Camel hides are smoked over a fire of unusable car or truck tires. It is estimated that at present some 70% of the West African hides including those from countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and others are not industrially transformed into leather. What is worse where the leather industry is concerned, is that those who buy hides for food can pay far better prices than the industry is prepared to pay. Right now Ghana pays at least double the price for a raw cattle hide than the tanneries in China are willing to pay, and they make much less, or practically no fuss about quality. An important hide exporting country such as Senegal, which actually shipped large quantities to the Far East is now selling its hides to Nigeria at double the price and half the transport costs, and nobody bothers about the quality of flay and conservation. It is logical that hides traded for nutrition can cost more than hides sold for industrial transformation as long as the price remains comfortably below the price of the cheapest quality of meat and as long as the hide market remains at present levels. Whether this type of food is healthy is another matter of course. There is no label with nutritional facts or a toll-free number for dietary information.
In today’s market a hundred thousand African hides more or less on the market doesn’t make any significant difference, but when the market tightens and demand outgrows the offered quantities, these hides would come in handy. Hides have been so cheap today that tanners buy good quality low priced raw materials rather than just slightly cheaper low quality hides.
The world is spending millions of dollars per year in development aid to get third world economies off the ground and one of the targeted sectors is always the leather sector because of the continuous availability of hides virtually everywhere. Developing countries are encouraged to add value to their natural resources, which in the hides and skin business means to take them to a local tannery and transform them into wet-blue, crust or finished leather. Over the years fortunes have been spent in research and by financing transformation projects in a number of countries with regretfully mixed results. Too many tanneries that were built are lying idle. Setting up a tannery in West Africa for hides is at this moment unrealistic because you wouldn’t be able to buy any hides to process. Practically all West African tanneries, where they exist as industrial units, are processing skins.
Local traditional tanneries are only of limited importance even on the microeconomic level. On the macroeconomic level, where it exists, overseas buyers are only interested in wet-blue leathers to duck the pollution problems at home. In short, even if there is some value adding in some places, it gives the countries of origin very little in the way of economic benefits and a huge environmental headache, because anti-pollution laws may exist but are rarely implemented.
The trade in hides for human consumption is virtually 100% outside the reach of the tax authorities so no benefits from that corner either for the countries in question. No veterinary certificates are needed and no taxes are perceived. This is pure cash business of which everybody in the area knows its existence but nobody can, or probably wants do anything about.
In cross-country trade in some parts of Africa hides are bartered for fuel, cement and appliances and keep the economy going. In an official export-import environment fuel and cement would cost so much more burdened by import duty and official exchange rates.
Although these hides feed people and bring a certain prosperity at the one hand, they also increase poverty on the other hand. If these hides could be transformed into leather, tanneries would be needed in which people work and the further the transformation process is taken, the more people are employed and the more value is added. Furthermore it would mean an industrial engagement forming a solid economic basis in a country. Not only for the export of leathers but also for the local development of small home industries as all West African countries make traditional leathergoods which are attractive also for sales overseas, but cannot be sold due to the bad smell these objects carry. The smell comes from the biological tannage with urine and excrements rather than with chemicals. Hides for food has therefore a negative impact on the whole value chain, something we can do very little about as the ground rule is that people need to eat, even if it is hides.

Sam Setter
[email protected]



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