Safari Boots was the signature footwear when Limuru-based Bata Limited, the Kenyan shoe manufacturer, was thriving in the 1970s through to the early 1990s.
After the country became flooded with second-hand shoes from Europe and the United States, it set in motion the slow-death in the manufacturing of the footwear that was uniquely Kenyan, which tourists bought as souvenirs upon conclusion of their visits.
Today, Bata Ltd is struggling to stay afloat as it weathers competition from artificial leather and plastics.
However, there is hope after the announcement of the government that plans to revamp the hides and skins industry, which may resurrect the ailing manufacturing sector that employed more than 40,000 people directly and indirectly.
As the government looks to turn around the economy of the country battered recent political uncertainty and a gloomy global economic outlook, focus now shifts to non-traditional industries to bolster tourism, coffee and tea, among other to drive manufacturing and generate employment for the youth.
President Uhuru Kenyatta targets production of 20 million pairs of leather shoes by 2022 that will see export revenue rise by Ksh50 billion (US$477 million) in five years, spurred by growth in the leather industry.
As part of plans to revive the leather industry, four leather parks are to be expanded, 5,000 cottage industries to be set up and existing tanneries to be expanded.
This will be a massive boost to the industry. Kenya is a low-cost producer of undifferentiated low-end shoes and boots estimated to be 3.3 million pairs of leather footwear per year. The shoes are made mostly for the domestic market.
To offer market to locally manufactured goods, the government has directed that all military boots to be bought from local manufacturers, which in turn means there is a need to expand the processing of hides and skins to meet local consumption as well as export
At present, Kenya produces hides and skins for export, with local consumption having shrunk as a result of the impact wrought by imported second-hand shoes and clothes.
Among the strategies being considered to revive the wobbly leather industry include the promotion of dynamic restructuring of leather industry by developing stakeholder driven leather.
The government also plans to strengthen the Kenya Leather Development Council (KLDC) to be more involved in the ensuring leather quality.
Rather than leave the industry at the guile and scheming to the profiteers, there are plans to improve the regulatory framework to reduce production cost and safeguard the environment. This is designed to ensure dollar sense at every stage of production and value addition chain.
Further, the ministry is working on modalities to increase access to markets by inducing higher demand for Kenyan leather and leather products by creation of a leather marketing entity. This is attainable through designing a transparent public procurement policy to inject confidence in an industry that is deprived of any.
At present, the industry lacks a clear a quality assurance enforcement mechanism. It is against this backdrop that the government is building quality and standards by improving production process, formation of leather product development accelerators, skills improvement and enforcing quality standards for imported leather products.
Just like any other industry, the leather industry is not devoid of challenges, which include high cost of domestic leather and leather inputs, high cost of leather and high cost of electricity.
Cheap imports – the so called mitumba (second-hand) – shoes have contributed largely to the unpopularity of locally manufactured ones. By way of example, a locally manufactured pair of shoes can cost Ksh2,000 (US$20) while a mitumba one of similar quality will cost just Ksh500 (US4).
With the promise of the government to offer support via capacity building, training, creation of a common manufacturing facility and policy frameworks leather industry has a better chance of reaping more from the international markets.
The value of the leather sub-sector in Kenya is estimated to Ksh50 billion (US$497 million) annually. Over 90 per cent of Kenya’s leather exports consist of unfinished wet blue leather.
The government seeks to reverse through escalated value addition. It is estimated that leather processing if adopted by the Kenyan industry can generate 50,000 jobs and inject between Ksh15 billion (US$143 million) and Ksh25 billion shillings US$238 miilion) into the economy annually.
Developing leather industry in Kenya offers an opportunity for industrialisation and diversifying exports products that will include shoes, jackets, hats, trousers, belts and also materials for book binding, leather wall-paper and furniture covers.
Bata Ltd, the largest and dominant footwear makers, has significantly reduced its production of low-end men’s leather shoes for domestic market and its export leather shoes to the wider East African market has also declined.
As it stands at present, export classification shows the country sells on the international market 89 per cent to the raw hides and skins produced locally. The finished leather exports are at per cent while leather footwear and handbags records two per cent per annum. Travel ware and other exports stands at four per cent.
Before imposition of 80 per cent export tariff on raw hides and skins in 2009, raw hides and skins accounted for more than 25 per cent of Kenya’s total leather products.
Experts confirm that despite the tariff, there is high level smuggling of raw hides and skins. Unfortunately, trade in raw and semi processed leather only generates marginal trickledown effect on the rest of the Kenyan population.
In 2010 Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development set aside Ksh175 million (US$1.7 million) for the construction of five model tanneries that included Kitui leather industry and Ngozi at Kinanie, Machakos.
Kenya, espite holding the third largest herd in Africa, it still buys 30 million pairs of shoes each year, thanks to cheap mitumba imports.
Leather is a durable and flexible material created by tanning animal raw hides mostly cattle. Other animals like goats, crocodiles, buffaloes, snakes and crocodiles also produce leather.
The most popular leather comes from cattle, fish deer, alligator and pigs/hogs in that order. It is a luxury good used in the manufacture of shoes, bags, upholstery, clothing, automobile seats and a wide range of other items
It is one of the most traded commodities in the world and less exploited industries in Kenya.
The growth and expansion of the leather industry in Kenya will offer an excellent opportunity for industrialisation and diversification of the Kenyan exports. Kenya has a better chance to compete with other leaders in leather industries in the world if it implements strategies to grow the industry.
China is the world leader of leather production with 36 per cent total global exports coming from Far East country.
Italy and France were leading European Union exporters of leather in 2016. Italy is the second largest global export of leather behind China, while France is the fourth largest global exporter of leather behind Vietnam, as result of a spike in global demand for luxury bags. France also has largest bovine herd in Europe with 19.5 million head of cattle, which includes 5.5 million calves.
France accounts for six per cent of total global leather and raw hides production with strong performance in leather goods and accessories.
The American continent only represented five percent of global exports in 2016 exporting raw hides and leather. Three countries in America appear in the top five global suppliers of prepared leather with Brazil being second, United States Fourth and Argentina fifth.
African countries account for four per cent of world leather production and developing countries hold 45 per cent share of world trade in leather manufacturing. Import penetration of the developing countries of domestic leather footwear markets by other countries is estimated at 73 per cent.
African countries have 15 per cent of the world’s cattle population and 25 per cent of sheep and goats but produce only 14.9 per cent of global output of hides and skins. According to international trade forum 2015, export of hides has fallen in the recent years to below 44 per cent but leather still ranked as a high export commodity.