It is a very well-known fact for most that Ethiopia is a major leather producing country. According to All Africa, every year, the nation produces five million tons of hides, 8.1 million tons of sheepskins, and 7.5 million tons of goat skins – easily making it Africa’s number one leather producer. While this is the case, the popularity of leather products, especially hand-made crafts, is only just starting to gain momentum.
More than 75 domestic and foreign leather and leather product factories have invested here in Ethiopia. Export of leather, which was valued USD 23 million in 2013 reached the US $ 133 million five years later. As opposed to the mainstream myth that local products are of inferior quality compared to imported items, the awareness and reception to the Made in Ethiopia trend are gaining momentum as more and more producers and consumers recognize the value in Ethiopian leather. With players spanning from small-scale artisans manufacturing low-price leather goods such as wallets, shoes, and bags to medium and high-scale highly branded leather manufacturers such as Zaaf, Meron Addis Ababa, Sabegn and Kuncho leather producing branded wears and professional accessories, the leather sector seems to have a bright future.
“My interest in the leather industry first started in 2009 when I realized that Ethiopia arguably has the highest quality leather and the leather resource is relatively abundant in comparison to the rest of the world. We don’t need to import leather and that makes it an ideal material to work with,” says Meron founder of Meron Addis Ababa, a leather producer formerly known as Leather Exotica.
Sabegn Concept Store, one of the rising leather producers in Addis has been in the sector for a couple of years now.“After years of experience we realized the untapped potential of Ethiopian artisans and their hardship to reach the market,” explains Dagmawi Adugna, Sales Manager at Sabegn, “That encouraged us to create a concept space with our leather workshop, shop and café all in one space in 2018.” However, it is quite easy to observe that there is a mismatch between the potential and the exploits of the industry. Meron agrees, “The Ethiopian leather industry has not been tapped at all as Ethiopia majorly of the exports are raw materials rather than finished leather products with added value.”
With the USA alone buying more than two million leather shoes every year for the past few years, there appears to be a serious growth in stock for the sector in Ethiopia. “Leather is growing to become one of the leading sectors here, and currently, Ethiopia is exporting mainly finished leather followed by growing shoe exports,” adds Meron.
“With the USA alone buying more than two million Ethiopian leather shoes every year for the past few years, there appears to be a serious growth in stock for the sector in Ethiopia.”
Despite the exponential growth of demand among locals for leather products, the demand from foreign tourists and ex-pats living in the country is still overwhelmingly significant. One factor the leather producers mention is the widely held belief among the populous that hand-made leather products are only for foreigners. “It’s true. Based on our collaborative business model, we have created a network of the vibrant ecosystem and a wide range on the manufacturing bases. We have been exporting most of our products, and that is why we have more foreigners, and mostly they are the ones who appreciate hand-made and pure leathers,” answers Dagmawi.
Meron agrees that majority of leather customers are foreigners. “Foreigners are aware of the value of high-quality leather, and they can take advantage of that at a relatively lower price at our store. Foreigners admire the culture of leather and the stories behind it. Additionally, our foreign customers prefer handmade artisanal products rather than the traditional mainstream fast fashion products. Lastly, foreigners appreciate sustainable products and practices and due to the animals being naturally grown, the longevity of the leather products themselves, and our up-cycling practices (We minimize leather waste by coming up with new designs that use left-over leather) we have managed to keep loyal customers.”
Across a spectrum of social media platforms, high-quality ads of beautiful leather bags, wallets, and a myriad of other leather products are becoming a common sight. “The landscape is changing and leather is garnering the attention of a lot of foreign buyers due to an improvement in promotion, branding, and awareness,” says Meron, “As one of the first few leather companies that introduced artisanal leather products to the market, I believe the originators have influenced a lot of newcomers to easily join the industry because we’ve left a footprint for newcomers to have the right guidance.”
Rise of the industry does not necessarily mean profit for all; there is a wild competition among leather businesses both for the local market share and brand positioning. Finding the right competitive edges that set each business apart is the most important challenge. As part of its effort towards a competitive brand positioning, Sabegn has established itself not only as a leather producer but also as a hub- a platform for designers and artisans to showcase their products. “We do not only manufacture leather products but also we share our space more than 70 artists, designers, small manufacturers, and artisans to showcase, sell, and satisfy a wider diversified market. Whenever you come to Sabegn you don’t only see leather products but also various other arts, clothing, crafts, jewelry, and other many handmade products.”
“Our organization is unique because all of our designs are original and continuously innovative. We emphasize the importance of high-quality products and all of our craftsmen are highly trained in their respective fields,” answers Meron, “We utilize up-cycling to minimize waste and use innovative ideas and designs to come up with some incredible products. We have also been able to boost the perception of locally manufactured leather products. Furthermore, we have been able to earn foreign currency for the nation, and we have been able to create a lot of jobs for the youths. Lastly, we guarantee the quality of our leather products because all of the tanners we work with implement water treatment.”
Having an immense natural wealth and a market hardly tapped into is the perfect recipe for an industry to thrive in. That is the case for Ethiopia’s leather companies. “Ethiopia’s hides and skins are highly known for their natural qualities of clarity, strength, thickness, and compact texture. In the upcoming years, this industry will have a much stronger availability of skilled manpower, more passion for development, and much more flexibility,” finishes Dagmawi.