Production of poor quality hides and skins, which fetch low prices in the international markets, has barred Kenyan farmers from fully tapping into the leather industry's vast potential.
The Livestock and Fisheries department says the country earns up to Sh10 billion from exports of wet-blue hides annually, against a potential Sh14-16 billion if better technology was used to reduce losses.
Kamau Waira, the chairman of Ruiru slaughter house, says knives are used in slaughterhouses leading to cuts on the skins and hides, which compromises quality.
“There is not much to gain from this industry unlike in a country like Ethiopia where prices of skins and hides are better. In Kenya, prices are poor and can sometimes fall to as low as Sh10 per kilogramme of hides, to Sh40 when it's at the highest price,” he says.
The low prices, Waira adds, discourage farmers and abattoir owners to the extent of neglecting the raw skins and hides to rot rather than selling them at throw-away prices.
“There is a poor market since Kenyans no longer buy local shoes as they used to in the past. There is so much dominance of foreign products in our markets and this is hurting the leather industry,” Waira notes.
China is the world's leading leather exporter followed by India and Italy. In 2012, the global trade in leather was worth $77.5 billion (Sh6.74 trillion) with foot wear making up 60 per cent.
Livestock and Fisheries principal secretary Khadijah Kassachoon says the industry has a huge potential and that the country produces enough hides and skins to sustain it, but majority of Kenyans go for imported shoes.
“About 80 per cent of Kenyans wear shoes and we have enough hides and skins to sustain the industry. However, poor handling of hides and skins during the flaying process causes substantial damage that continues to hurt the industry,” she says.
“Our focus is to create awareness to the public to promote what is locally made. The solution is there but the willingness is lacking. I believe if we do things right, we will surpass Ethiopia in the leather business,” Kassachoon says.
In order to attain maximum returns from the hides and skins sub-sector, the government has partnered with the German international aid agency GIZ and introduced an easy-to-use pneumatic de-hiders.
These are intended to ensure minimum damage at pre-slaughter stage. Nine de-hiders were provided to various abattoirs in the country through public-private partnerships programme, with the aim of reaching skins and hides producers countrywide.
“At pre-slaughter stage, the quality of hides and skins is adversely affected by branding, tick bites, scratches and wounds caused by larvae infestation and this together with post-slaughter defects like flay cuts, putrefaction and poor preservation account for losses to the tune of Sh6.4 billion,” Kassachoon notes.
Consequently, the price of hides and skins is expected to appreciate, making it necessary that players in the industry employ better handling and storage techniques.
There is a glaring difference between the prices of machine-flayed and hand-flayed hides in that the former fetches about Sh105 per square foot, while the latter fetches just Sh30 for the same size.
Kassachoon adds that there is need for all the stakeholders in the sud-sector to engage in conversation: from the farmer, tanner and those doing the finishing, to take responsibility in order to raise the quality of leather to compete in the market locally, regionally and internationally.
“This dismal state of affairs is redeemable and my department will do everything possible to ensure that all areas of quality addition in this industry are accorded due attention,” Kassachoon said when delivering the de-hiders at the department of Veterinary Services in Kabete.
Waira, a benefactor of the de-hiders, says use of knives cuts the skins hence the poor quality. With de-hiders, he says, quality will improve significantly. They will also reduce wastage of carcass and time taken compared to slaughtering with knives thus improve the quality of meat.
“Generally, health and hygiene prospects will be highly improved and above all, high quality leather will be produced,” Waira says.
Some of the abattoirs that benefited from the de-hiders include Mogotio (public), Kisumu (public), Mombasa (private), Ruiru (private) and West Pokot (private).
“These slaughterhouses will add value to their products and meet standards for local, regional and international markets. I hope this will be extended to all other private slaughterhouses in the near future,” Waira says.
The Ruiru abattoir has been offering practical flaying skills for leather technology students and the de-hider will now help it showcase modern flaying techniques.
Waira urges the government to initiate bio-gas projects to produce electricity using abattoir waste, which can be added to the national grid.
“The cheap gas and electricity produced will be used for infrastructure developments especially in rural areas,” Waira observes.
The Kenya Leather Development Council's data show that Kenya has a livestock population of 17.5 million cattle, 27.7 million goats, 17.1 million sheep, three million camels, 1.8 million donkeys, 1.83 million pigs, 10,000 farm ostriches and 12,000 farm crocodiles.
However, production as of 2010 was 2.5 million bovine hides, 5.4 million goat skins, 2.7 million sheep skins, 0.5 million camel hides and 1,000 crocodile skins.
“Leather production of hides was at 85 per cent wet-blue, nine per cent crust and six per cent finished leather while that of skins was 90 per cent of wet-blue, six per cent crust and four per cent finished leather. The annual production of foot wear in Kenya is 6-7 million pairs of shoes,” KLDC says.
The council however says a comprehensive survey is yet to be carried out to determine the actual potential of the sector.
The Economic Survey 2013 showed demand for animal products increased marginally in 2012. Cattle slaughtered in local abattoirs rose from 2.10 million in 2011 to 2.19 million in 2012. Over the same period, the total number of goats and sheep slaughtered increased by 1.5 per cent to 5.92 million compared to 5.8 million recorded in 2011.