Professional lobbies and associations are of extreme importance and I had some interesting conversations with the late Tony Mossop when he was president of the International Council of Tanners, an organisation we haven’t heard much of in recent years. Anyway that is not what I want to write about. Let’s go back to Africa, continent of unimaginable possibilities, if only it gets a fair chance. Instead it is ripped off on each and every occasion and mainly by a few of its own citizens.
The African hide and skin trade and its leather industry are and remain in limbo in spite of the good will from some, and huge injections of money from others. The African leather and leather associated industries need to unite and must find a common platform that can represent the continent abroad.
Many attempts have been made, but none or far too few have succeeded. Meet In Africa was a superb idea to bring the African leather industry together and into the limelight. The first four editions were totally directed and sponsored by outside sources such as ITC in Geneva, the Italian Assomac and SIC in France, whereas the fifth edition in Cairo last year was the first real all-African event. It was apparently not the best edition and certainly not perfect in its organisation, as many complained, but one way or another I believe it was still a success, a positive start, in sharp contrast to the huge flop of the International Leather and Footwear Expo in Nairobi in December 2005.
Meet In Africa should be a magnet to attract buyers of hides and skins, leather and leather products from all over the world. But in order to do so it should be properly managed and organised by a central organisation that cooperates with local organisations and/or associations. Instead of being an example of collaboration each edition of Meet In Africa is a battle to provide the venue, where prestige, money and politics all play the most important role.
The original idea was to change the venue for each edition and Cape Town, Casablanca, Tunis, Addis Ababa and Cairo adequately responded to the demands. Meet in Africa 2008 will be held in Khartoum, Sudan, a minor player in the African leather environment, which risks being as attractive as the 2005 Nairobi fair. This is because there is no really strong industrial backbone and Sudan is not the safest place in the world, with an ongoing internal humanitarian conflict that has cost thousands of innocent lives.
So why was Khartoum chosen? Now that’s pure politics and power struggle, which risks destroying rather than strengthening the African leather related industry with AFLAI in its wake. Probably that’s what some want, to destroy AFLAI.
AFLAI doesn’t navigate in calm waters. AFLAI was established to promote the development of the African leather and allied industries to the level where they can play a leading role in the world leather industry. In order to achieve this goal, AFLAI needed to gain the support and involvement of all relevant stakeholders in the African leather and allied industries.
After the first three events, support for MIA was far less than hoped. There are various reasons for this. One is funding, but principally the failure to attract significant support rests to a large degree with the failure of AFLAI to attract the necessary support from the African leather industry as a whole. AFLAI is, regretfully, considered by other regional associations as a competitor when it comes to sharing the golden pot of money at the end of the development rainbow.
Hence, these other African associations are definitely not going to support AFLAI. On the contrary, there will be no sharing of the spoils. The priority is not the development of the African leather industry, for which none of the associations has a lot to show anyway, neither in their home countries nor in the regions they represent. It’s about money, lots of money, which certain associations have been more or less monopolizing and are unwilling to give up.
The various factions within AFLAI are hardly communicating one with the other. Each faction has its own agenda and its own interest. Politics and money. Money and politics. AFLAI has no money, not even the funds to pay for tickets of its board members to travel to meetings and pay for their hotels, whereas other associations can afford business class travel and five star hotels for practically their whole secretariat.
If personal and regional interest were not the top priority, AFLAI should and could function as the umbrella organisation for the regional organisations on a federation basis. But that would mean that regional associations would have to give up their power and the funds that they receive from donors and sponsors.
Right now AFLAI has established its offices in Addis Ababa but one wonders if that is prudent in terms of independence and objectivity. Maybe an approach of five regional offices, manned by competent, professional and honest people would provide the backbone of an effective AFLAI. These entities would have to be aligned with, but not subjected to, the regional organisations and their linkage to the AU to ensure cohesion and an holistic approach. It would not be perfect, given the nature of the conglomerate, but at least the flow would be broadly in the same direction. Modern communication technology can easily ensure that the regional offices coordinate economically between themselves.
The AFLAI secretariat must be properly staffed and funded and have a federal structure to have any chance of survival. AFLAI should in effect grow inward from its constituent parts, take shape from the bottom up, from the periphery to the centre not the top down or centre outward. Formulate the vision at the top but build it from the bottom/perimeter.
AFLAI should be kept out of the hands of the existing elite, most of whom have been totally ineffective in their own country or region, hence how can we expect them to become effective on a continental level. The African leather industry must get rid of the existing lobbies that exercise a form of dictatorship consuming huge sums of money in the process, but produce no progress that reflects itself in better prices for the exporters.
Africa has successful cornerstone countries in our industry like South Africa, a number of Maghreb countries, Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria that have something to show economically and industrially. These should be the basis on which AFLAI should build its future and that of the African leather industry, and not on the smoke that is blown now! These countries should influence the organisation as they have a proven capability of running the industry successfully. They should be judged by healthy bottom lines and not the number of times they attend meetings in Amsterdam, Brussels and Vienna!
Development money must flow to where it belongs, to the African industry, where it has until now never arrived.
Sam Setter