The January Limeblast about Rwanda seems to have ruffled some feathers. That’s great! That’s why Limeblast exists and that’s why Limeblast is read. There have been some reactions which have reached me directly while others have been indirect. None of the reactions objected that what I had described as the situation on the ground.

One reaction was: ‘Totally agree that the specific situation of Rwanda is exactly like you describe (no doubt that there are interests behind the laws)’; another: ‘Why bother? Rwanda is such a small country and to blow up a Rwandan mouse to an elephant is not worth its while.’ I don’t think it’s a matter of size, but a matter of principle.

It is simply not fair to favour one player in the field at the expense of a couple of hundred other players, only because that one player has the political clout and the others have nothing. In the past, I have always sustained (in disagreement with Cotance), that a limited protection of the domestic leather industry in a number of countries, for example East Africa, is a necessity.

The January Limeblast is, therefore, not against the Rwandan export ban as such, but against the monopoly that was created by forcefully closing existing enterprises without alternative. The monopoly nets the tannery a cool US$22,000 extra profit for each container of wet-blue skins that they export.

Another observation was about my statement that the Rwandan government deserved expert information. I wonder what’s wrong about that? In order to develop the leather industry, the government needs correct, reliable data and advice from industry experts who know how to trade and process hides and skins.

Diagrams and slogans, which are one day applied to some commodity and another day to another commodity, don’t process good leather. Shelagh Davy made a clear point with the contribution of several industry experts on this principle in her report in the November 2005 issue of Leather International.

The Rwandan Limeblast ended up on many desks both in Kigali and in important offices of international organisations as well as a number of embassies. Up to now, the Rwandan government has announced no sector policy or strategy and the tannery is having a financial ball. They buy their raw materials cheap due to the lack of competition, make a huge profit when at the same time a hundred+ people lost their jobs because of the export ban.

However, things appear to move now and from what I have heard, they are moving in the right direction. I hope that Limeblast has made a constructive contribution. Let us hope that the move is not too late for the exporters of raw hides and skins, which Le Cuir reported as facing bankruptcy. I’ll follow up on this and keep you informed.

On December 1-3, Esalia organised the International Leather and Footwear Expo in Nairobi, Kenya. You can download the Esalia report from their website. What will certainly catch your eye is the number of exhibitors (61) and international visitors (39).

The conference participants were 43 amongst which were representatives of AFLAI, ITC, CDE (the sponsors?) and Esalia staff. At least that’s what is written in the address of the opening speech.

One visitor wrote to me: ‘I can tell you that the International Leather Fair in Nairobi has been a disaster (some potential exhibitors were not even there). Three days in the same large room, can you imagine!!!’

The two ‘world class organisations’ as they are described in the Esalia Report, Assomac (machine lobby) and Italprogetti are Italian, hence the fair can hardly be heralded as a global event. Apart from the odd 100 trade people present, nobody else has even heard about this fair.

I contacted Italprogetti and asked them about their experience at the fair and how much it cost them to participate in order to understand if the fair was worth their while. Mr Dani, the person responsible for Africa within the company, was kind enough to give this information with his overall view of business in the region. He said:

‘First of all a few words about our participation. Our market share in Africa has always been two or three times the percentage of sales of other Italian manufacturers (Assomac statistics). Due to this we have funded last year in Addis Ababa a company with a local partner called Italprogetti Africa. We bought some land where we are now about to build our workshop. The company aims to give assistance for our machines through its workshop.

‘Furthermore we have requested (and obtained in January) a grant from CDE Brussels for the transfer of technology. To that extent a group of Ethiopian technicians will be in Italy for some time to learn how to maintain tannery machines at various factories.

‘At the same time we will start manufacturing some simple parts and with this process we hope to develop our business but also to provide a good support for the local tanning industry whose main problem is the lack of service and infrastructure. I was in Nairobi also to spread our project to neighbouring countries.

‘Regarding the fair, I was quite happy because it seemed to be a good ‘regional fair’ and it was quite satisfactory to see a tannery from Ethiopia contact a Kenyan leathergoods manufacturer or a hide supplier from Botswana in Africa and not in Bologna or Shanghai.

‘I have no problem to say that I was lodged in the Hilton for US$75 per night (special rate for the fair), no lunch in daytime and dinner invited by clients. I paid Rome – Addis – Nairobi – Addis – Rome about e900 and, therefore, I had practically no extra cost for the extension Addis Nairobi since I had to be in Addis anyway.

‘I did not conclude any business at the fair but started discussions with many clients. In any case I was very happy because I realised there are many new opportunities in the area: the only problem for the European tannery machine manufacturers is that most of them are not tuned into the local requirements so that (in my opinion and I really hope to be wrong) we are probably going to lose contact with an area that should be strategic for Europe. Europe might lose an opportunity to join forces with Africa and create an alternative to the Far East.’

I appreciate Mr Dani’s approach as constructive. I remember that Nairobi was proposed on more than one occasion as the venue for Meet in Africa. The advantage of Nairobi seems to be its geographical situation and the availability of a large number of hotels. The disadvantage is that there is practically no leather industry to attract visitors.

The attendance at the Nairobi Expo has proven the critics right. In conclusion we can say that the fair was nothing to write home about but that at least one of its participants, Italprogetti, has made the very best of it, which is admirable. I wonder how much money this fair has cost the international organisations, apart from travel and accommodation, but we will never know as transparency doesn’t go this far.

I heard a figure of US$200,000 which doesn’t seem much, but translated as a quota per person you talk about US$2,000 for each person present. That is the equivalent of four SFF’s per person, or 400 across the event.

I wonder now if there will be another edition after the very limited success of the 2005 edition, whether the international organisations can be moved once again into putting a lot of money on the table for zero results. It probably all depends on the evaluation reports and who writes them.

Sam Setter