Local leather footwear makers are optimistic about the remainder of this year, with strengthening export demand despite the war in Iraq and the SARS outbreak, according to Malaysian Footwear Manufacturers Association (MFMA) president Lisa Fong. The Association represents about 500 local shoemakers and, in 2001, exports of footwear dropped by 8% to RM325 million (US$85.5 million) from RM353 million (US$92.89 million) in 2000.

Exports were RM307 million in 1999. Fong said in an interview: ‘About three quarters of shoes produced by local manufacturers are for the domestic market, the remainder are exported. The MFMA now expects footwear exports for 2003 to exceed RM350 million compared with last year’s RM344 million and that the SARS epidemic, which originated in China, may have a silver lining for the local footwear industry.’

Fong continued: ‘The SARS outbreak could contribute to higher export volume because buyers who do not want to go China would purchase shoes from other countries like Malaysia. Made-in-Malaysia footwear has a niche in the medium to high-end market, with a stronghold in high-fashion ladies’ shoes.

‘Malaysia’s footwear exporters are currently focusing on the European market, which buys local shoes in small quantities but of higher value. This brings higher returns for footwear exporters.

‘The MFMA also refutes claims by certain sectors that the local footwear industry is a sunset industry due to its inability to face competition from other low-cost producing countries. In fact, the local footwear industry is growing and we are constantly upgrading our quality and designs. Currently there are 1,000 shoe manufacturers in the country, most in the Klang Valley and Kinta Valley. Those in the Klang Valley specialise in men’s shoes while those at Kinta Valley produce ladies’ shoes.’

MFMA secretary general Tony Ting said footwear sales in the domestic market may suffer slightly from the SARS outbreak as people stay indoors and shop less.

However, he said the outbreak may cause buyers to divert their purchase of footwear from China to Malaysia and there have recently been a lot of enquiries from Europe and West Asia.

He added: ‘Malaysian-made footwear is exported to over 100 countries with Singapore and Italy being the top two export destinations. Shoes exported to Singapore are mainly for re-export, while Italy has consistently been a major importer. Malaysia exported footwear worth RM19 million to Italy in 2001and just over RM22 million in 2002.