There is a widespread belief that in Africa, in particular, avoidable losses detract from the chain of added value as hides and skins progress ‘from the farm to the foot’. Attempts to introduce improvements have been undertaken in many countries but, in the absence of reliable statistics for monitoring and control purposes, doubts about the course of any changes remain.

Certainly, the quality of some of the semi-processed materials, finished leathers, leathergoods and shoes made from African hides and skins – and the raw materials themselves – are widely perceived as inferior and are disadvantaged in foreign trade.

But, different people’s understanding and definition of ‘quality’ is often inconsistent and, sometimes, based more on the personal, subjective preferences and prejudices of their own perspective rather than objective criteria of a material’s performance.

This report was prepared ‘to assist African countries to identify actions to meet the quality requirements of importers in order to improve domestic marketing and external trade of raw hides and skins’. To do this, African countries need to know what importers’ requirements are.

Thereafter, African countries need to adapt their domestic marketing appropriately – to satisfy these requirements. Once customers’ requirements are being satisfied properly, improvements to external trade are almost inevitable.

This draft report aims to provide the information required to determine generic strategies for the maintenance (and increase) of market share and market penetration for African hides and skins.

Hides and skins – byproducts of the livestock sector – are primarily the raw material for the tanning industry; where they provide leather for the manufacture of miscellaneous leather products, especially shoes. Although any hide or skin can be processed into leather (and leather products), various breeds of domestic cattle, sheep and goats provide the overwhelming majority of raw materials.

During the course of conventional (chrome) tanning, processes may be interrupted to provide intermediate materials such as pickled skins and wet-blue leathers. All of these semi-processed materials, as well as raw materials and finished leathers (and leather products) may be traded internationally.

Only the middle ‘dermal’ layer of hides and skins – free of the overlying epidermis and hypodermis – is used ultimately to make leather. The dermis is made resistant to putrefaction and finished (in terms of thickness, feel and colour) to provide material suitable for the manufacture of shoes and other leather products.

When the thin, uppermost ‘grain’ layer of the dermis has been damaged, extra processing may be required to correct or camouflage any defects that are present. Historically, all these procedures would have been completed in or around a few sites in the country. Now, many of the procedures are increasingly concentrated at different ‘global’ locations; providing scope for increased technical specialisation and economic efficiency.

The innumerable breeds of cattle, sheep and goats provide a variety of hides and skins with different properties that are compounded by the circumstances under which animals are raised and the hides and skins produced. Certain types of hides and skins may be sought after for particular leather-making purposes – because of their general physical characteristics, or grain pattern in particular – but all need to satisfy basic common requirements for use in the leather trade.

The principal livestock resources of Africa in 1999 consisted of 231 million cattle, 241 million sheep and 209 million goats. This amounts to 15% of the world resources of cattle and 25% of the world’s sheep.

Although these were quite widely dispersed throughout all 56 countries of Africa, concentrations occurred in three major areas of west Africa, eastern and southern Africa and north Africa. In particular, around two thirds of all animals were confined to a handful of countries, with Kenya and Tanzania being prominent for their cattle, Algeria, Morocco and Somalia for their sheep and/or goats, and Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan exhibiting considerable resources of both small and large stock.

Although the output from livestock slaughter in Africa has improved, to provide as many as 27 million hides and 151 million skins in 1999, these figures were equivalent to 8% and 16% of global production; and below what might be possible.

For example, if the off-take rate throughout Africa were the same as the average of developing countries in particular, or the world in general, another 11-22 million hides and 69 million skins would be available to the tanning industry.

If the hides from Africa were also the same size (weight) as those produced throughout the world, the extra 2.6kg/piece would be equivalent to an extra 17% more hides (4.5 million pieces) of the existing size.

Nearly two thirds of all hides and skins currently produced in Africa are accounted for by the nine countries noted for their resources of livestock. But, larger than expected quantities of hides and skins were produced in Egypt (because of imports and slaughter of animals) and noticeable quantities of skins were also produced by Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya and Tunisia.

Imports of raw materials only occur in about 18 African countries and remain below 4% of total domestic production, although imported hides are significant in Zimbabwe, sheepskins to Tunisia, and both are significant to South Africa.

Exports of cattle hides continued from many more countries in Africa in 1999 but the volume had declined to four million pieces (less than 15% of domestic production) and was most significant in the case of South Africa.

Exports of sheep and goat skins were also subject to decline, although the volumes were still considerable (at 23 and 8 million pieces respectively) and were particularly significant to Ethiopia, Libya, South Africa and Sudan (in the case of sheepskins) and to Ethiopia in the case of goats.

Overall, exports of hides and skins from African countries amount to 3% and 11%, respectively, of all (global) exports, considerably below the expectations based on livestock numbers and hides and skins production. The prices received for exported hides and skins vary.

Prices received for goat skins from Africa have improved substantially and are now close to international averages. Prices for sheepskins have avoided the slump in prices for sheepskins generally and now command a premium, due mainly to the reputation of Africa’s hairsheep breeds.

Prices for African hides have remained unchanged at US$3.13/piece and below international averages of $5.16/piece – due partly to their size and also to concerns over quality.

All the sixteen countries mentioned previously with respect to livestock resources and the production and trade of hides and skins also have tanning facilities, as do a further 14 countries of Africa. The production of heavy leathers from cattle hides in Africa is about 4% of world total, as is the manufacture of light leathers from hides.

86% of heavy leather production in Africa is chiefly restricted to only four countries (Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Sudan). Light leather production is more widely dispersed with eleven countries accounting for 83% of production in Africa.

Based on Africa’s production of hides (8% of world total) it would be expected to produce more than 4% of the world’s leather. After allowing for production of some proportion of heavy leathers and the balance of imports and exports, the remaining shortfall is attributed to the smaller size of African hides that (per piece) provide a smaller area of leather than larger hides typical of much of the rest of the world. Other losses can be attributed to cutting yields (to remove defects) and reduced yield of splits from thinner, lighter weight African hides.

Physical losses in quantity are exacerbated by losses in value. For example, exclusive of South Africa, the value of exports of light leathers made from African hides and skins is only US$0.66ft² in contrast to the $1.07ft² for ‘global’ exports.

Similarly, the value of exports of light leathers made from African sheep and goat skins is only $1.19ft² instead of $1.37ft² global exports. hese losses, of $0.41ft² and $0.18ft², respectively, are wholly attributable to quality and, if applied to the whole of Africa’s production of leather, would amount to $257 million a year.

Africa’s production of shoes, the principal outlet for leather, has remained almost unchanged at its present level of 172 million pairs a year but this represents a decline to only 4% of world production. Although a substantial proportion of shoes are exported, most of the trade is intra-continental because of the production costs that make the shoes uncompetitive in other markets.

Although they are byproducts, hides and skins are, in many ways, treated and traded as commodities. But, unlike commodities, the quality of hides and skins is not easily defined and determined.

As hides and skins are processed into leather and leather products, the quality is easier to determine and the results may conflict with grading of the raw material.

Then, some of the perceptions and prejudices attributed to raw hides and skins from Africa must be revised. For example, air-dried hides from Africa are not necessarily inferior to the same material that has been preserved by salting; but, of course, badly dried hides are as bad as badly salted hides.

Implicit in the progression from the mere, reactive trading of hides and skins, to the proactive marketing of leather and leather products, is a thorough understanding of the constraints to improvements in production, processing and so on in order to meet consumers’ requirements.