Africa’s Largest leather industry assembly took place in Addis Ababa from October 6-9 in the form of Meet in Africa. In two years’ time, it will be clear whether the 2004 event was the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end for this biennial event. This year’s MIA was the fourth edition, and was scheduled to be the last organised and funded by the International Trade Centre (ITC), at the end of an eight-year project which began in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1998.

Following the next Meet in Africa, to be held in Cairo in 2006, organisation will rest with the African Federation for Leather and Allied Industries (AFLAI). AFLAI itself was founded with ITC encouragement at the first MIA. It will be a big task. At the AFLAI meetings which preceded the fair, it was apparent that the organisation had been largely dormant for two years, and was certainly in no shape to take over the running and financing of MIA. Reportedly there is a new spirit of enthusiasm in AFLAI, with plans to link MIA, and the leather sector generally, to the goals of the African Union (AU), and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the political structure and economic vision for the continent which are being driven by South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria and Uganda.

AFLAI’s new acting president is Bedada Chali of Ethiopia, with André Pelser of South Africa as first vice president. A second vice president, probably from North Africa, will be named shortly. ‘Being elected to this post isn’t a prize, it’s an obligation’, Pelser told the general assembly. One of the weaknesses of AFLAI to date has been the absence of an effective secretariat and Chali said the primary secretariat should be in Addis, close to the headquarters of the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa. He said regional secretariats, in northern, eastern and southern Africa, were ‘probably desirable’ and would be an aim.

AFLAI has many goals and should have many functions, but the showpiece is the MIA trade fair which is also the most costly and complicated function. Cairo was chosen for the next fair not because it is in North Africa but ‘because they put their hands up’, Pelser said, and he thought Nairobi was a likely venue for MIA 2008 and a South African city for MIA 2010. First, however, AFLAI has to prove that it can finance and run MIA.

‘Our objective was to make MIA sustainable’, said Johanna De Paredes, ITC senior market development advisor and MIA coordinator. ‘That happens when African companies start paying for themselves. Our involvement from now on will be to increase capacity, training and management help, in particular.’ She said African governments could assist MIA by providing venues and other services at low rates, allowing AFLAI to charge African exhibitors low stand rentals, while charging non-African exhibitors market-related prices. She said if AFLAI could make MIA profitable, it could use the event to raise funds for other development projects.

That will depend on a substantial non-African exhibitor base. At MIA 2004 there were 54 non-African exhibitors, 29 of them from Italy, substantially down from MIA 2000 and MIA 2002, held in Morocco and Tunisia respectively. There were also 215 African exhibitors, 90 from Ethiopia and 52 from Egypt. The next highest participating country was Kenya, with nine. There were five from South Africa. ‘We were expecting far more exhibitors from Italy and other parts of Europe’, De Paredes said. ‘With better luck, there should have been about 400 stands.’

If it continues to run MIA in the same format, AFLAI will have to decide between choosing venues which are commercially viable and spreading the limelight to all corners of the continent. De Paredes said she believed that MIA had ‘made a difference’ to the leather sector in Africa, although getting statistics to support that statement was difficult. ‘We’ll never abandon AFLAI if they need us’, she said.

The tight security that surrounded the event – thanks to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s presence at another conference at the same venue – made visitor registration difficult, which discouraged some potential visitors. Just one (South African) exhibitor had five buyer/seller meetings cancelled because their potential customers couldn’t get into the fair.

Tony Blair made a special visit to the Pittards stand to learn more about their co-operation with the Ethiopians in improving hide and skin quality. Blair’s speech promoted helping Africa help itself, to give wider benefit to both the global and local economy. Pittards leather manufacturers have been active in Ethiopia for over 50 years. As a byproduct of the country’s agricultural industry, Ethiopia is a rich resource of cattle hides and sheep and goat skins. The sheep have a fine hair rather than a wool coat which makes them particularly well suited to glove leather.

The Ethiopian herd, however, along with other African countries, has suffered a decline in quality due to damage from parasites. This parastic infestation also has a detrimental impact on meat yield for the local farmers. Through research conducted in conjunction with scientists in Ethiopia, Pittards have been involved in a parasite treatment programme which could improve meat yields and also improve the quality and value of the skins, bringing better profitability to the Ethiopian leather industry. Pittards group board director Reg Hankey commented: ‘We have been working on this project for a number of years now but the Tony Blair initiative for Africa seems to be helping to accelerate its progress. We had some very positive meetings with the Ministry of Agriculture here in Addis and we have significantly raised the project’s profile through the exhibition and other meetings.’

Ethiopia is currently the number one skin producer in Africa, and is home to Africa’s leading tannery sector. The country’s twenty tanneries employ 3,800 people.

In the year 2000, export turnover for semi-processed and finished hides and skins reached US$71.4 million, and the footwear sector achieved $163,000.