In October 2003, Unido Vienna promoted, sponsored and financed the construction and installation of an SFF at the Addis Ababa Abattoir in collaboration with the Ethiopian Tanners’ Association. Although little time was available for training and experimentation, the installation was objectively a success. Such a success that the ETA organised a (Unido sponsored and financed) well-attended workshop, and the abattoir in question, after seeing the SFF work for bovines, wanted to develop a baby SFF for sheep and goat on the spot.

After the installation, I asked the ETA many times for a follow-up and an update on how the SFF was performing and what practical results were obtained and how the SFF produced hides were comparing with non-SFF hides. I did not enjoy the pleasure of receiving a reply. However, I was informed last year that through US financing, ETA was planning to set up an SFF programme behind my back, in spite of my intellectual property rights. Only when I challenged ETA did they admit their intentions and informed me that they were planning to set up some 15 SFFs all over the country. I gave my approval last April and was, of course, pleased and offered my assistance, noting that if we’d be able to work close together we’d be able to make the operation a success. I offered to come to Addis. No reply from ETA until June and I’d like to quote what they wrote:

‘Sorry for the delay in notifying you regards to the status of promotion of SFF in Ethiopia.

‘Our Association took the initiative of promoting the SFF with support of Unido in September 2003 in two abattoirs in Addis Ababa.

‘For further trial of the tool, with your kind permission, we have installed 14 SFFs in urban slaughterhouses and in one farmers’ cooperative. Finally the efficacy of the tool is very poor and found unacceptable. As Addis Ababa Abattoirs dismantled the installed SFF, the same has happened in most places. One of the most important reasons is that during the operation, it pulled white meat (fat) with hide. As a result, high resistance from butchers and others. You may understand that white meat is culturally meant for butchers and consumers.

‘The poor performance of the tool recently addressed to the board of directors and subsequently to the association’s general meeting and reached consensus not to promote such a tool.

‘If you wish to do a survey on the non-effectiveness of the tool we welcome you and thank you so much for all your assistance. Kind regards.’

Nobody ever said that the SFF was perfect. It is a low-cost imitation of a mechanical flaying procedure that produces perfectly machine flayed hides of a quality that is similar to hides produced with $25,000 equipment.

In order to make it work, the SFF needs a fair chance weighing its advantages against its disadvantages. The advantages are not only better flayed hides but also better working conditions and a more hygienic environment for the production of meat thus serving public health, as well as better treatment of the slaughter animals. In order to make use of its advantages, workers need to be trained and schooled.

The drawback of the SFF is that like all mechanical flaying operations, it separates the hide from the meat at its weakest point, the fat. Machine flaying leaves part of the fat on the meat and part on the hide. That’s why in all mechanical flaying operations the separation of hide and meat is assisted manually. This can be done with (cheap) hand-operated flaying knives or by (expensive) mechanical knifes (Jarvis knives).

Flayers need training and experience in order to successfully assist the separation process leaving as much fat as possible on the meat rather than on the hide without damaging the hide. When butchers sell fat at the price of meat, it is understandable that they don’t like to see their money wasted with fat that sells at the price of a hide.

I cannot judge what happened in Ethiopia with the 15 SFFs that were installed. ETA have shared no other information with me than that reported either before, during or after the SFFs were installed, where they were installed and how they were operated. I have received no pictures, nor any idea how much money was spent.

Transparency zero, all hush-hush, top-secret, meaning that I am neither in a position to comment or help. That’s what I mean when I say the SFF doesn’t get a fair chance. Of course I have to accept this negative result as a matter of fact but it means in no way that the SFF is not capable of doing what it is meant to do.

In my view the negative result is mainly due to poor communication between ETA and myself. ETA have elected to exclude me from the project rather than consult me and make use of my experience, something that I do not think was very smart but that is, of course, ETA’s choice and responsibility.

However, it seems to me that there are forces that try their best to prove that the SFF doesn’t work rather than trying to make it work. This certainly does not serve the interest of development in Africa and the practical improvement of hides in developing countries in general.

Nevertheless, I remain at ETA’s complete disposal in case they wish to give the SFF the second chance which it deserves by correcting eventual errors committed and adjusting situations on the ground.

In fact, with 15 SFFs in place, I think that appropriate training and some constructive re-thinking may still convert a bad experience into a good one.

Experience has shown that it is not easy to introduce the SFF into abattoirs in Africa and Asia, because only a very few abattoirs operate according to a production line system in which the SFF, like any other mechanical flaying device, performs like a charm. Most abattoirs in Africa work with a system that was introduced by a Scandinavian think-tank all over the continent which allows butchers to process their own animal with their own team rather than introducing it alive at the beginning of a production line and taking delivery of the clean carcase at the end of the line.

The Scandinavian/African system calls for animals to be killed in batches, meaning that you can find 4, 5 even sometimes 10 animals killed one next to the other with each processed by a team of workers, who take off the hide, take out the interiors and deliver the meat for inspection on a contract basis. Speed is essential because each of the butchers want their meat to be the first to enter the market.

This causes deplorable conditions of hygiene, poor quality hides, bad quality meat and incomprehensible treatment of the cattle. The abattoirs just provide the premises and the meat inspection at a fee per head. The abattoir is neither proprietor of the animal, the hide or the meat.

Optimal solutions can and have been found by those who cared to improve, as in Limuru, Kenya, where the SFF is still working successfully. Professional associations know this but apparently chose not to lobby their respective authorities.

Just when ETA advised me about their experience, I was told that an abattoir in Malawi wanted to introduce a mechanical flaying method, considering the SFF. This is probably a decision taken after the zero results in Malawi of the CFC US$3,075,047 project Commercialisation of Hides and Skins by Improving Collection and Quality in Smallholder Farming Systems about which I reported last June. I sent the above quoted Ethiopian e-mail with my comments hoping that the people in Malawi will not make the same mistakes as those that were made in Ethiopia.

Sam Setter