AALF – MIA too?

5 June 2008

January/February Limeblast focused on the All African Leather Fair held in Addis Ababa in January and wondered whether it was suitable to also organise the Meet in Africa event to be held in Khartoum from November 1-3. Let's take matters in an organised way and start with Addis Ababa.

Although the fair was intended to be an all continent event, the number of African countries that were present was rather disappointing. Many possible exhibitors from other African countries did not attend and, in particular, the absence of Egyptian participants was very evident with only one Egyptian stand. No northern Saharan leather or leathergoods producers showed up. The Southern African leather industry was totally absent. The absence of the usually biggest foreign participation in worldwide fairs, the Italians, being a protest against Ethiopia's protectionism of their raw materials, stuck out too. Some regions were represented only by their professional associations. That was too bad for the absentees, because they really missed quite an interesting and generally well attended event, especially considering the fact that this was a first. Why? Well, the Chinese were there, so were many Indians and Pakistanis, some Japanese and, most important of all, all the Ethiopian tanners did good business. There wasn't one single tanner who was less than happy. But also the foreign companies that were present said that they had nothing to complain about. The consortium of seven Chinese machine manufacturers that exhibited expressed their satisfaction saying that they had seen and received far more visitors than expected at their stand. This was their first participation in an African fair and they vouched (or maybe threatened if seen from a different point of view) that they'd come back and probably in larger numbers even if the market was found to be ‘not that big'. They admitted that no business had been done but that good promising contacts were made. Foreign (mainly Italian) shoe component, chemical and machine suppliers had either a stand or roamed the fair from stand to stand and all were happy, none excluded. Indeed they admitted that their participation was focused on their Ethiopian clients and they did not expect to attract business from Chinese or other visitors, confirming that the perception of the fair was not all African but Ethiopian. Chinese buyers went from stand to stand to buy Ethiopian leathers. But they were not alone. Indian and Pakistani buyers appear to have bought good quantities of leather, but so have Italians and many others. A large variety of Ethiopian leathergoods manufacturers displayed their wares and none complained. Some established only contacts, others made some sales, mainly to buyers in the region, a few also overseas. Ethiopia has shown with AALF that it is autonomous in the promotion of its leather industry even if solidly and competently backed both financially and practically by Unido (honour to be given to Ms Aurelia Calabrò who has taken the Ethiopian leather industry to heart), USAID and GTZ. ELIA is capable of organising an international trade event. A large amount of the funds necessary for the organisation was raised by the Ethiopian association. With AALF Ethiopia has made an important statement: Ethiopia has stopped selling off its natural resources for peanuts with little or no local processing. Tanners have upgraded their tanneries from pickle and wet-blue to crust and finished leathers. Good quality all over the board. The local leathergoods industry buys those finished leathers and transforms them into exportable shoes, of which Italy is the major developer and buyer. In short the Ethiopian leather industry is making giant steps towards what looks like a bright future using enthusiasm and entrepreneurship. The Ethiopian government is backing these developments intensively, not only by the words pronounced by the prime minister or cabinet ministers during the event, but with facts that comprise financing and the protection of the country's natural resources. Not through a counter productive export ban but through duties to discourage export of non or under processed materials and with incentives to produce processed leathers and leathergoods. The Europeans don't like this and that was the reason why many did not attend. But that's how it is. It has to be said that at the moment there is some confusion amongst the Ethiopian tanners in relation to the new government disposition of what leather can and what can't be exported and it appears that the last word has not been said. It wasn't all flowers and sunshine due to some minor organisational flaws: Buses that didn't turn up for the visitors to take them from or to their hotels. Poor or no lighting on the fair ground kept people more or less in the dark. Event timings ran generally out of hand. However, nothing serious that would cause discomfort. Teething problems which will certainly not be repeated next year, taking for granted that the event will be repeated. The only miscalculation was a seminar held in the spacious Millennium exhibition hall with a loud presentation that interfered with discussions at the surrounding stands. Also the Investment Forum, which was held in business hours on the last Saturday morning of the fair and which took many stakeholders away from their stands leaving visitors without interlocutors, was badly timed. These small spots were largely compensated for by a very nice, even if a little too stretched, fashion show with lovely Ethiopian models presenting the Taytu fashion brand, which was created by the ‘Collaborazione Italiana', assisted by Unido and the International Trade Centre in Geneva. So let's look at the figures released by the fair organisation and my comments in brackets. Exhibiting companies were from 26 countries. Botswana (Botswana Export Development - not leather focused), Brazil (one service company), Burkina Faso (one person of professional association ASOAC representing Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger), China (Machine production organisation), Egypt (one stand holder), Ethiopia, Germany, India, Iran, Italy (two machine manufacturers and some chemical suppliers as well as a couple of shoe component suppliers), Kenya (Esalia), Mali (ASOAC same person as for Burkina), Niger (same as Mali and Burkina), Pakistan, Senegal (one government sponsored representative from ASOAC), South Africa (one exhibitor), Spain (one shoe component supplier), Sudan (three tanneries), Switzerland (missed that one!), Tanzania, Thailand (who?), Tunisia, UK, USA (USAID), Yemen and Zambia (one stand). The trade fair was visited by 3,925 visitors, both local and overseas, and I have no argument with that. I am sure, they were all there. There were, of course, a host of training institutions, government promotion bureaux and representatives of international aid organisations. AALF was the first fair on the African continent this year. It was advertised as an ‘All African' show but that goal was unfortunately not reached. Objectively speaking it was an Ethiopian fair for the Ethiopian industry and those that were interested in business in this particular part of the continent. AALF was followed in February by the Egyptian leather fair. For May the Tunisian Promocuir (the fair that was cancelled last year without notice and for which the organisers never apologized) is announced. I wrote on two occasions (December and January) to the organisers asking whether the fair is guaranteed but I received no answer! Should one go or not? Last but not least we have Meet in Africa in November. Are all these fairs necessary? From a national point of view of pride, of course. From a sound economic point of view and as a representation of the whole African continent I have serious doubts. How many people will travel four times in twelve months across continents to attend relatively small, African regional, leather fairs, where an international character is advertised but where in reality numbers are more impressive than the business opportunities? Few will reluctantly attend as they can't afford not to participate, but the majority will attend one, maybe two fairs. That brings me to Meet in Africa, scheduled to be held in Khartoum next November. Meet in Africa was conceived as a fair that should unite all African leather sector traders and producers, north, east, centre, south and west, under one roof to promote the whole African leather and leather related industry. Unfortunately national pride and politics have taken over and the members and member associations are more divided than ever. The idea was that the event changes place of venue for each edition. I described the regrettable behind the scenes political and personal fights in an earlier Limeblast so let me concentrate on the upcoming event. The Sudanese organisers and their government are said to have made great headway with the organisation. The largely self-sustaining budget seems more or less to have been determined but the money has still to arrive from the donors and sponsors. The organisers by word of Salah Salim have set their minds to make this a memorable ‘best organised' MIA in order to improve the Sudanese image and to show the best performance from the Sudanese industry. They say that they will do their utmost to attract exhibitors and visitors from all over the world. Between saying and doing is a world of difference, and the fair organisers must move now in order to secure attendance. In my view this MIA is doubly important because if it is to be reduced to a regional event, then Africa has lost forever the opportunity to have its own international fair that is representative for the whole continent from north to south, from east to west. To make the fair interesting exhibitors must come from all African leather producing countries; all, not just from those that attend as a courtesy or send their national association. The fair must attract people who come to do business, who want to make money, not government and non-government organisations. There is, however, one huge drawback in my view because the fair is planned to start only three days after Lineapelle finishes, which might be an important handicap. The organisers might want to take a very hard look at that. I favour an African leather fair where ALL African countries are present or represented. This was not the case in Addis, so I do hope that this goal can be obtained in Sudan. The organisers will have to lobby and work very hard for this to materialise and I wish them well. They'd better start yesterday, because November is just around the corner! Sam Setter [email protected]

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