Going gets tough for leather industry

MTHANDAZO NYONI

TANNERS and leather product manufacturers recently formed an association – Tanners Footwear Leather Manufacturers of Zimbabwe (TAFLZ) – with a view to effectively lobby government to enact policies aimed at growing the sector.

NewsDay (ND) reporter Mthandazo Nyoni caught up with the association’s chairperson, Arnold Britten (AB) and his deputy, Stuart Simali (SS) to speak on issues affecting the sector. Below are excerpts:

ND: You recently formed TAFLZ, can you tell us more about it.

AB: Previously, as industry, we had what is known as the Leather and Allied Industries Federation of Zimbabwe which represented all local manufacturers. But over the years, because of the many issues, it fell away and the industry lost its representation.

So we got together and said no, we need to reform an association, but we wanted to reform it under a new banner, to start a new beginning for the industry under different terms and constitutional value of the association.

So that led to the formation of TAFLZ. Generally, our mandate is to represent the industry, that’s large-scale manufacturers as well as small-to-medium enterprises. So the idea is to rebuild the industry by working together as leather manufacturers and leather goods manufacturers.

ND: How many members do you have?

AB: At the moment, we have 30 members across the country.

ND: What is the current state of the leather sector in Zimbabwe?

AB: Currently, the leather industry is struggling because it relies a lot on imports. Most of our raw material, shoe laces, soles, chemicals for tanning are all imported. Now due to this foreign currency situation, it makes it very difficult for the industry to operate.

So a lot of companies are working and stopping and this has led to a lot of companies to be placed under judicial management. If you go to shops you find that the local shoe is expensive. It is not because industry is overpricing, but it is because our inputs are so expensive. Our costs are high because we rely a lot on imports. So that affects our products.

We are also suffering from high cost of material, low quality material for us to work with, but we are trying to find ways to go around it. Between now and then, the challenge industry is facing is how to continue with the low quality material and how do we make value out of that low quality material.

So that is the biggest challenge the industry is facing. That is why you find there are a lot of companies that are under judicial management and some have actually closed. The industry is in a very difficult state, but we are hoping by coming together we can solve some of these problems.

SS: In addition to that, as an industry the issue of power cuts is choking us a lot. Zesa does not stick to its schedule. If they stick to the schedule, we can plan accordingly.

If they cut the residential areas during the day and give industry during the day, then at night they cut industry and give the residential areas power. That would help.

ND: How about you invest in solar energy?

AB: Solar is a noble cause, but the cost of investing in it is very high. As an industry, we have companies that are struggling. For example, to install a solar unit in our factory we were quoted US$500 000. So it is beyond us. So we have no choice for now, but to rely on Zesa.

ND: Any opportunities in the leather sector?

AB: I think there are a lot of opportunities for people who want to get into the leather sector. There is lots of space for you to be created. The leather industry has changed from the old days where it was very standard in the way things were done, but if you are creative, there is scope for you to come in and be creative by making some of the defects look nicer and presentable.

And you could find a market for it. But it takes a creative mind. So there is scope for those that are creative. So for those people who are hands-on, who like to do things, it’s a good industry to get into.

ND: Some of the companies in the sector, I understand, are in dire need of retooling. How much would your members need for retooling?

AB: To be honest, the entire industry needs retooling. To put a figure on that is not a simple task because every business operates differently. So each cost for retooling is very unique.

ND: Currently, how many people does the sector employ?

AB: At the moment we employ probably around 1 100 people, but the numbers are going down. And most of them are contract employees.

ND: Any chances of you increasing the figures?

AB: Yes, with the right support. We need access to foreign currency and access consistent supply of power. It will help us reduce costs. The industry can increase and employ a lot more people like we did in the old days. It is support that we need.

ND: How do you intend to revive the industry as an association?

AB: As an association, it’s one step at a time. We have to deal with, firstly, the issues that we have among ourselves. Then it’s important that we set measurable targets. You know we can’t always say we want to increase production by 20% next year. We have to be very practical. Currently, we are working on a leather recovery strategy as a whole value chain. I think that will be released in December or January.

SS: And also to help each other technically and with marketing in terms of information. We are trying to change the mentality whereby I see someone in leather as my competitor.

We are partners, not competitors. What is competing are our products. We need to work together as partners so that we move the industry forward.

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