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Leather industry cries foul

business reporter

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

Our reporter Mthandazo Nyoni (MN) caught up with the association’s chairperson, Arnold Britten (AB) and his deputy, Stuart Simali (SS) to speak on issues affecting the sector. Find below excerpts from the interview.

MN: You recently formed a new association called TAFLZ. Kindly tell us more about it.

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

So we got together and said no, we need to reform the association but we wanted to reform it under a new banner, to have 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 is large scale manufacturers as well as small to medium enterprises.

MN: How many members do you have?

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

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

AB: Currently, the leather industry is struggling because it relies a lot on imported goods.

Most of our raw material, shoelaces, soles, chemicals for tanning; it’s all imported.

Now this foreign currency situation 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 going under judicial management.

If you go to shops you find that a local shoe is expensive. It’s not because industry is overpricing, but it’s because our inputs are so expensive.

Our costs are so high because we rely a lot on imports. So that affects our products.

We are also suffering with the high cost of material, low quality material for us to work with but we are trying to find ways to go about it.

Between now and then, the challenge industry is facing is how we continue with the low quality material and how do we make value out of that low quality material.

So that’s the biggest challenge the industry is facing.

That’s why you find there is a lot of companies that are under judicial management and some have actually closed down recently.

So 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 doesn’t stick to the schedule. If they stick to the schedule we can plan accordingly. Or even if they cut off residential areas during the day and give industry power during the day, then at night they cut off industry and give the residential areas power. That will help. As leather industry we are choked, we can’t move forward as we would like to.
MN: How about you invest in solar energy?

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

MN: 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 to be created. The leather industry has changed from 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 because you can take some of the defects and make them look nicer and presentable. And you could find a market for them. 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.

MN: 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 to do because every business operates differently.

So its cost for retooling is very unique. So to put a round figure to the entire industry is not an easy thing to do.

MN: Currently, how many employees does the sector have?

AB: At the moment we employ around 1 100 people, but the figure is dwindling fast. The numbers are going down. And also these are not full time contracts.

MN: Any chances for you to increase the figures?

AB: Yes, with the right support. We need access to foreign currency and consistent supply of power. It will help us reduce our costs.

The industry can increase and employ a lot more people like we did in the old days. But it’s that support that is very important to the industry that we need.

MN: 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 amongst 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.

Where we can assist each other we assist each other as brothers.

We are trying to change that mentality whereby I see someone in the leather industry as my competitor.

We are partners not competitors. What is competing is our products.

We need to work together as partners so that we move our industry forward.

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