Editor’s note: We are covering the topic of leather production in a series of articles. For this piece, the author travelled to Kano in Nigeria. From the open pastures to the final fashion product, Nnaemeka traces each step in the process to explain how leather manufacturing occurs in this region. A word of warning: some of the images included in this post may be confronting and offensive to some.
The journey of leather starts literally in the grass, the most important part of the lives of the goats and cows. The method mostly adopted by Nigerians is the Nomadic open grazing. This is practiced by the Fulani herdsmen like my young friend, Abba who helped immensely with the article. Starting at the drier northern parts of the country, they lead their herds slowly but surely towards the much greener southern parts, thus providing food for the animals all year round. This practice has created clashes between local farmers whose crops are damaged by the marauding herds, but that is a story for another day.
At this stage, the underlying process is capitalism at its peak. The actual owners of the herd do not necessarily worry about their cows because the Abbas of the world care for them in return for less than a dollar a day. Here, no harm is done to the environment or the animals. These herdsmen really value the animals and cater selflessly for them while they lead them from place to place.
After about two years of grazing, the cows grow into maturity and their owners may decide their fate. If their owners then decide to sell them, they are transported to the livestock market and oftentimes this means going back to the northern parts of the country.
The animals are transported to the abattoirs. The activities and operations at the abattoirs are strictly manual and no machines are utilized. Apart from the minimal flogging used to guide the animals into the slaughter rooms, there is no particular cruelty meted out on the animals. There are no electric cattle prods or brandings done here. The animals are identified by paint marks previously made on their bodies and the cattle are not knocked out with stun guns. Instead, their drinking water here is spiked with an assortment of natural sleeping herbs to mellow them down and make them easier to slaughter.
Now, the primary purpose of the slaughter exercise here is the provision of meat. The animal skin resources acquired here are secondary; merely by-products. This is evidenced by the fact that in the Southern parts of the country, there are no tanning companies and the animals are not flayed at the abattoirs. Rather, their skin is used as the type of local delicacy called ‘kpomo’. The meat is sold in open-air markets across the states and at the end of it all, takes its place in an assigned cooking pot.
After the slaughter comes the flaying, in which the skin is stripped off the animal. Watching this, I must admit was distressing and quite uncomfortable. The flaying has to be done very carefully as any damages in the form of marks or holes severely reduces the value of the skin. An undamaged goatskin is usually sold for about $2-$3 but will be sold for less than a dollar if damaged. The curved knives were razor sharp and wielded by practiced and highly skilled hands. In my mind, these somehow made it more bearable as I rationalized that it was quick. The biggest consolation though was that the animals were dead and hopefully in Animal Heaven where they would not feel any pain.
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After the flaying, the owners of the hide have to decide whether they would sell the flayed skin to the traditional tanners or the modern tanning companies. Where they choose the former, sales would be negotiated at reasonable prices and the tanning processes would be carried out by the traditional tanners, in the traditional ways. On the other hand, where the flayed skin is to be sold to the modern tanning companies, the product would be taken through further processes at the abattoir, first of which is the scraping pit where the residual pieces of flesh on the skins are scraped away by the use of machines.
Then comes the drying. The flayed hide or skin is soaked in raw salt (because of its sodium properties) and spread out to dry. This drying usually takes up to three months, sometimes a bit more. In some companies and countries, there are mechanical processes to speed up the process, but here, the process is slow and painstaking.
After the drying, the hides come out literally as strong as plywood. Then it goes through another soaking process. The leather is soaked for about two days in large drums of water mixed with plant extracts. This washes away the salt and restores the leather to a soft and pliable texture. All this takes place in various parts of the abattoir and on completion, the hide is ready to be sold to the tanning companies.
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The major work of the tanning companies is to finish the leather by making it more impressive for use. They remove the unpleasant odour and sometimes add prints and designs. These tanning companies are very secretive and flatly refused to let me take any pictures or even spend any meaningful time in their company to see the processes. I, however, managed to talk with one of the workers after hours and he provided some insight. The role of the tanning companies is not as crucial as the others. Their major asset is that they have direct access to the export market and therefore serve as middlemen between the local skin sellers and the consumers.
Now regarding their processes, the employee told me that they had long done away with the use of chemicals for their tanning process and what they use are natural extracts. I could not verify these since I wasn’t able to get a foot in, but I was inclined to believe him.
I did visit the traditional tannery. Amidst the almost foul odour of drying leather, they carried out the tanning in much the same way as the modern tanneries only slower and maybe dirtier. This particular tannery had been operating for over eighty years, they said. Amid the small tanks of stagnant water in which the skins were soaked, finished skins hung on clotheslines. The skins go through the same soaking and drying process. But in addition, the skins are dyed as well. The dyes are made from the seeds and nuts of the acacia tree. The owner, Baba Ali delightedly told me that they can produce almost any colour they wish with a combination of leaf and root extracts. When I asked him where he sells his leather, he says it is exported to Spain and England. He pointed to a bundle of finished goatskins and said with pride, that they were headed for England.
What I found most captivating about the traditional tannery was the sheer number of snake and python skins that were hung out to dry. It was literally a forest of python skins. I did not think of the number of pythons that had to have been killed to produce those skins or the effect on the ecosystem. Since snakes aren’t regarded as the most domestic of animals around here, I honestly didn’t mind much.
The process of producing leather is not a very pretty one. Strolling through the livestock market, walking around the abattoir with literally rivers of blood under my feet, at no time did I feel any form of joy or elation. The only moment I felt joy and smiled was when I looked at the $500 leather bag I had seen at a mall in the city, long before my in-depth exposure to these processes. Having gone further than those shiny shops and the curated displays, I am not sure I feel quite the same joy. I can deeply understand why a lot of people are totally against the use of any form of leather. It can be deemed offensive and even outright cruel.
The conflict, however, arises when we contrast this cruelty with the need of these people to survive and feed their families.
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From Habib the flayer with his tobacco stained teeth to Habib the herdsman, these people really do not care about leather bags and shoes or whether a Gucci bag is a luxury or not. They don’t care. They have never even seen such products and probably never will. What they, however, care deeply about (even more deeply than they care about the welfare of the animals) is feeding their families. Here, the decision has to be made between feeding their families and fending for their animals, and the popular choice is obvious.
The abattoir which is the core of the leather process has maintained the age-long practice of employing over a thousand workers daily. This is not for a lack of awareness of the benefits of using machines, or even for lack of means to acquire same. This practice, they assured me, was wholly to provide a source of income for as many people as they can. From those who drive the animals to their feeders, to those who supply the extracts in their water for a smoother slaughter down to the flayers; men and women flock in and out of this industry daily to earn their living.
While it might be argued that there are other ways for them to earn their living, this life is all they’ve ever known. Quite frankly, they have no plans in place to quit this life anytime soon. As for the argument that there are other alternatives to leather, that is for the consumers and fashion brands in Paris, London or New York City to decide.
For Habib and Baba Ali, this leather is all they know.
Does this change your mind about purchasing leather? Or brought to your attention things you never knew about leather production? Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s start a discussion.
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