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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2007, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Ethiopia's designs on leather trade
By Victoria Averill
Debre Zeit, Ethiopia

The label inside the luxuriously soft black leather handbag reads Taytu: Made In Ethiopia.

Leather bag from the Taytu collection
Designer bags are the latest big export from Ethiopia

But the embroidered print on the outside, the chunky bronze rings attached to the fashionably short straps and the oversized "it" bag status all scream designer chic.

Taytu, a conglomeration of 12 Ethiopian leather companies backed by Unido (United Nations Industrial Development Organization), is named after Emperor Meneliek II's wife, Itegu Taytu.

It is the first luxury designer label to emerge from Ethiopia, a country known more for its droughts, famines and civil wars than for making waves on the international fashion scene.

The label's first collection sold out when it premiered at the Paris fashion accessories collections in autumn 2006. Buyers from around the world snapped up the entire collection of shoes, bags and shawls.

Holly Hikido, an Italian fashion consultant and buyer, ordered the Taytu spring collection.

She says she was inevitably curious about "Made in Ethiopia" as a concept.

But having seen the products, received her order and garnered feedback from customers, she is positive that there is a niche in the market for luxury brands such as Taytu.

Here in Ethiopia, we have the quantities of raw material to make top-quality leather products
Solomon Yesuf, Jonzo leather company

"I was very impressed with the diversity of the products, with the quality of the materials and artisan details, and also with the interesting, but very modern designs," she says.

"I think consumers today are becoming more and more interested in where the products they buy are made and how they are made.

"Also, the luxury-market customer is getting tired of logos and big brands, looking for an alternative which is more personalised."

Hotter than coffee?

Ethiopia is the 10th largest producer of livestock in the world, and by far the biggest in Africa with some 78 million cattle, sheep and goats.

Leather exports destined for the UK, Italy and, increasingly China, generated $10m for Ethiopia last year.

Leather is the country's second highest foreign exchange earner after the main export, coffee.

Workers sort through washed and dried skins at Bale tannery, Ethiopia
Bale is one of Ethiopia's biggest tanneries

Industry experts believe the leather industry has the potential to overtake coffee and become a serious source of much-needed revenue.

"Here in Ethiopia, we have the quantities of raw material to make top-quality leather products," said Solomon Yesuf, owner of Jonzo, a leather company in the Taytu coalition.

His firm produces the world-renowned "Bati genuine", a material used for the finest, thinnest, suede.

But Mr Yesuf concedes that the industry needs to be more effectively organised and standards raised.

An hour's drive east of the capital, the busy Addis Ababa-Dijibouti road winds past disused factories perched on hillsides and furniture makers clamouring for scraps of business from the hordes of lorries transporting their loads to the port in neighbouring Dijibouti.

Debre Zeit is a popular weekend destination for the Addis Ababa elite.

The town is also home to Bale, one of Ethiopia's most productive tanneries, churning out 500 hides and 200 goat skins per day as well as a selection of crocodile, kid and other exotic skins to order.

Flogging hides

A putrid smell hangs over the tannery.

"Everything that comes in here must leave in three months," explains the tannery's Armenian general manager, Garen Nalbandian, as he helps his workers salt and stack up the stinking raw hides in the tannery's store room.

Piles of salted and preserved hides at Bale tannery, Ethiopia
Preservation is essential for producing good leather products

"Hides and raw skins are perishable products and need to be stored and preserved well. But that's not happening in most of the country's tanneries."

Mr Nalbandian says poor standards mean the quality of the leather is going down. "The government needs to make sure everyone complies to the same standard," he adds.

Intent on creating a skilled labour force capable of taking the industry forward, the Ethiopian government has set up a technical Institute specialising in leather and leather products.

Like Ethiopia's emerging horticulture industry, the government is keen to draw international private investors into the leather sector, by offering incentives, tax holidays and access to finance.

"We are setting very ambitious yet, we believe, achievable targets for the leather sector," says Seleshi Lemma, head of textiles and leather development at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Global perception of Ethiopia will take time to improve

For decades, the Ethiopian economy has relied heavily on coffee to shore up its export earnings.

In 2005/2006, coffee earned Ethiopia $366m in export earnings, according to the Ethiopian customs authority. During the same period, leather products generated just $9.5m.

An ambitious five-year business plan, drawn up in conjunction between Ethiopia's trade and industry ministry and Unido, sets a target of $220m by 2010. For 2012, the target is even higher.

"We are trying to decrease our dependence on coffee and are hoping that within the next five years, leather will overtake coffee as our main foreign exchange earner," says Mr Lemma.

Image problem

The Ethiopian authorities are aware of the challenge they face in attracting foreign investors to bolster the industry.

Asian countries including Vietnam and China provide stiff competition in the market for high-quality, cheap leather goods.

Man holding coffee beans
Coffee is still the product for which Ethiopia is best known

The country must also jettison its image as a drought-ridden land beset by civil wars.

Government officials admit the kidnapping of five British embassy staff in February this year and last month's attack on a Chinese oil field will not help convince prospective investors that Ethiopia offers a secure investment environment.

"Yes, these kidnappings have an impact on the investment climate here," Mr Lemma says.

"As a government, we have now realised this. Now we have to show this is a country where peace and democracy happens and where there is a great potential for development."

As Taytu prepares its autumn/winter collection for sale in fashion boutiques in France, Italy and Japan, it is hoped the quality leather products will highlight Ethiopia's historical and cultural heritage, rather than its better-known recent past of conflict and famine.

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24 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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