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Tannery offers lifeline to Turkana pastoralists

Workers display hides and skins that are  undergoing the process of tanning at the Turkana Tannery. PHOTO | FAITH NYAMAI
Workers display hides and skins that are undergoing the process of tanning at the Turkana Tannery. PHOTO | FAITH NYAMAI 

Turkana County has been characterised by marginalisation, poverty, hunger, underdevelopment and insecurity. But the presence of various development partners in the county is slowly turning the region into a global investment hub.

It started with the discovery of oil by the UK Company Tullow and the African Oil Corporation. This was followed by the discovery of aquifers, which according to scientists, hold water that can supply the country with the fresh commodity for over 70 years.

Turkana also owns a tannery—a project which in the next five years, is expected to open up more opportunities for the local community, especially for the youth.

Hides and skins are readily available because the locals are mostly pastoralists, but most of these go to waste because there is limited market.

Traditionally, hides and skins in northern Kenya are dried and used as covers for beds, containers and clothes.

With the new tannery, the county has joined the list of leather commodity suppliers.

The idea to start the tannery came after the effects of the 2010-2011 drought that left many cattle, sheep and goats dead.

The National Drought and Management Authority (NDMA) started looking for partners to encourage the local community to build resilience on the adverse effects of the drought.

The project was initiated in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) with initial funding from the government of Japan. The project was under the restoration and stabilisation of livelihood for drought affected and host communities in Turkana.

The setting up of a tannery in the outskirts of Lodwar town also came with jobs as 10 local residents were employed and are now part of the pioneer team that is spearheading the project.

Ms Roselyn Lomogol, one of the local residents working at the tannery lived a pastoral life. She had never thought of engaging in any other activity.

When she was not looking after goats and sheep in the field, she would be spending time weaving baskets at home, as is the tradition of Turkana women.

“Since we do not get enough pasture for cattle during times of drought, we helplessly watched them die. Their skin was also left to go to waste as there was no ready market, only a few was used to make clothes,” she said.

Mr Charles Esibitar and Mr Nicholas Lokaale are also among the locals employed at the tannery and have their success story to tell.

“I did not know that I could learn how to turn goat skins into leather and make beautiful products, but today I am confident that with time, this project will become a major source of livelihood for many Turkana residents,” said Mr Lokaale.

UNDP invested a total of Sh28 million in the building of the facility, equipment and training of the youths.

The Turkana County Government injected a further Sh19 million into the construction of the building.

In collaboration with the Kenya leather Development Council (KLDC), 10 community members  were recruited and are currently being trained on leather tanning, fabrication and marketing of leather products.

Mr Geoffrey Githinji, a leather technologist at the tannery, said the youths were provided with basic entrepreneurship training to enable them operate the business sustainably.

“The tannery has the objective of increasing income from value addition to hides and skin and increase employment opportunities for the local communities,” he said.

Mr Githinji said the community previously sold the raw hides and skin to middlemen who offered very low prices.

“A goat skin would fetch Sh100 but with value addition, the same skin can be sold for Sh480,” he said.

Currently the tannery produces products worth Sh5,000 a day per goat skin.

Once the tannery is fully mechanised, it will operate as a commercial entity dealing in leather value chain. “This involves the collection, purchase and transportation of hides and skins from the entire Turkana County, grading and selection of hides and skins,” said Mr Githinji.

It also includes tanning hides and skins, fabrication and manufacturing of leather goods and supply of surplus processed leather to other manufacturers.

The skin goes through five processes. The first stage involves soaking the hides and skins in water mixed with some chemicals to soften it.

They are then taken through the liming stage to remove the hair. Stage three involves de-liming to remove the lime then pickling and preparing it for tannage.

The skins are then taken through the final process of tanning which involves use of minerals and vegetables. The end product is then soaked in a wet blue colour or wet white colour before they are dried.

Some of the products made at the tannery’s workshop are key holders, leather shoes, bags, belts and table mats.

Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok said the county is looking for partners to start exporting the finished leather products. “This project also provides a good example and lessons for long term industrialisation plans,” he said.

The National Drought Management Authority Turkana county resilient officer Emmanuel Malii Kisagau said the county has started an off-take programme of buying livestock from pastoralists and slaughtering them to feed hungry families. The hides and skins are taken to the tannery.

Global demand for leather and leather products has been growing faster than supply over the years. According to the 2017 Economic Survey, demand for leather and related products grew by 7.5 per cent in 2016.

“Finished leather recorded a 17.2 per cent growth in 2016 after registering a drop in 2015. Volume of exported leather dropped by 7.2 per cent in 2016,” says the report.

This was mainly attributed to the 80 per cent export tariff on raw hides and skin. But production of shoes with uppers of leather and shoes with uppers of plastic dropped by 21.6 and 3.5 per cent, respectively in 2016, a drop that was partly blamed on competition from imports of low cost leather and non-leather footwear.

According to a World Bank report, Apparel and Textile industry report of October 2015, despite Africa owing a fifth of the global livestock population, it accounts for only four per cent of the world leather production.

Of these, 3.3 per cent are value addition in leather.

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