Cobblers seek increased patronage as foreign shoes, forex crisis, leather export choke
•Cowhides consumption has no effect on leather availability – MAN, tanners
JANET OGUNDEPO writes about the challenges facing the country’s leather and footwear industry
The sounds of whirling machine pervaded the air as Oghenekwhe Alajabo, popularly known as Lady Cobbler Lagos, fixed leather to the filing machine.
Alajabo had wanted to work as a cobbler as a side hustle having studied Marine Biology. She eyed the oil and gas sector. But fate ruled otherwise, so she faced shoe-making on a full-time basis and rented an office at Surulere area of Lagos where she crafts leather shoes, palms and sandals for males and females.
But the foreign exchange crisis and poor economy had affected customer patronage. Besides, manual crafting of the footwear dragged production and effectiveness of her skills. She, however, persists in her craft and makes footwear with imported leather materials.
She said, “For Nigerian leather, we don’t have the processing power yet to make the real leather free of bacteria and smell. One of the reasons we don’t use Nigerian leather is because of the smell, so it is only good for export because they can work more on it and make it better.
“Also, we work more with imported leather because times are changing and everyone wants to wear a shoe that they can be proud of and the Nigerian leather might not give us the privilege to do that. If it is thick, it is overly thick, if it is light, it is overly light.”
The female cobbler decried also noted that the country’s harsh economic climate was taking a toll on her business.
She added, “Every new day brings an increase in the price of materials because what N10,000 can buy last week is what I’ll have to buy for N11,500 the next week. The price can increase as much as N12,000 to N13,000. These increases further bring a loss on the cobblers such that the customers who had already paid for a particular style and colour of footwear would refuse to listen to explanations of increased market price or add to the agreed price.”
She further said that the increase in the prices of other factors of production such as electricity and rent were challenging to her business.
The female cobbler the degrading way Nigerian customers regarded locally made footwear, stating that “customers expect that because the shoes are handmade and made in Nigeria it should be sold for N1 or N50 or that with N50 they can buy all the footwear in one’s shop but that is supposed to be so.’’
Locally made footwear versus foreign shoes
According to cobblers, poor quality of the Nigerian leather, customers’ preference for designs, shapes and leathers of imported footwear forced them to rely mostly on imported leather for their materials.
The rhythmic sound of hammers gently pounding leathers into shape and gums strengthening soles of a manually crafted shoe was the background music at Onyk Leather Hub, Abuja, during a virtual interview by our correspondent.
The business owner, Mr Teslim Onikeku, who doubles as the spokesperson for the Association of Cobblers and Leather Artisans of Nigeria decried the quality of the Nigerian-made leather, He added that the country’s poor economic situation was negatively distressing the industry.
Onikeku said, “The current challenge we are facing is the leather and materials and the finished goods in Nigeria. For the leather, the tanners are saying they are producing leathers but we the end-users are not seeing the leathers. We prefer using the foreign leathers that were originally tanned in Nigeria, exported and then imported as a finished product into the country and we get them on the high side. Apart from them, we use locally made tools. If the tools are in good condition, then it would be fast and give us an output close to the foreign ones. These instruments are also not available, much less the foreign machines.
“Regarding the end product, the finishing touches, the polish and others are not available because the quality of the ones produced in Nigeria is not of a good quality and because we have to depend on imported materials, this caused an increase in the prices of shoes.”
Speaking on customers’ preference for footwear made with foreign or refined Nigerian leather, Onikeku stated that “Nigerians prefer foreign leather to Nigerian leather.”
He further said that he preferred crafting footwear from foreign leather because such leather bring out the quality, finesse and beauty of his handiwork.
On the economic and forex crises, Onikeku added that, “if our economy is good and our production is perfect, we don’t need foreign materials. The dollar is making the products high and our poor economy is frustrating. The quality of the leather produced in Nigeria is low and someone who is not skilled enough in its usage would have a bad production.
“We have spoken to the tanners and they said it was the best they could produce for us because they prefer exporting the leather than selling it to us. Instead of buying the leather they exported and returned to us at a high price, why don’t they produce it and sell it to us at the rate we buy the current imported ones. That way, they can make more profit from them.”
Anastasia Uzodinma is another female cobbler based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, who deftly crafts Nigerian-made leather into wearable footwear.
She also faces the challenge of manually crafting the footwear which has reduced the level of output.
Uzodinma said, “The challenge I have particularly is crafting the footwear manually because I don’t have the equipment that will enable me to produce mechanically and this is slowing down the production number. Also, the finishing aspect of making footwear is tedious because it is done manually. I have priced the machine but it is not something I can afford.’’
Uzodinma, however, differed from her colleagues who preferred imported leather, noting that she liked using Nigeria leather even though sometimes it could rob her of quality production.
Also, she admitted that forex and economic crises, production quality and customer patronage had affected her business.
“Patronage has reduced as a result of the inflation and we cannot produce as much as before because the amount used in buying a large quantity of leather is what we now use to buy a little for a particular design,” she lamented
Uzodinma said that Nigerians now buy footwear made with Nigerian leather, stating that the production of such required a gum of top quality and cobbler’s dexterity in crafting footwear.
In another vein, a cobbler, who has been in the business for over six years, identified only as Michael, said the consumption of ponmo (cowhide) had no direct effect on the availability of leather.
He stated that the Nigerian leather was unfit for the production of footwear that could withstand the Nigerian weather.
Michael said, “Ponmo is not causing the scarcity of leather for footwear…