Nigeria’s leather ranks amongst the highest quality of leather found globally. This is because our leather comes from free-roaming animals such as cattle, sheep and goats, whose hides and skins are durable to produce high-quality leather goods. Our leather is exported internationally, with Nigeria making $600 to $800 million annually from leather exports. NEXIM, an export credit agency in Nigeria, projects that the Nigerian leather industry will generate over $1 billion by 2025.

Kano State, known for its many festivals, ancient relics and culture, is one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of Nigerian leather. It is also the largest commercial hub for the leather industry in Nigeria. The traditional tanneries in Kano are Nigeria’s oldest and the biggest local leather suppliers.

Kano tanneries are the beginning point in the leather-producing value chain. These tanneries receive hides and skins stripped from slain animals and take them through the tanning process until they become leather. In addition to tanning the typical goat and cow skins, Kano tanneries also specialise in other ranges of exotic animal skins, such as crocodile and snake skins.

The Tannery industry in Kano, Nigeria, is significant in the local and national economies. This essay provides a concise industry overview, including its historical background, economic importance, and key challenges. But first, let us trace the origin of leather in Kano.

Historical Origins of the Tanning Industry in Kano

The tanning industry in Kano boasts a centuries-old history deeply rooted in the region’s cultural heritage and the practical needs of its people. Its evolution can be divided into two key periods: pre-colonial and colonial eras.

Pre-Colonial Era

In the pre-colonial era, the tanning industry in Kano was inextricably linked to its inhabitants’ daily lives and traditions. The indigenous people, primarily the Kanuri and Hausa, practised traditional leatherworking. Leather was essential for crafting various items, including clothing, footwear, bags, and saddlery for transportation and trade.

The trans-Saharan trade routes played a pivotal role in shaping the tanning industry in Kano during this period. As a prominent trading hub, Kano was a crossroads for diverse cultures and ideas. Traders passing through the region introduced new techniques and influences, enriching the local leatherworking craft.

Traditional tanning methods were labour-intensive and relied on locally available materials. Hides and skins from livestock, such as cattle, goats, and sheep, were meticulously prepared using vegetable tanning processes. Tannins extracted from plant sources, such as bark and leaves, were used to cure and preserve the hides. Skilled artisans, often belonging to specialised guilds, were responsible for transforming raw hides into high-quality leather.

Beyond its practical aspects, leather held significant socio-cultural importance in Kano’s history. It was both functional and symbolic, representing social status and identity. The knowledge and skills required for leatherworking were passed down through generations, with master artisans imparting their expertise to apprentices, ensuring the preservation of traditional techniques and craftsmanship.

Colonial Era

The colonial era marked a significant turning point in the history of the tanning industry in Kano. As European colonial powers, notably the British, exerted influence over the region from the late 19th to the early 20th century, the tanning industry underwent profound changes.

One of the most noticeable transformations during this period was the introduction of modern machinery and industrial methods. The British colonial administration aimed to enhance production efficiency to meet the rising demand for leather products in Nigeria and international markets.

Mechanisation revolutionised the tanning process. Advanced equipment, including mechanical drums for softening hides and skins, became integral to the industry. This shift from labour-intensive manual processes to mechanised methods significantly increased the industry’s production capacity.

While embracing modernisation, the tanning industry in Kano did not entirely forsake its traditional practices. Skilled artisans played a crucial role in the industry, combining their traditional knowledge with the efficiency of mechanised processes. This balanced approach allowed the industry to maintain the quality and uniqueness of Kano’s leather products while meeting the demands of consumers.

The colonial era also opened up export opportunities for the tanning industry in Kano. British colonial authorities facilitated the export of leather and leather products to serve the needs of the colonial empire. This exposure to international markets increased the industry’s revenue and provided opportunities for growth and expansion.

In terms of employment, the impact of colonialism was mixed. On one hand, mechanisation and modernisation led to increased production capacity, potentially creating more jobs. However, they also reduced the need for manual labour in certain aspects of the tanning process, affecting some traditional artisans. Nonetheless, the tanning industry in Kano continued to provide employment opportunities for a significant portion of the local population, supporting livelihoods and communities.

Today, the legacy of the colonial era’s influence on the tanning industry in Kano is still evident. The industry has retained its historical foundation while adapting to modern practices. It remains vital to the city’s identity and economy, contributing to local prosperity and Nigeria’s industrialisation efforts. The tanning industry’s ability to adapt and thrive while preserving its historical roots is a testament to its resilience and enduring significance.

The Economic Significance of the Tannery Industry

With its deep roots in the local culture and history, the tannery industry in Kano has transcended time to become a dynamic force in shaping the region’s economic landscape. Beyond its mechanised factories and state-of-the-art processes, the human element within this industry truly defines its essence. Here are some of the economic significance of the tanning industry in Kano:

  1. Generates Employment Opportunities

In the heart of Kano, the tannery industry serves as a lifeline for thousands of families. The tanneries provide gainful employment to skilled artisans and those seeking opportunities to sustain their families. The workforce in this sector is a rich mosaic, with traditional tanners who have honed their craft over generations working side by side with individuals employed in modern, mechanised tanneries. Nigeria accounts for 46 per cent of goatskins produced in Africa, according to the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG). The leather processing sector employs over 750,000 workers and is projected to generate $1 billion annually in export revenue by 2025.

The significance of these employment opportunities extends beyond mere numbers. It translates into improved living standards for countless families relying on these jobs for sustenance. It empowers individuals with the means to provide for their families, access healthcare, and secure education for their children. In this way, the tannery industry becomes not just a source of income but a catalyst for social development and upward mobility within Kano’s communities.

  1. Supports Local Livelihoods and Communities:

Tanning is more than just a job; it is a cornerstone of Kano’s local livelihoods and community sustenance. Skilled leatherworkers take pride in their craft, often passing down their knowledge and expertise to the younger generation. This intergenerational transfer of skills ensures the continuity of a trade that is economically valuable and culturally significant.

The tannery industry’s impact extends beyond its immediate workforce. It adds substantial value to local farmers’ and traders’ raw hides and skins. The industry enables farmers and traders to command higher prices by transforming these raw materials into finished leather products, bolstering their income. Economic improvement’s ripple effect permeates the supply chain, benefiting those involved in animal husbandry and the leather trade.

Moreover, tanneries are woven into the very fabric of local communities. Beyond their economic contributions, they serve as pillars of support for community development. Tanneries often sponsor local events, contribute to educational initiatives, and invest in infrastructure development. The result is a profound sense of belonging and growth within these communities, with tanneries not just as economic entities but as integral parts of the social tapestry.

  1. Revenue and Taxation

Beyond its employment contributions, the tannery sector is pivotal in generating revenue for Kano State. This revenue comes from local taxes and contributions to the state’s coffers. These financial contributions are instrumental in supporting public services and infrastructure development.

The taxes tannery businesses pay are channelled into initiatives that benefit the local population. They finance essential services such as healthcare, education, sanitation, and public transportation. Moreover, they fund the maintenance and expansion of infrastructure, including roads and utilities, which are vital for the overall development of Kano.

  1. Export Opportunities and Foreign Exchange Earnings

The Kano tannery industry is not limited to serving domestic markets; it has successfully carved a niche in international markets. Leather products manufactured in Kano are exported to various countries, contributing significantly to foreign exchange earnings. According to the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG)’s 2019 macroeconomic outlook report, domestic leather production accounts for 24 per cent of the total agriculture GDP in Nigeria. Tanned skins generated $240 million in export revenue for the country in 2015. Though a distant second to the proceeds from crude oil export, processed animal skin constitutes a major export product for the country.

The international demand for Kano’s leather products underscores the industry’s reputation for producing high-quality leather goods. This export revenue bolsters Kano’s economy and contributes to Nigeria’s foreign exchange reserves, reducing the country’s reliance on a single revenue source. It positively impacts the nation’s trade balance, helping stabilise its economic health.

The Industry’s Role in Nigeria’s Industrialization Efforts

Nigeria has been committed to diversifying its economy and reducing its dependence on oil. The tannery industry aligns perfectly with these national goals by actively contributing to the country’s industrialisation efforts.

The industry represents a paradigm of value addition. It takes raw hides and skins, often produced locally, and transforms them into finished leather products of international repute. This value addition is a critical component of industrialisation, as it represents the transition from primary agriculture to secondary manufacturing, adding significant value along the production chain.

Moreover, the tannery industry fosters a more diversified and resilient economy by reducing Nigeria’s vulnerability to global oil price fluctuations. As a sector that relies on locally sourced materials and a skilled labour force, it contributes to a more self-reliant and sustainable economic landscape.

However, it is not all rosy, as the tannery industry in Kano faces several challenges that threaten its sustainability and growth. These challenges are multifaceted and require careful consideration by industry stakeholders and policymakers. Some of these challenges include:

1. Environmental Concerns: One of the most pressing challenges is the environmental impact of tannery operations. Traditional tanning methods often involve harmful chemicals, leading to water and soil pollution. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the need for more eco-friendly tanning processes. However, transitioning to cleaner technologies can be costly and requires significant investment.

2. Infrastructure Deficiencies: The tannery industry in Kano grapples with infrastructural deficiencies, particularly inadequate power supply and transportation networks. Frequent power outages disrupt production schedules and increase operational costs. Poor road and rail connectivity hampers the efficient movement of raw materials and finished products, affecting competitiveness.

3. Access to Finance: Access to affordable financing remains a significant challenge for tannery businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Limited access to credit inhibits their ability to invest in modern machinery, adopt cleaner technologies, and expand operations.

4. Market Access and Competition: The industry faces stiff competition from imported leather products, which often flood the Nigerian market. These imports, sometimes of lower quality but cheaper, can undercut the pricing of locally produced leather goods. Additionally, accessing international markets can be challenging due to stringent quality standards and competition from other global leather producers.

5. Regulatory Compliance: Compliance with environmental regulations and quality standards poses a significant challenge for tanneries. Meeting these requirements often necessitates costly upgrades and investments in wastewater treatment facilities and pollution control measures.

6. Skilled Labour Shortages: As the industry modernises, there is a growing need for a skilled workforce that can operate advanced machinery and adopt modern tanning techniques. However, finding and retaining skilled labour can be challenging, as younger generations may be less inclined to pursue traditional tanning skills.

7. Fluctuating Raw Material Prices: The tannery industry highly depends on the supply and pricing of raw hides and skins. Fluctuations in the prices of these materials can impact production costs and profitability.

Initiatives and Strategies to Address Industry Challenges:

Sustainability initiatives and strategies are essential to address challenges and pave the way for a thriving, eco-friendly industry. Below are some of these initiatives:

  1. Environmental Sustainability: The move towards environmental sustainability is a key aspect of the industry’s future. Tanneries are increasingly adopting cleaner and greener tanning processes, including using vegetable-based tanning agents and chrome recovery systems to minimise water pollution. Furthermore, tanneries are investing in wastewater treatment plants to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
  1. Government Support: Government agencies at both the state and federal levels recognise the importance of the tannery sector and provide support. Initiatives include grants for adopting cleaner technologies, tax incentives for environmentally compliant operations, and establishing industry-specific regulatory bodies to ensure sustainable practices.
  1. Capacity Building: To address the skilled labour shortage, various organisations, including vocational training centres and industry associations, offer training programs. These programs cover various skills, from traditional leather crafting to advanced machinery operation and environmental management. By equipping the workforce with modern skills, the industry ensures its ability to adapt to evolving technologies.

Potential for Growth and Expansion in the Tannery Sector:

The tannery industry in Kano has a vast potential for growth and expansion, driven by several factors:

  1. Export Opportunities: Kano tanneries have the potential to penetrate international markets further. They can compete globally by adhering to international quality standards and diversifying product offerings. Products like shoes, bags, and leather garments have strong export potential.
  1. Value Addition: The industry can expand its focus beyond raw leather production and engage more in manufacturing finished leather goods. This shift can create higher-value products, boost profitability, and contribute to developing a more diversified and resilient industry.

The contradictions in the industry see the country, on the one hand, exporting its high-quality unfinished leather products to Europe while importing finished leather products from around the world. 

On the other hand, the leather products manufacturing hubs in Aba and Lagos, producing belts, shoes and bags, source their leather inputs from China. By exporting semi-finished leather products, Nigeria only gets a fraction of the financial value of its hide and skin. At the bottom end of the global value chain, the country is earning $12 per square metre of skin. To move to the top-end of earning $100/m2, the country needs to convert its leather to fashionable finished products that are competitive in the world’s fashion markets.

Opportunities for International Collaboration and Investment:

To unlock its growth potential and overcome challenges, the tannery industry in Kano can explore international collaboration and investment opportunities:

Technology Transfer: Collaborating with international partners can facilitate the transfer of advanced tanning technologies and best practices. This can enhance production efficiency and product quality. Partnerships with global equipment manufacturers can lead to the adoption of state-of-the-art machinery.

Market Access: International collaborations can help tanneries gain access to global markets. Partnerships with foreign distributors and retailers can open doors to new customer bases. Trade missions and participation in international trade fairs can also help showcase Kano’s leather products.

Investment Inflows: Attracting foreign investment is crucial for industry growth. Foreign direct investment (FDI) can provide the industry with the necessary capital to modernise operations, improve infrastructure, and invest in sustainable practices. Investment incentives and promotion agencies can be pivotal in attracting foreign investors.

Research and Development: Collaboration with international research institutions can promote innovation within the tannery sector. Research partnerships can lead to the development of new, sustainable materials and processes. This can include research into eco-friendly tanning agents, waste reduction, and resource-efficient production methods.

In conclusion, the tannery industry in Kano stands at a crossroads, facing both challenges and opportunities. Sustainability initiatives address environmental concerns, and strategies are being implemented to enhance the industry’s competitiveness.

By focusing on growth, value addition, and international collaboration, the tannery sector in Kano can continue to contribute to the local economy and Nigeria’s industrialisation efforts while setting a sustainable and eco-friendly example for the global leather industry.