OBAFEMI OLAYEBI

CREATIVE DIREC­TOR, FEMI HANDBAGS & FOUNDER, LAGOS LEATHER FAIR

THISDAY Style - - COVER -

How do you go from run­ning a leather goods com­pany to run­ning a leather goods fair, with many more mov­ing parts?

It was a pretty wild leap and I will be the first to ad­mit that it takes some guts to move from manag­ing a small-scale fac­tory to or­ga­niz­ing a Leather Fair with the many mov­ing parts as you so rightly put it! But I am a bit of a risk taker and hav­ing op­er­ated within the leather space for over twenty five years, it seemed to me that the many frus­tra­tions I felt, along­side other leather de­sign­ers, were never end­ing. If it wasn’t a lack of ad­e­quate raw ma­te­ri­als, it was a near absence of work­men and women with the right work ethic, or with­out the req­ui­site skills. For many years I searched for an­swers and hoped that things would im­prove. I even went as far as ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing my prod­ucts man­u­fac­tured abroad, but was well aware that such a move would have its own at­ten­dant prob­lems. I started to re­search solutions and de­cided that one of the ways to bring our plight to the at­ten­tion of the powers that be and the pol­icy mak­ers would be to cre­ate a plat­form and con­gre­gate all the play­ers un­der one roof to seek sus­tain­able solutions. I de­cided that, hav­ing been a prac­ti­tioner for so long, I had a bet­ter way than most to bring the chal­lenges to the no­tice of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and I wanted to be part of the so­lu­tion. I spent a lot of hours ask­ing ques­tions and talk­ing to peo­ple in the in­dus­try and once I had enough information, it was all the am­mu­ni­tion I needed. I took a leap of faith and ran with it.

What is the ideal sce­nario for the leather goods in­dus­try in Nigeria? If things worked, what would this in­dus­try look like: across its value chain, in terms of eco­nomic po­ten­tial, e.t.c? For in­stance if the “7 mil­lion cat­tle slaugh­tered an­nu­ally” was di­rected to­wards leather goods?

The Leather in­dus­try in Nigeria has been strug­gling to sur­vive and has been greatly ne­glected in the re­cent past pri­mar­ily due to cer­tain cul­tural, eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal fac­tors which have greatly hin­dered its growth. In an ideal sit­u­a­tion, the in­dus­try will have to keep up with the tech­no­log­i­cal and in­fras­truc­tural ad­vances in that sec­tor in or­der to sur­vive and re­main com­pet­i­tive. What this means is that as­sum­ing we slaugh­ter 7 mil­lion cows, we would be ex­pected to utilise up-to-date tech­nolo­gies and pro­vide in­fras­truc­tural sup­port from start to fin­ish to en­hance the ex­port po­ten­tial of our fin­ished prod­ucts. What this means is that from the abat­toir or slaugh­ter houses where the an­i­mals are slaugh­tered, to the check­ing and col­lec­tion of skins, to the tan­ning stages where the raw skins are pro­cessed, tanned, post-tanned, coloured, fin­ished and con­verted into what we all recognise as fin­ished leather, the nec­es­sary preser­va­tion ma­te­ri­als and chem­i­cals will have to be made avail­able, well or­gan­ised sys­tems would have to be in place along that en­tire value chain, and the many dif­fer­ent pro­cesses well struc­tured. There would have to be ex­cel­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tion fa­cil­i­ties and sup­port­ive gov­ern­ment poli­cies in place, cost of labour would be min­imised, and se­ri­ous tech­ni­cal knowl­edge on pro­duc­tion must ex­ist. And then of course there must be the ap­pro­pri­ate machin­ery, metal hard­ware (eg. zips, buck­les, and mag­netic clasps), com­po­nents and ac­ces­sories for the fi­nal pro­duc­tion of FLGs (Fin­ished Leather Goods). With th­ese in place, Nigeria will be well on its way to achiev­ing high level com­mer­cial growth, and be­com­ing a force to be reck­oned with while the ex­port value and mar­ketabil­ity of its fin­ished prod­ucts will be en­hanced.

The leather fair you founded is only a year old. What changes are you be­gin­ning to see as re­gards “chang­ing the nar­ra­tive of the leather in­dus­try”, if any?

The Lagos Leather Fair was a very in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge. The pri­mary goal was to draw pri­vate and pub­lic at­ten­tion to the ac­tiv­i­ties within the in­dus­try and high­light the vol­ume of work that was go­ing on in that space. In so do­ing, we also hoped to pro­vide a vi­able plat­form, which did not ex­ist, for the hun­dreds of leather de­sign­ers op­er­at­ing in Nigeria. We achieved both aims. The Fair af­forded es­tab­lished, up-and­com­ing and startup de­sign­ers to show­case their tal­ent and a great num­ber of them have suc­ceeded in tak­ing their busi­ness to new lev­els of success as a re­sult of the ex­po­sure from the event. It also drew at­ten­tion to the many chal­lenges our de­sign­ers and producers face at the ma­te­ri­als sourc­ing, pro­duc­tion, brand­ing and mar­ket­ing lev­els. A few deals have been bro­kered be­tween man­u­fac­tur­ers and de­sign­ers, and the many un­tapped pos­si­bil­i­ties within the in­dus­try were re­vealed. The cru­cial im­por­tance of skills-trans­fer was high­lighted as an im­per­a­tive to im­prove the crafts­man­ship lev­els of a lot of the producers and a se­ries of quar­terly leather train­ings have been ini­ti­ated by FemiHand­bags in part­ner­ship with the Nige­rian Ex­port Pro­mo­tion Coun­cil. In ad­di­tion, fol­low­ing the Fair, pol­icy mak­ers and ex­perts have again come to­gether to re­view the laws and poli­cies gov­ern­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in the leather in­dus­try; th­ese are now await­ing val­i­da­tion. The most in­ter­est­ing out­come how­ever was the level of aware­ness that was cre­ated amongst a dis­cern­ing au­di­ence who hith­erto had not imag­ined that such great tal­ent could em­anate from within our shores and Made-in-Nigeria leather

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