Oil remains Nigeria’s biggest source of income, but after recovering from its first recession in 25 years, Africa’s most populous country is looking to diversify its economy.
And some entrepreneurs have bet on the leather industry – thought to be worth around $700 million dollars annually.
It is to this end that Femi Olayebi, a design and manufacturing entrepreneur, launched the Lagos Leather Fair in 2017 to champion Nigeria’s luxury leather market.
“We wanted to promote Made in Nigeria,” she told CNN.
The fair, now in its second edition, has provided a platform for leather designers to showcase their work and build trade connections.
“We wanted to show that there was a lot happening here. Not only did I invite the leather designers to the table we invited machinery suppliers, we invited the tanneries, we just wanted to invite the major players along that value chain.”
Olayebi’s brand, Femi Handbags is already well established in the sector racking up more than 10, 000 Instagram followers, and she believes there can be many more successful businesses.
An ancient craft
Iyalode Lawson, president of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry Mines and Agriculture agrees. She believes with the right market conditions, Nigeria’s leather industry could be worth $1bn annually by 2025.
The global leather industry has an estimated trade value of $100 billion every year, and Lawson hopes that Nigeria’s long history with leather will count for something.
“Because the oil boom is no longer there,” she said, “We are now going back into all these areas of diversification whereby the economy will pick up and there will be more jobs.”
While cheap local leather products adorn market stalls in Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria’s indigenous leather industry has been a sleeping giant of the country’s north for over a century.
Nigeria has some of the oldest tanneries on the African continent, where young artisans still cure and treat animal hides in the same pits that their ancestors did.
For many years, it was a burgeoning industry, earning valuable foreign exchange for the local economy, alongside cocoa plantations in the south, groundnut and rich cotton fields up north.
The 1970s shifted the country’s focus from multiple viable industries to a single stream of black gold, eventually making it an oil-dependent economy.
Rapid drops in global oil prices in 2015 exposed the economic vulnerability of Nigeria’s oil industry.
New industries, new jobs
The bigger picture that Lawson foresees instead is an economy reliant on the efforts of small businesses, the likes of which intrigued visitors at the Lagos Leather Fair.
The leather industry is one of Ethiopia’s biggest foreign exchange earners, and Pittards, a U.K.-based leather company, has seen the potential.
Across Africa, analysts expect small and medium scale businesses to drive inclusive growth, and to create jobs.
According to Nigeria’s Central Bank, 96 percent of Nigerian businesses fall in that category.
Building a strong reputation for quality is vital for these small businesses, and in the leather sector, things are no different.
Otejiri Ejumabone, creative director of Nigerian handmade leather goods brand HankerandReech, believes “a lot of Nigerians like good quality products.
“A lot of people are paying attention to Nigerian brands now because they are seeing that we are growing, not just in the number of leather goods makers but also in the quality of the items,” he said.
Olayebi is betting on that by opening her first flagship store in Lagos.
“It’s a little pod but a big dream come true,” she said.
The entrepreneur hopes to open more stores, and in the future, rival Europe’s more famous design powerhouses.
“We want Nigerians to focus on our products as opposed to buying them from abroad.”