The leather industry has been around for thousands of years – ever since humankind began hunting animals.
Hides and skins are a by-product of the meat industry, so supply does not react to demand for leather, but for meat. Leather is used in the automotive, footwear, furniture, clothing, leather goods and exotic leathers (e.g. ostrich) sectors.
Leather makes a contribution to the quality of everyday life: virtually everyone wears or uses one or more leather products on a regular basis.
International business environment
- Visit www.leathercouncil.org, website of the International Council of Tanners.
- The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) has a Leather and Leather Products Industry Panel (the Leather Panel). See https://leatherpanel.org.
- Find international news and commentary at https://leatherbiz.com.
- “Serving the global leather & fashion industries”, www.aplf.com. Its Leather Pipeline is an “exclusive fortnightly market intelligence report”
South Africa imports and exports
South Africa Exports of raw hides and skins (other than furskins) and leather was US$192.91 Million during 2022, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade (Trading Economics, 2023).
The A Profile of the South African hides, skins and leather market value chain, which used to be an annual feature on the Department of Agriculture website, looked at exports and imports, and the tariffs and standards to be satisfied to access various markets like the EU, China and the USA.
Local business environment
Find statistics on hides and skins at www.levyadmin.co.za.
- The demand for hides by the automotive sector out-strips the number of cattle slaughtered locally.
- Over 60-70% of South African hides are regarded as suitable for automotive leather.
- The increase in feedlots over the years has led to better quality hides (animals spend less time in the veld). These can be rated higher than other sub-Saharan African and most Asian hides, but they remain inferior to most hides from Australia, Argentina, the US and Europe.
The value chain is divided into five stages:
- skin & hide supply (farmers, feedlots and abattoirs)
- semi-processed leather
- finished leather
- finished products
- the market
For a more detailed consideration, consult the publication A Profile of the South African hides, skins and leather market value chain (see “Websites and publications” heading).
Hides: an opportunity for commercialisation?
Skins and hides are a rich source of raw material in South Africa’s leather value chain. Most abattoirs have partnerships with skins and hide traders who export raw skins and hides as well as low value-added semi-finished leather products.
At the same time, hides from communal cattle farmers are thought to be going to waste or attracting only very low price in informal markets. These hides are a communal resource whose value would be greatly enhanced if they could be processed into tanned leather and supplied for further value addition in the labour-intensive footwear, furniture and automotive leather value chains.
The skins & hides available in the informal sector could also create business opportunities for communal entrepreneurs to act as emerging hide merchants; and the sector could be substantially upgraded by training informal slaughter operators, emerging farmers and herders to prepare hides, collect and sell them to local tanneries. A main impact will be better slaughtering practices by communal farmers, generating better quality hides which fetch higher market prices.
Source: the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition
The following are the main categories of skins or hides according to species:
- Bovine (cattle) hides dominate the supply of leather in South Africa. They are mainly by-product of meat production supplied by feedlots.
- Sheep skin is produced with or without wool mainly for export market.
- South Africa does not have significant supply of pig skin as this tends to be part of the meat.
- The supply of goat and kid skins is low as the majority of goats are slaughtered outside the abattoirs.
- Unlike bovine, ostrich is bred primarily for its skin; and ostrich meat becomes a by-product. Ostrich leather is unique with its feather quill pattern. This gives it extra strength and durability which is 7 times stronger than bovine (cattle) hide. Ostrich leather is used to produce handbags, wallets, shoes, clothing etc.
- Many wild animals including elephants and buffalo are main sources of leather.
- Crocodiles and snakes are bred for their skins.
National strategy and government contact
Under “Financial Assistance” on the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic) website, www.thedtic.gov.za, find the “Clothing, Textiles, Footwear and Leather Growth Programme (CTFLGP)” option.
Government’s Industrial Policy Action Plans (IPAPs) included the Clothing, Textiles, Leather and Footwear sector. The Competitiveness Improvement Grant (CIP) previously supported a number of national and sub-national clusters which promoted world class manufacturing processes and principles. Two programmes were:
- The National Footwear Leather Cluster (NFLC), a facility established by the then Department of Trade and Industry (the dti) at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), was part of the intervention by government to create sustainable jobs and reduce the trade deficit.
- The Exotic Leather Cluster (ELC). This involved crocodile and ostrich leather beneficiation. It was a collaboration between the Department of Trade & Industry and the University of Pretoria (see “Training & research” heading). Watch the video on YouTube called “Exotic Leather Cluster SA”.
The IPAP intervention in the leather and footwear sub-sector registered positive results: Between 2010 and 2016, exports of leather and footwear grew by 167%, from R 1.98 billion to R5.29 billion, with a peak employment figure of 21,190 in the sector, clawing back jobs to a level last seen in 2007 (the dti, 2018).
Based on National Treasury’s “Draft Guidelines on Export Taxes”, the then dti was pursuing a ban on “on the exports of ‘raw hides’ and export duties on the semi-finished ‘wet blue’ (full substance, grain split and drop slit) aimed at effective diversion of the leather raw and semi-finished resources for downstream value addition (African Leather, Vol12, No 5, May; IPAP 2017/18-2019/20).
The revised Automotive Production and Development Programme (APDP) and Automotive Investment Scheme (AIS) are incentives to the automotive sector. This supports the demand for leather.
The Cape Clothing and Textile Cluster (CCTC) is a not-for-profit initiative jointly established by government and industry to boost the competitiveness of the clothing, textile, footwear and leather (CTFL) manufacturing industry in the Western Cape. See https://capeclothingcluster.org.za.
A previous intervention was the Communal Hides Commercialisation Pilot Project (IPAP 2015/16 – 2017/18).
- The Skin, Hide and Leather Council (SHALC) is the legal owner of the Genuine Leather Mark, applied by manufacturers and retailers in South Africa to distinguish genuine leathers from inferior imitations. The South African Meat Industry Company (SAMIC) does independent hides and skins audits on behalf of DALRRD for export purposes at abattoirs, intermediate stores and harbours. Both SHALC and SAMIC are affiliates of the Red Meat Industry Forum. Find details of these and other associations, NGOs, companies and other role players above.
- For a list of SAFLEC companies (footwear manufacturers, belt manufacturers, components & services, tanneries, and handbag manufacturers), visit www.saflec.co.za.
Websites and publications
Visit the websites listed earlier on this page. The ISTT website www.tanschool.co.za, for example, is a must-read for anybody in the leather industry. Its menu options include a list of the chemicals used to make leather, provides a dictionary of terminology, lists leather magazines and provides a list of related websites. Links to international bodies, websites as well as details of UK and USA Tanning publications may be found.
- Find the guideline “Hides”, one of the many, on the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture website at www.kzndard.gov.za.
- Reporter. 2023, May 20. “The finest quality hand-made leather products sourced locally”. Global Africa Network. Available at www.globalafricanetwork.com/company-news/experience-hand-made-perfection/
- Bezuidenhout R. 2022, March 29. “How to earn more from hides and skins”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/farming-basics/how-to-livestock/how-to-earn-more-from-hides-and-skins/
- Look to see if the DALRRD Directorate Marketing has resumed publishing the annual A Profile of the South African hides, skins and leather market value chain at www.dalrrd.gov.za.
- Find details of the footwear and leather trade magazines at www.svmag.co.za.
- www.leathercouncil.org – the International Council of Tanners website, a “definitive” international website.
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