Traditional tanning is a tedious work requiring resilience. Photo: TRT Afrika.

By Abdulwasiu Hassan and Sani Aliyu

On a vast sun-baked field somewhere in the hinterland of war-ravaged Sudan, Abker Arzika explains with the clarity of a consummate practitioner of his craft the hard grind a piece of animal hide must go through to turn into luxurious leather.

"That's raw hide being dried in the sun," Arzika tells TRT Afrika, pointing to a pile of semi-dry animal skin lying on the ground.

He is standing in what is a typical tannery field, one among dozens of such traditional enterprises that dot the Sudanese landscape. Strewn across the field are rectangular pits meant to soak raw hide in various chemical and plant-based solutions as part of an intricate tanning process.

Wooden stilts pegged a few metres apart – from one end of the field to the other — support what look like clothes lines from a distance.

Workers use blade-like implements to scrape the last vestiges of dried animal flesh from the pieces of hide put out to dry in the sun.

The fighting in Sudan has affected traditional tannery. TRT Afrika Photo

The task of cleansing the hide of "impurities" has to be perfect for the finished leather to be of the highest grade, says Arzika.

Big money

While the quality of processed hide emerging from traditional tanneries in Sudan remains a global benchmark of a sort, this centuries-old business seems to have taken a beating because of the ongoing fighting within the country.

Import of hide and skin from Nigeria and other West African countries is down to a trickle, as is export of leather by producers in the continent.

The traditional and industrial tanning contributes significantly to the African economy. For example, Nigeria earned $3 billion just from the leather industry in the past 20 years, according to World Bank data.

Countries like Sudan, Chad and Senegal make 5% to 10% of their total revenue from leather, while Kenya, Burundi and Tanzania generate up to 11% of their gross turnover.

Most of the people in the traditional tannery business in Sudan are from the Hausa community. Photo: TRT Afrika

In Sudan, thousands who engaged in the traditional tannery business say they are gainfully employed because of the global demand for leather from Africa.

Ishaq Sa’adu, a Nigerian based in Sudan, is among those who have expanded their horizons in tandem with growing opportunity.

"Earlier, we would be doing just tanning. Now, we export leather to Nigeria," Ishaq tells TRT Afrika.

Legacy of leather

Working in traditional tanneries requires a fair deal of expertise – from cleaning the hide of impurities and removing air from the skin to polishing the leather till it becomes soft and shiny.

Processing of hide entails soaking the pieces in water for a day and then smearing it with firewood ash. "We apply potash, too, but since potassium is now expensive, its ash that we use more frequently," explains Arzika.

The leather industry is crucial in many African countries. Photo: Reuters

Another ingredient called "jhir" is added to the soaked hide and left like that for two days, after which the skin falls off.

The skin is then soaked in a pit of water before being dipped in an acacia nilotica solution. Once dried, whatever remains of the meat is scraped off. A few more rounds of soaking in acacia nilotica solution follow before salt is applied to the hide.

Traditional tanning methods produce leather suitable for a variety of fashion accessories such as bags, shoes and belts crafted both within and outside Africa.

The business may be a money-spinner, but the war in Sudan has made it harder for those in the industry to import enough animal hide into the country to process and export.

Traditional tanneries have been hit the hardest by the conflict, leaving them clinging to hope that peace will soon return to the country and they can add to the value chain and continue to eke out a living from what is potentially still a roaring business worldwide.

TRT Afrika