At the extreme end of one of the huge sheds allocated to local exhibitors, Jovia Kanoheri, was attending to two male European clients who were admiring footwear on display at the expo ground in Gikondo.
After a few minutes of haggling, one gentleman paid Rwf 10, 000 for a pair of open casuals and left—apparently satisfied with his new acquisition that would see European feet in Rwandan shoes.
It took Sunday Times a full hour to locate the gazebo where Star Leather Products Company from Gatsibo District was showcasing its goods.
It was difficult for Star Leather to standout at the expo where over 370 businesses exhibited thousands of products—a symbolic fact that explains what it will take for this rural-based SME from Eastern Province to attain international acclaim like Bata, let alone build a prestigious brand such as Gucci, Prada orTimberland.
But at the expo, those challenges didn’t count; the tent was a hit.
“We came with 200 pairs of shoes on the first day of the expo and we had sold out by the third day and we had to call in for more supplies,” Kanoheri said.
There were other footwear exhibitors with cheaper products from outside Rwanda but Kanoheri says that didn’t matter. “People liked our products because they are original, strong and of fine designs so the price didn’t matter.”
The products included female and male footwear, belts and handbags. Boots for males were priced at Rwf35, 000—perhaps more expensive than some imported brands.
“Our vision is to be the leading leather products processing company in Rwanda with a mission to foster the competitiveness of the leather industry by increasing production of high quality leather products and increasing its national, regional and international outreach,” explained Jean-Marie Kamana, the Managing Director.
But that vision started with a bigger one planned and executed by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 2011 when the ministry conducted a countrywide exercise to cluster top SME products.
“The report was published in January 2012 and we had managed to cluster the top five SME products in each of the 30 districts,” said Maryse Uwera, a Business Development Specialist in the ministry.
Leather emerged as the leading product in Gatsibo district followed by Maize, rice, coffee and Cassava.
On the walls of the ministry’s tent at the Expo was a picture of dairy farmers processing milk at a community processing centre (CPC). Baptiste Ukwizagira, an official of the ministry explained what the CPC scheme meant:
“CPC scheme seeks to identify people and enterprises that have entered the space or are struggling to train, nurture, mentor them and in the process transfer the know-how to them mainly by doing.”
Uwera added that the CPC model was one of the government’s approaches to address shortage of technical knowhow and limited skills underlined as leading challenges affecting SMEs.
“After the clustering exercise, the ministry thought of a strategy to address bottlenecks hindering success of enterprises in each cluster and that’s how the CPC idea was advanced,” she explained.
Star Leather Products is a result of this and the first to benefit from the scheme and will serve as a model.
“The Government intends to establish similar centers specialised in processing dairy products, banana wine, Irish potatoes and meat through a public private partnership where District/Cooperatives will provide land and building while the government will provide appropriate equipment and technologies and ensure that effective management systems are in-place,” trade and industry minister François Kanimba said in May.
Made in Gatsibo
On May 16, Kanimba launched the leather CPC in Gatsibo District. Star Leather Products, formed by Rwanda Association for the Promotion of Leather and Leather Products (RAPROLEP), with the help of Business Development Fund (BDF), as a quasi shareholder now manages the center.
RAPROLEP is an association of various artisans in the leather industry and some of the targeted beneficiaries of the grooming services to be provided by the CPC and use the skills obtained to produce quality leather products.
Part of the dream is to have Star Leather workers obtaining skills and use the technical knowhow to produce branded leather products with the ‘Made in Gatsibo’ tag. To achieve that, Rwanda went into an agreement with Italians who have some of the most respected leather brands on the international market such as Gucci and Prada.
The agreement signed in 2013 would see the Italians help boost the leather industry by providing technical and financial support to help establish a training and production laboratory for the footwear and leather goods industry.
As part of their technical support, the Italians pledged to donate modern leather processing equipment and also train staff how to use the machines.
Dr. Giorgio Gadina an expert from the Italian Trade Commission who comes into the country once every three months currently supervises the training sessions at the centre.
Star Leather’s boss, Kamana told Sunday Times that the company has already received 20 machines from the Italian partners and more are expected. In addition, eight technicians are currently undergoing training how to use the machines. At the same time, artisans in the province are also getting training from the centre but plans are in place to extend the services to artisans in other provinces.
Gatsibo is one of the districts with a high cattle population in the country and its strategic location between other cattle rich districts like Nyagatare and Kayonza makes it an ideal location for the hides and skins industry.
But artisans say it has not helped much because the country lacks a processing plant for the hides and skins. It means Rwandan hides and skins are exported to countries like Ethiopia from where they are imported after being processed into leather.
That means apart from designing their products, the leather and soles used to make the finished product have to be imported which could explain why their boots are quite expensive. The products that were sold at the expo were also not branded with the company’s logo.
The company also currently lacks cutting machines needed to chop the hard materials for the soles and they have to do so by hand but Kamana says that’s because the company’s artisans are still undergoing training and they expect to receive the cutting machines in a year’s time from their Italian partners.
Everything is at set-up stage. Production is still low with just fewer than ten pairs made per day but when everything is up and running, Kamana expects the firm to produce at least 65 pairs of shoes per day, that sounds meager but he says even big and well equipped firms in Italy produce up to 100 pairs in a day.
Challenges aside, with a healthy market at home and the prospect of being the only such factory in the region in a few years to come, the future seems to be bright for Star leather. The success of the leather Community Processing Centre will also encourage the government when it decides to launch centres for other cluster products such as bananas.
Jobs are also expected to grow from the current 14 member staff to over one hundred, a welcome development for Rwanda’s ambition of several million off farm jobs by 2017.