Mushin: Inside Nigeria’s Untapped Leather Treasure
When Arinze Emmanuel finished his Junior Secondary School Examination in 1991, he left his village to stay with his uncle who owned a leather goods shop under his house in Wey Street, Mushin in Lagos.
Little did Emmanuel know that his uncle’s store on the ground floor of their apartment building where he was working as an apprentice would eventually be at the center of a big market.
After completing his apprenticeship, he didn’t think of owning his own store anywhere else but in Mushin. Almost 30 years after he moved to Lagos from his village in the eastern part of Nigeria, he is making a living for himself and his family from the proceeds of his shop.
Emmanuel’s story is similar to most of the leather merchants in Mushin. Gradually, the market which started from two to four shops in front of residential houses on Wey Street has spread across five more streets in the neighborhood once noted for its notoriety.
“Since 1972, the Igbos have been selling leather materials used in making bags, shoes, and belts here (in Mushin),” the Baale Oke-Mushin, Chief Tajudeen Lasisi Faronbi told The Guardian.
“The market started with about five people on Wey-street and today it has expanded to Maxwell, Dakobiri, a part of Ladipo, and a part of Atewolara.”
The Mushin Market is divided into sections, dealing in various items from foodstuff to furniture, stationeries and, most especially leather products, but it remains home to many residents.
“This place was a residential area before, but it was when the Igbos (Nigerians of eastern extraction) came that it expanded and they turned it into a market,” Faronbi said.
“The place that was marked for the market by the government assigned was the Mushin foodstuff market.”
The leather goods section of the market hosts, at least, 300 shops selling different kinds of materials needed in the manufacturing of shoes, bags, furniture and other leather products.
It is one of the largest leather goods markets in Nigeria, only smaller in size to those in Aba, Kano and Onitsha. In this densely populated business hub in Lagos, you can get different types of raw leather such as animal skin leather, faceless leather, suede leather, and so many more. The possibility of finding a made in Nigeria pass-off luxury leather item is also very high.
As untidy as the environment looks, different brands of counterfeit designer items are produced from this leather goods market daily. That is why you shouldn’t be surprised if you find out that your Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Versace shoes, bags, belts, or any of those luxury leather items you cherish, might have been manufactured somewhere in Mushin.
A shoemaker in the market, Jimoh Remilekun, said he and others recreate any notable brand of shoes or bags. He also said these leather products vary in prices depending on their quality.
Remilekun said apart from selling them in markets in Nigeria, they also export these leather products to other countries like Ghana, Benin, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, and others.
“When designers in Spain and Italy release new designs that they call Maserati, Mauri, Cerruti and Gucci, when we see them online, we will recreate and rebrand them too,” Remilekun said.
“But some people can recreate them and rebrand them with their own names. Customers also bring the designs they want us to recreate.”
To start a raw leather business in the market, you will need nothing less than N200,000, while an amount ranging between N500,000 and 1million is required to kick-start a leather goods manufacturing business.
Like any other business, there are highs and lows and the leather merchants also experience peak and off-peak seasons.
“If I am to make an estimate I will tell you that it depends on a variety of factors because the leather business is seasonal. When festivities are approaching there are more sales than on regular days,” Chairman Shoe Tailor/Material Dealers Association, Omego Ignatius told The Guardian.
“If somebody, for instance, starts the business with N200,000, if it is during the festive period when the rate of turnover is high the person can make up to N20,000 daily.”
An interesting thing about the leather goods section of the Mushin market is that most of the raw materials found there are imported. Not surprising, considering the fact that Nigeria generates about $100m locally from the leather business but imports about five times that value.
A few people at the market said fashion designers around the world rely on raw leathers sourced from Nigeria for their luxury goods but only a little trickle of the millions of dollars made end up in the moribund local leather tanneries.
Ironically, the market in Mushin is filled with finished leathers imported from Spain and Italy.
“Some people source locally, but all you can see here are Italian, Spanish and Japanese leather,” Emmanuel said.
“But those that source locally, buy from Kano. They call it ‘Mallam’ leather.
“You can’t compare the neatness of the imported leather to that of the one made in Nigeria. If you get closer to the one that was made in Nigeria, you would perceive the odour of the chemical they applied in finishing it. This one doesn’t smell like that,”Emmanuel added, pointing to the imported leather.
Besides the odour, some leather products manufacturers told The Guardian that they don’t buy raw leather made in Nigeria because the Nigerian-made are not as refined as the imported ones.
“I can’t lie to you. I don’t use the leather made in Nigeria because they don’t give me the quality that I want,” Dozie, a shoemaker said.
Christian Chukwundi, a bag maker, however told The Guardian he makes use of Nigerian leather for products like wallets and belts but depends on imported leather for bags.
A way out of this dependence on imported leather, according to local manufacturers, is for the government to invest in the creation of functional tanneries.
The leather market chairman also stated that there are plans to liaise with the government to invest in the leather goods market which, according to a recent report by US-based Grand View Research, is projected to reach $629.65 billion globally by 2025.
“The Nigerian government needs to look inwards on how to finance the business of people processing leather and get the necessary technology for them to process it,” Ignatius said.
“When that is done those of us in the business of buying and selling will not have to go abroad to buy because by that time everything we need will be available in Nigeria where the raw materials are taken from in the first place.”
“What we are saying is that the government can be of help by sending people for training abroad to get advanced knowledge of the use of leather producing machines.”
Perchance one day Nigeria decides to transform its leather industry into a major trade, a lot of investments will have to be committed to reviving the nation’s aged tanneries or building new ones.
When this is done, the turnover from the markets can add greatly to the country’s export and import revenue. Who knows, a market like Mushin could become not just a tourist attraction, but home to the best leather goods the world has ever seen.
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