Friday 24th of March 2023

Nairobi, Kenya

Can Made in Africa Transform the Continent’s Leather Industry to the Next Level?

Luxury labels in the West use the best of Africa’s leather. Now, African companies and designers want to build their own brands.

Winston Leather, a Nigerian leather brand, celebrated the biggest sales in its 30 years in business last June. The boost was thanks to a tweet in March from fashion historian Shelby Christie highlighting how its tannery, based in Kano, Nigeria, supplies leather to luxury fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren.

The tweet resurfaced in June and prompted a flood of orders as the fashion industry sought new sourcing opportunities that supported Black businesses. And the single tweet put right some misconceptions about the quality of African leather goods.

“It was like a stamp of approval,” says Winston Udeagha of Winston Leather, which is a subsidiary of Udeagha’s wonderfully titled parent company, God’s Little Tannery. “What people don’t know is that much of the leather used around the world actually originates in Africa,” he notes.

“For them, if luxury fashion houses were using our leather in their finished goods then they could buy purses and shoes from us and trust our quality.” Udeagha has been in the leather manufacturing business for decades, but his company only decided to produce its own brand leather accessories in 2018 when he realized the potential of a growing market of fashion consumers within and outside Africa who were keen to buy African.

For a long time, African leather has remained unappreciated by the consumer despite a shift in consumer consciousness and pressure for greater transparency in every aspect of the fashion business. EU laws stipulate that the country of origin of finished goods is the country where the final production process occurs.

This has enabled luxury fashion houses that source raw leather from Africa, and even begin the production process there, to tag their products as, for example, Made in Italy. This practice has helped European manufacturers to avoid using a Made in Africa tag, a process that has kept Made in Africa leather goods under the radar and struggling to build an image for quality and excellence, in Africa itself as much as abroad.


Underfunded but determined, African designers are leaning on Africa’s vast resources and capacity for sustainable fashion to change the perception of African leather and promote it to a broader market. While leather is losing ground with many sustainability-focused designers around the world, African-based production offers a more palatable solution.

Problems like animal cruelty, wastewater and use of harsh chemicals in the tanning process are alleviated by under farming, reduced consumption practices that encourage reuse, and fairer livestock farming with provision of meat as primary focus, and then by abattoirs that help reduce shipping emissions.

Initiatives like the Green Tanning Initiative and metal-free leather in Ethiopia and other East African countries are also working to educate tanners on less toxic methods of tanning and dyeing leather and push for more environmentally friendly policies in Africa’s leather production.

Sending African leather abroad

The best quality African leather has tended to go to export markets. In response, some of the most interesting African leather goods companies have learned to adapt and use local material resources to the full.

“We focused on what we could do better,” says Nardos Tamirat, co-founder of Ethiopia-based Tibeb Leather Works. “We knew we were in a different market and our value proposition was different. For us, that is our leather and traditional Ethiopian designs.”

The company uses leather that would otherwise be discarded as flawed by many premium houses to create leather purses and other accessories. By keeping the leather as natural as possible with its flawed skin, Tamirat believes Tibeb stays true to its Ethiopian origins.

Tamirat’s strategy is shared by Mark Stephenson, managing director of Sandstorm Kenya. “African leather designers and manufacturers don’t have the resources to efficiently mass produce like, say, China can. The technology isn’t there yet in Africa. And so for Sandstorm, the question is how can we use technology to create more jobs for artisans and tanners and optimize value within Africa using slow fashion,” he says.

Basic infrastructure, such as the best machinery for drying, is lacking in parts of Africa. Much of the leather produced in Africa is exported out of the continent to be finished and then imported back as finished goods. The cumulative effect of this is to leave the industry in a state of underdevelopment.

Frustrations abound. “When I started my business, I researched about African leather because I wanted my shoes to celebrate African artisanship as much as possible,” says Nigerian designer, Tina A, founder of Kkerelé.

“I found that the leather sold in Mushin market, where most accessory designers in Lagos are based, is imported from Europe. This didn’t make sense to me considering the tanneries we have in Africa and our cattle farming.”

A problem for African designers is that tanneries tailor their business policies to fit the demands of their largest buyers, which are often Western businesses. This leads to high minimum order quantities, shutting out African designers with their much smaller orders.

Tamirat explains that in its first few years of business, Tibeb relied on scraps from the tanneries because the company couldn’t afford to buy in bulk in the way that Ethiopian tanners preferred.

Promoting African Leather

African designers have the potential to play a central role in developing a new image of quality for Made in Africa. Tibeb Leather Works is partnering with businesses in Ethiopia to create educational materials that help young designers understand Ethiopia’s design history and lean into designing using materials sourced in Africa and sourced sustainably.

Designers like Nigeria’s Femi Olayebi of Femi Handbags are also creating initiatives, such as Lagos Leather Fair, to connect tanners to designers and buying groups where small designers can band together and buy in bulk from tanneries with high minimum order quantities.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s Winston Leather has already responded to the needs of smaller designers by evolving a business model enabling designers to buy as little as 10 square feet of leather hide rather than the minimum quantity of 20,000 square feet previously required.

The potential is there, but plenty of work remains to be done. “To grow Africa’s leather industry, tanners and manufacturers cannot focus solely on getting Western designers and luxury houses to use their leather,” says Stephenson of Sandstorm Kenya, who has sat on Kenya’s Leather Development Council. “They must also make themselves accessible to African designers and brands who can tell and celebrate an authentic story of African artisanship from cattle, sheep and goat origins to the finished leather goods.”

Written by Adedoyin Adeniji

Content courtesy of Vogue Business & Nairobi fashion hub

Exclusive Interview With Kevin Outa Founder and Design Director of Deep End Clothing

My name is Kevin Outa, and I am a self-taught photographer and designer based in Nairobi, Kenya, specializing in creative portraiture, fashion photography, and food photography. I also hold a Bachelors’ degree in Political Science and Economics from the University of Nairobi (but I haven’t used it so much)
Deep End Clothing is a Nairobi-based fashion enterprise that focuses on the creation of Africanized Denimwear. This means that we create both clothes and bags from denim and a mix of different African fabrics.

Can you describe Deep end Clothing, and the idea and concept as if I knew nothing about it
or the market it is in?

Deep End Clothing is an online fashion house that specializes in the creation of bespoke denim clothing items such as bags, jackets, dresses, shirts, and trousers, among others. We make custom designs using denim as the primary fabric, mixing it with either Ankara, khaki, or the legendary Maasai shuka.

We also specialize in developing branded items, such as t-shirts. As for the market segment, Deep End Clothing targets the middle to luxury segment. This is because we mainly concentrate on developing custom designs as per the specifications of our
clients. However, this does not mean that we do not create our own designs; we do, as a means to show our potential customers what they can expect when they choose to work with us.

Some of Deep End Clothing Collections check out their Instagram page @deependke

What were you doing before Deep end Clothing, and what motivated you to start the

Before Deep End Clothing, I was still at the university and navigating my early years as a photographer. In 2016, when I originally conceived the idea of this brand, I saw it as a means to expand my reach as a photographer. This is because I believed that it would enable me to interact with more people who could be interested in my services as a photographer.

After a lot of mental and financial push and pull, we finally created our first designs in September 2017. Many things have changed for me and for Deep End Clothing since that time. The focus has shifted from me wanting to reach more people as a photographer, to me wanting to build a Kenyan fashion brand that will stand out and redefine the current wave of African street style. We might still be a long way off, but there is no better way to dream than to go for something that
seems out of your reach.

What techniques do you use? Tell us about the process.
As a brand that creates both bags and clothing, we usually rely on the services of two very talented tailors to actualize our bespoke designs; one for the bags, and another for the clothing items. Most of our designs are usually hand-drawn, but I also use inspiration from platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram.

This helps me know what designs are currently trending, and how I can remake them into something that is truly representative of Deep End Clothing. Once I develop the designs or receive some recommendations from a client, I have to decide and inform them on which material mix would work best for that particular design. For clothing items, I usually have to meet with the clients so that I can get their specific measurements.

The next step is to liaise with our tailors and see if the designs are workable. If they are, then the next step is to source the materials (which I do personally), and deliver them to the tailor, depending on whether it is a bag or piece of clothing. On average, it takes about a week to create and deliver the designs to our clients.

How did you learn/master this technique and why do you use it?
Like most things in this life, I learned and understood the design and creation process on the fly. It helps that I work with highly-skilled tailors who guide me and have helped me grow and develop Deep End Clothing into the brand that it is today. There have been a few times where I have made mistakes and they laughed at me so much, but I have come to see the importance of taking it all in stride and using such experiences to learn more.

It also helps to laugh at yourself! I feel that this method works best for our brand because we are still relatively young, and the ability to create bespoke items makes it easier for me to control the output in terms of quality and client specification. We stick to this method because it allows us to focus on producing high-quality denim designs that will interest our potential customer base, by targeting them directly.We do not want to rush into mass producing substandard products due to lack of production capacity.

What challenges did you face?
As a young brand, I would say the biggest challenge for us was to put our products out there. When you develop new products, there is always that nagging feeling at the back of your mind. For me, this is because you start to think of how people will respond to you and your brand, and whether people will really like your product enough to buy it. As a creative, this also happens
when I finish working on a new photography project.

It happens every time I develop a new design. Over time, I have come to understand that you will never really know the potential of what you hold until you put it out there. I still struggle with this, but it is not actually an obstacle you can clear, but a journey that you have to go through every day. Another challenge is trying to get people to understand the value of locally-made bespoke items.

There are many times I have encountered potential customers that want me to lower prices just because they saw a cheaper alternative elsewhere. This is very frustrating because they do not see the hard work, effort, and emotion that goes into building a Kenyan brand. Every time we put a single product out there, it bears the soul of up to five people; the designer, the person who sells the fabric, the tailor, the brand holder, and you. We all work together to ensure that you as our client get what you want.

For me, bespoke clothing carries more value than mass-produced items because it gives you the added luxury of buying something that you have actually contributed to its development (financially and design-wise) and fits you perfectly.

Some of Bags collections from Deep End Clothing

How did the obstacles make you feel?
Angry. Frustrated. Depressed. Like our brand is not worthy. There were times where I felt like giving up altogether. These are things that we feel on a regular basis, but there is no other alternative than to push on. That is why our brand continues to produce designs for our wonderful community.

What were your achievements?
Haha! It’s really hard to decide on a particular moment because the most notable achievement for me is to be able to meet new people through this brand; people that have unwaveringly built us up and supported us. I would consider this as one of the things we treasure deeply.

Favorite moments?
I would say the best memory was when Deep End Clothing got the chance to exhibit some of our designs at last year’s edition of the PAWA Festival. It was an awesome experience to put our brand out there while interacting with denim enthusiasts and fellow creatives.

There was also a small disagreement with the County Government of Nairobi during the event, but thankfully, it was sorted out.

What’s your take on the Kenya fashion industry?
The Kenyan fashion industry is a very diverse space with everyone having a particular taste that sets them apart. I see some people going back to retro styles and thrifted outfits, and others getting more into designing and creating their own outfits.

This is very exciting because it means that new designers and brands have the opportunity to develop a following for their products. The diversified nature of Kenyan fashion means that the industry is growing at a steady pace. There are exciting opportunities coming up all around that we cannot wait to get a hold of!

If you were given the opportunity to work with a local or international fashion designer who will you love to work with?
Adele Dejak. Her designs and what she creates are just wow. I believe that the way she conveys Africa in her products is what every Kenyan brand aims to achieve.

What are your thoughts on fashion in Africa?
I believe that fashion in Africa is getting noticed more and more on the global stage because African brands have embraced their authenticity and true nature. This means that even major players in the African fashion scene have started investing more in products that embrace their culture.

Therefore, when we present our designs on the global stage, they are truly representative of our African culture. This gives us an even better standing and we earn more respect from our peers globally. In totality, it creates an opening for African fashion brands to thrive worldwide.

How are African fashion designers influencing fashion in the western world?
With the growth and expansion of the internet, it is becoming even easier for African designers to share their products online. This expands their reach globally, increasing their spheres of influence. I would say that the number of people from the western world who are interested in African products is increasing significantly. There are also fashion brands in the western world
that embrace African-inspired designs and prints in some of their collections.

We cannot ignore the role that fashion designers from different parts of the world play in the global scene. As African designers, it is our responsibility to package our products in a manner that highlights our way of life and shows the world what we can do. When we constantly share this with the rest of the world, it gives people a deeper understanding of our diverse cultures. This, in turn, help increase our influence as more people want to learn about our brands that support African culture.

What can the African fashion industry learn from the western world?
The emphasis on quality; both in service and the products offered. This has been deeply ingrained in my mind, and I feel it is the single most significant thing we can learn. The reason is that how you treat your customers (both returning and potential) will reflect on your ability to retain them.

The quality of your products will also determine just how people interested in your brand will
interact with you. When your brand exemplifies quality in service, as well as develops high-quality and durable
products, it becomes easier to build a trusting community around your brand.

Over the last few years have you noticed any significant changes in the African fashion

Creative autonomy. This means that more and more people are taking control of their own fashion sense. The focus has slowly shifted from people buying well-known names to them focusing on creating or working with fashion brands that can address their specific needs. This kind of shift has been necessitated by the need to be unique.

When you create something you love, you will be more comfortable and confident, and this will show in how you present yourself. This is what should form the basis of any brand. This is what I have built my brand on, and is what will dictate the emerging trends in the African fashion industry in the coming few years.

When dealing with Africa is it important for the fashion world to be ethical and socially
responsible, and put in place strong corporate social responsibility governance?

Yes, I believe this is very important. When building a brand from scratch, there are many ethical and social considerations. It is important to fully understand your base of operations so that you do not engage in activities that might be detrimental to the success and progress of your fashion brand, and the society at large.

However, it is important to understand that although different societies align with different values, this should not act as an impediment to our overall objective as creatives, which is to express ourselves through what we make. I believe there is a way to balance your values as a fashion house, with those of your society. It should not be a case where one supersedes the other, but a level ground for you to reconcile the aspects of social and ethical responsibility with the
values of your brand.

Where can we find your designs?
You can find most of our designs on Instagram ( @deependke ) and on Facebook ( Deep End Clothing ) You can also regularly find us at different pop up stores and locations, so make sure you follow us across our socials so that you get updates on when and where you can find us personally! It also doubles up as a good avenue for you to interact and engage with our brand.

What does eCommerce mean to you and your business?
As an online-based business, e-commerce is one of the most important things in Deep End Clothing’s business structure. The ability to buy and sell products online makes it possible for us to share our designs with potential customers in our immediate environment, as well as all over the globe. Our business reach is limitless.

Do you think eCommerce is important for African fashion designers that are trying to get
recognized and reach a global market?

The internet and the rise of e-commerce have provided upcoming designers and young entrepreneurs the opportunity and platform to display their products and services on a global scale. The benefits of this cannot be understated. In this digital age, as long as you have a product or service you think people might be interested in, you can post it on social media and get
immediate feedback.

You just have to be consistent and intentional in your efforts to ensure that your products get recognized. Competition is rife everywhere, especially in the global market. This means that although the platform to get your designs noticed is readily available, you have to work smart to guarantee that your products have a global reach.

How does your strategy change when running an online store to an offline store?
As with running an offline store, operating an online store requires you to have a solid strategy to put you in a better position to make sales. In both cases, you will have to consider how you display your products, branding, and marketing plan, among other things.
When you operate an offline store, you will also consider other aspects such as rent and miscellaneous expenses, store positioning (because of walk-ins), and hours of operation. On the other hand, if you run an online store, you have to consider which is the best platform to build a following on, how to get this following to engage with your online brand, and if you want to physically interact with this following.

You also have to think of the frequency of these physical interactions, as well as how you will deliver your products when people order from you. I believe that how you display your products online will contribute significantly to people engaging with your brand. This is because it is the first point of contact between you and your potential customer.

To this end, I have come to really appreciate the value of photography to ensure that you display all your products in an enticing and professional manner. You should also try to be responsive as possible to customer requests and inquiries to make sure
that you do not lose any potential leads.

Where do you see African fashion in the next 5 to 10 years?
With all the brands coming up, I believe that African fashion will have a very commanding presence in the international fashion scene. The number of people investing in and shopping with local brands will continue to grow considerably, locally and globally. I can attribute this to the growth of e-commerce as well because, with time, it will be even easier than it is now to sell and
ship your products to any part of the world.

What 5 pieces of advice would you give to young African fashion designers wanting to enter
the fashion industry?

  1. Never hesitate to create what you love. This is the purest form of expression, and slowly but surely, people will start to see the value of what you make.
  2. Do not be afraid to start small. It is very easy to put yourself off by thinking of what could go wrong, or feeling as though you do not have enough resources. Do not get lost in your head. Just start and bring your ideas to fruition. There’s nothing as satisfying as the feeling of seeing an idea or concept transform into something you can see and touch. We started Deep End Clothing with only two designs, then started building up slowly. You can do it too.
  3. Focus on yourself and your brand. You are likely to yield to the temptation of comparing yourself with more successful fashion brands in your space. However, it is important not to dwell on these thoughts; you should concentrate on building your brand and use these established brands as your motivation to grow. They might as well be a very valuable asset in your network. Also, be sure to have adequate information about the business environment you want your brand to operate
  4. Specialize. When starting out, it is important to have a signature style that will be associated with your brand. This helps you attract the kind of customers that you want to work with, and ensure that you retain them as part of your community. It also helps when you focus on creating a strong product base, one collection at a time.
  5. Put your designs out there. Once you create something, share it. There are so many platforms for you to share your work with others. You will get honest feedback and even find people who might be willing to work with you. There is no need to develop something and just keep it to yourself; you should put it out there and always be ready for whatever people say. Absorb what you need to, and keep creating.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
It is always difficult to share what you have created. You never know how others will respond to it, but I feel that if you have the need to create, you should do so and allow people to experience it with you. After all, sharing is caring, right?

Content courtesy of Deep End Clothing & Nairobi Fashion Hub

Exclusive Interview With Gulsun Ahmed, CEO Of Igulsun Leather

Igul Leather creates elegant and stylish leather pieces that can be purchased in Kenya. We sat down with Gulsun Ahmed, the founder of Igulsun Leather for an exclusive interview on what drives her as a designer.

How did you start your journey in fashion?

Gulsun Ahmed: I have always loved fashion, carrying lovely bags, wearing lovely shoes,  dressing to my level best. So I realized, what is the one item that women can’t live without…handbags.

What type of handbags? Being a member of Fashion Agenda Afrika, many women were saying that leather bags are scarce.  That was the time that I was thinking of what can I do? Yes, I want to do something in fashion but which line? Do I want front-line, accessories, handbags? Then I said leather. What can I do? I love designing, I love being creative then I went into leather and of course, the market needs leather.

Did you go to school? Where

Gulsun Ahmed: I schooled here and abroad being mixed race here and there. I have an international background and I did learn marketing and sales.

Where do you source your leather from? Kenya?

Gulsun Ahmed: No.

Where is your leather from?

Gulsun Ahmed: I choose my leather from Iran.

Why Iran?

Gulsun Ahmed: They have the best leather and I use buffalo leather. It’s the only leather you can be able to get in, customize and stitch it comes out perfectly.

Have you ever been to Ethiopia since I hear that they also have leather?

Gulsun Ahmed: Yes, but the logistics and customs are a bit expensive that I can say, and to be able to do business with Ethiopians that connection is not as easy as people think. They’re a bit rigid in their market.

In the future, would you want to use leather from Kenya if it was possible?

Gulsun Ahmed: Honestly, yes, I would but I’d prefer if we could have manufactures and stitchers. People who can give me an exact design of a bag, that I want apart giving me rugged leather. I want a perfect handbag, perfect stitchings, perfect cutting, threading, that’s what I want.

 We do have good leather but we don’t have good manufacturers to produce the designs that people want in the market. So, it forces us to travel to China, Iran, the West to come up with fantastic designs and sell locally and again that is very expensive.  If i can produce this bag in Kenya probably I’ll sell one bag for even 80 dollars but since I have to travel, flight, accommodation, customs, then the costs shot up.

I agree that we don’t have many industries, usually, the come up and collapse like Rivatex.

Gulsun Ahmed: Again, the cost-effectiveness of building these factory/company. The reason as to why people come up and collapse is that you come up very excited but you realize that the market can’t afford you. It’s not that the market can’t afford you but where you purchase your products is far, your entire raw material is outsourced and imported so everything goes up.

That’s when you realize that most people don’t have the grit. You consume your entire capital to produce a certain thing then it stays in your shop or in your house so that’s how some fashion houses come and some even disappear. it’s pathetic for most designers to keep up because most people want to be trendy but they don’t look at the cost.

If I can go to LC Waikiki and get a bag that almost looks like leather and I can get it for 3k or 5k then why do I need to go for a genuine leather handbag at Ksh 18 000. The consumer expenditure is different so we fashion designers want to give the best but who are our consumers.. unless you’re really targetted in marketing to know your consumer then you’ll survive.

Can you tell us the process behind designing one handbag?

For me to get my entire dispatch, it took me 4 months for six designs. Reason being that there was a lot of trial and errors to the point that, the blueprint should fit how the handbag should look like exactly. So the guys had a tough time since it was my first time dealing with them being a foreigner and also the language barrier. Again language barrier, if it was done in Kenya then we would not suffer.

Can you break down the process a bit more?

I go choose my leather, choose my colour, choose my accessories, what type of metal do I want, I produce my blueprint then from there boom stitching continues. So in the process, I tell them exactly how I want my handbag to look like so most of the time since I’m not doing bulk.  Bulk is way faster as compared to a limited quantity which is more expensive.

How old is your brand?

Gulsun Ahmed: I am one month old but I’m doing well. I’m very grateful and delighted that it’s been one month and I’m a young fashion designer. Igul Leather is very new out there.  My customers are really appreciating it and every single day, everywhere I carry my bag, people notice my leather and my stitching.  I’ve had quite a few people from abroad that have requested for my products via DHL. So yes I’m doing quite well.

Do you have any advice for any fashion designers interested in the leather industry?

Gulsun Ahmed: Always be sure of what exactly, you want. What you’re trying to indulge yourself in, you can say accessories, leather but that’s not where your passion lies so you’ll give up so soon

Don’t imitate anyone. It’s hard work producing something that belongs to you. I’m actually in the process of patenting all of my designs because they’re mine. Don’t go buy something and then brand it. Do the hard work, people will appreciate your brand based on your creativity and ownership and that’s when you’ll enjoy the fruits of your brand.

You’ll be so happy with your brand, no-one can adapt it, take it or copy it. You have every right to sue them.

One more thing, when it comes to capital be very careful about it how you raise it. Don’t be someone’s slave out there to take money to be able to start your company. No, find means and ways to grow your capital so that you can have independence in your business.


Follow Igulsun Leather on Twitter @gulsoun 

Content Courtesy Of Nairobi Fashion Hub 


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