The beef industry is one of South Africa’s biggest agricultural activities, with the hides and skins of these animals being the most commonly used hides in the country’s leather industry. Dr Clive Jackson-Moss, the co-founder of the International School of Tanning Technology (ISTT), gives us a peek into the world of leather agro-processing.
Jackson-Moss, a seasoned tannery expert who has been teaching the craft for decades, says South Africa’s bovine leather industry is run as a by-product of the meat industry.
“What actually happens is that animals go to an abattoir to be slaughtered. That abattoir then sits with large quantities of cowhides, and they need to do something with that. The tanning industry essentially solves a disposal problem for the meat industry by processing those hides and turning them into leather.”
At the larger tanneries sourcing hides are done directly from the abattoirs or through hide and skin brokers. He explains that the brokers will collect hides from various abattoirs and have them preserved.
Generally South Africans are not big consumers of leather. In the local market, leather manufactured primarily goes to the automotive upholstery, furniture upholstery and footwear industries, Jackson-Moss explains.
“A large proportion of what is processed or semi-processed in South Africa is exported.“
For Mzansi’s cattle farmers, providing hides to the leather industry may provide a much-needed additional income. Here are five facts about the leather industry to help you navigate it.
Limiting hide damage
According to the guidelines listed in this KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture and Rural Development document, caring for the animal’s hide starts from when it is born. The value of hides is of course reduced by any damage, so ensuring optimal hide conditions are key to limiting financial loss.
Elements that cause hide damage, as per the guide, include injuries to the animal during its lifetime, horns, fences, ticks, whips, sticks and stone, poor skinning practices and care of the hide, and to a lesser extent, thorns in bushveld areas.
Jackson-Moss explains that the reason tanneries tend to source hides from abattoirs rather than farmers directly is because of poor or inconsistent skinning practices.
“At the larger abattoirs, the carcass and the skin are separated through quite professional ways. Mostly big abattoirs have pneumatic knives with the round blade on them and they have probably quite skilled and trained staff who will remove that skin from the animal.”
On farms, Jackson-Moss explains, the hides are often cut full of holes, which reduces the quality of the product.
“There are some tanneries that do buy from local farmers. I, for one, buy from farmers who bring stuff to me. However, it’s quite a mixed bag in terms of quality. Some of them have removed their skin properly from the animal. And others have cut it full of holes. So, the big tanneries are obviously trying to produce a consistently higher quality product, which is why they prefer to buy the abattoir directly or from your hides and skins broker, so at least they know what they are buying.”
Proper preservation is key
Preserving the bovine hide correctly is another element that is key to limiting financial loss. Bovine hides need to be scrapped of blood and meat before these have time to dry, and no blood or guts should be allowed to spill on the hide as this may stain it.
To ensure that the hide is preserved enough to make it to the tannery, the hide needs to be salted properly. The salt needs to weigh at least half of the weight of the hide and must be rubbed into the “meat” side, as opposed to the side where the hair is. About 10kgs of salt is considered a good amount when the weight of the hide is not known.
Once the hides are salted, they need to be stored for 48 hours in cool temperatures. The salt can then be removed and the hide can be sent to the hide broker, or it can be dried for storage.
Improper preservation is indicated by a rotting smell or by “hair slip”, Jackson-Moss says. “Hair slip is when you pull on the hair on the actual hide and it comes away and slips easily. It’s an indication that your preservation or your curing with salt wasn’t done correctly.”
Hair slip is caused by a delay in the actual salting or by using too little salt.
The process from raw animal hide to leather generally involves three stages. The first stage is the supply stage, which takes place on farms and abattoirs. The second stage is where the hides are semi-processed as “wet blue” or “wet white”. This semi-processing stage can take place in both the tannery and in the abattoir.
“When you make leather, you could essentially divide your leather-making process into three stages. The one stage is the conversion of your rawhide into ‘wet blue’, which has this greyish, blueish sort of colour to it. It is not leather, but animal skin that has had the hair removed and has been tanned to ensure that it doesn’t rot,” says Jackson-Moss.
Wet white is the same process, except that, instead of using chromium salt to tan the hide, the tannery uses vegetable tannins free of chromium.
Semi-processed hides are an international commodity with Mzansi’s wet blue being exported all over the globe.
“Some of it is obviously processed locally in South Africa, with the better-quality wet-blue going into the automotive upholstery industry. South African wet blue also gets turned into shoe upper leather, which is then bought by your footwear companies to make leather shoes in this country.”
Certification, says Jackson-Moss, is incredibly important for people who export their semi-processed hides. He explains that export markets usually have specific standards that need to be met before they accept the hides.
“Most countries that you’re exporting to would require some sort of certification, and that would be a certificate of analysis of the leather, which states that it meets sort of international standard laboratory standards.
:So, many of the tanneries have their own on-site laboratories to test that leather and ensure that it meets those international standards.”
Part of those standards includes a focus on sustainability and environmentalism.
“Many of the tanneries belong to international certification bodies and these bodies ensure that the leather is not being made in a highly polluting environment. [They] take into account many, many environmental and social aspects of the business.”
Jackson-Moss says that the demand for sustainability-specific certificates is forcing tanneries in the country to review their processes.
“Many of the overseas customers are demanding those sorts of certificates, and so it is putting a lot of pressure on the local tanneries to get up to scratch and ensure that they meet the requirements of the international certification bodies.”
Establishing a tannery is capital intensive
As someone who runs a training tannery school, Jackson-Moss says he receives many calls from people who want help in setting up their own tanneries. His first question is always, “why do you want to start a tannery?”.
“[They usually say], ‘we want to make shoes’ or ‘we want to make belts’ and I always tell them not to even think about starting a tannery. [I tell them to] just buy in the leather that they are going to require and make the end product because to establish a tannery requires an awful amount of equipment.”
The equipment required needs to be largely imported, and runs into millions of rand, he explains. This is the reason that smaller tanneries are not common across the country.
“All tanning and processing take place, generally speaking, in drums mainly made from wood. Although some of the newer drums are also made from polypropylene plastics. They are all imported, and the machinery is all imported. A lot of it comes in from Italy, which is a world leader in terms of tanning machinery production. Obviously, this equipment comes in at a huge cost”
For a small tannery, Jackson-Moss says the cost can run well over R20 million. For a larger tannery, the costs could easily reach over R150 million.
“Tanneries tend to be big, big businesses. They consume a lot of water. They consume a lot of electricity. They make use of a lot of chemicals and it’s very much an industry. It’s not something that’s easily done on a farm or in a rural setting. It’s not to say that one couldn’t process hair on goatskin or hair on game skin in a rural setting. But tanneries are a big industry that requires [huge volumes of water and electricity] to make animal skin into leather.”
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