Rift Valley Leather was started by Robert Topping as designer and Roly Adlam as Director. Robert Topping, whom we met, together with Zadock Langat, the Marketing Director explained his entry into this company when he first visited Kenya in 1998 to learn about leather from a particular company. “They were producing tents and canvas goods for the safari tourist industry. To survive, we had to broaden their offer so we made bags, briefcases so they could survive as a company. I came then to train and visited Kenya regularly thereafter.”
Robert had worked with Sandstorm, a Kenyan based leather company, for one year before starting the company with Roly Adlam. They set up Rift Valley Leather in 2009 and produced their first products for sale at the 2009 Jamhuri Christmas Fair. They purchased a few machines and with two trained fundis (Swahili word for person skilled in repairing or maintaining machinery) set up camp in a supermarket turned workshop located in Langata’s Hardy area. With the growth of the market, Rift Valley Leather began to expand their product offering. “Growth of the middle class and expats moving from the diaspora have come back home with different experiences, expectations and desires, quality being one of them.” Rift Valley Leather is founded on providing quality leather products occupying the small to medium market manufacturing for retail.
“Don’t call yourself a designer if all you do is copy designs.”
Robert Topping brings into the company over 38 years of experience in leather having worked at luxury crafts bespoke level and with big factories in India. “I understand quite a wide range of products and know how to do the patterns. Part of my mission is to pass on that knowledge. We train everyone in the factory from pattern making, designing to machine work.” Zadock Langat explains how when they got started, Rift Valley Leather would take orders ensuring that they do not copy other people’s designs. At the moment, he says, they do not take such orders on as they have successfully developed a range of products also noting that making one-off requests is not only time consuming but also counterproductive to producing a consistent standard range.
“People have skills, dexterity, raw local materials and if you have the will you can do it.”
Ironically, having noted their success in the market, when Rift Valley Leather had began, Robert recalls numerous people telling them not to bother with the local market and go into export. Despite these remarks, they persevered and infiltrated into the market through sponsorship of golf competitions and corporate orders. They were also involved in the refurbishment of Treetops Hotel, a world-renowned rustic Treehouse in Aberdare National Park in Kenya.
The company has been growing ever since. Zadock Langat noted that the interest in leather bags has been growing steadily over the years. This is Rift Valley Leather’s 6th year in business but the first three years were not smooth sailing with the threat of closure. Thankfully, they have remained open as a result of the market responding positively to leather goods produced in Kenya particularly. They also export their goods and produce leather products for companies in Uganda, United States and Canada.
“We are growing as a company. One of the things we are striving to do is make sure people know where we are” says Zadock. Rift Valley Leather is also in various safari camps, hotel gift shops, hotels and growing in number. They also produce a large amount for corporate work for hotels, restaurants, menu covers, napkin rings, tablemats and the like.
The way in which Rift Valley Leather strives to differentiate themselves is by investing in specialized skill and acquiring specialized machines for different product ranges. “There are some machines that will give you that edge such as stitching, finishing, and branding.” Rift Valley Leather however does not produce any leather shoes although they are starting to look into a clothing range incorporating leather into it. “Our clothing line will be ready much later” says Robert.
“We are a company that wants to make profit but we also want to see people develop.”
Robert Topping explains how the company fosters a training program. One of the examples of training and development is where their best pattern cutter was initially employed as a security guard. Apart from manufacturing, they try to employ local workers, training them and others so they can improve and gain a new skill including designing. At the moment, the company employs 30 overall with 20 of them fundis.
Rift Valley Leather also works with a number of upcoming designers, providing training and work experience. Many young inexperienced designers however are failing to understand the real substantial issues in the industry and expect too much. “We cannot give you the quality zip yet…we could but it would cost a fortune. We are going to have to do something to improve our local supply of components. It would be great if someone could manufacture locally.”
Robert described how when he first came to Kenya and started working in producing leather products, people’s expectations were very low. They never expected quality products made in Kenya. He recounts how he received comments such as “come on, tell us the truth, you don’t make this here do you?” He explains how it makes him happy to change their perception. “People have skills, dexterity, raw local materials and if you have the will you can do it.” He further noted that nowadays, expectations are rising in terms of quality and fashion. Most people with money in Kenya would prefer to purchase goods from abroad, although Robert believes that secretly they have a desire to have good quality products produced here and would be proud to buy something made in Kenya.
“The whole fashion world is changing with the interest in Africa design. Now there is a move for designs created in Africa: that is the growth area.”
There are quite a number of African designers Robert has met along the way who work outside because of the difficulties in local production and yet would prefer to produce locally. The problem of local production is founded on three aspects: availability of quality materials, components and consistency in both, says Robert. “There are times you make a collection with a particular color but when you return to the tannery the name has changed and the color doesn’t exist anymore; we haven’t reached that level of consistency.”
He further explains how difficult it is to work when they are only able to purchase cheap quality components such as zips, buckles, fitting, threads and other knick-knacks. Where these would not be available, Rift Valley Leather would be forced to import these materials, especially threads and linings, at a high cost. As much as Rift Valley Leather tries to use as much locally made products, leather being all local, the cost of making a bag is subject to availability of quality materials. The misconception that everything in Africa has to be dirt-cheap is clearly erroneous in this regard.
Zadock added on “importing is also a problem. Customs is a nightmare. Every time you import something and it gets to customs, its difficult to get things in on time and the cost of it is incredible.” Robert however acknowledges that the government is indeed making an effort to support the leather industry by making it a top priority. Here is an excerpt from the Cabinet Secretary of Industrialization and Enterprise Development in Kenya, Adan Mohammed wherein he states:
This impact on the economy is achieved through contributions made by the leather value-chain players, who include traders in hides and skins, tanners, chemical manufacturers, as well manufacturers of leather goods and footwear.
We are getting a raw deal in this industry because the sector’s value chain is currently dominated by export of raw and semi-processed material, partly due to the weak position of our manufacturing sector.
As a government, we are encouraging value addition before export to increase income, but it is time we stopped importing cheap footwear and instead produced our own.
We want to implement the 100 per cent ‘Buy Kenya Policy’ by supplying footwear to such institutions as the disciplined forces, security firms and health services.
Processing hides and skins to finished leather and leather products fetches value addition of up to 1,000 per cent. If we can nurture and grow this industry, Kenya has the potential to join the global supply chain for high-quality leather products instead of just being an exporter of raw hides and skins.
Let us, together, revive our leather industry.
Both Robert and Zadock acknowledge that presently it is evident that the leather industry is growing. “If you look at the leather industry, there is actually growth. There is us the manufacturers, the tanneries, the suppliers of components and little wood work companies, metal work companies who do buckles and brass work- all of which are satellites in the whole leather industry contributing to growth.”
One of the issues faced last year was a shortage of leather in the local market, explains Zadock. Leather is a commodity like coffee and tea and is traded on the market for export. Traditionally, the leather that is produced for export in Kenya is semi-processed and traded as what is called “wet blue” for finalization in the respective countries. Unfortunately, the non-export quality is what is left behind for local processing. The tanneries suffer as well, continues Robert, simply because making ends meet on the local market is tenuous at best. With the government increasing export taxes on leather, the tanneries are faced with selling to the local market which is not big enough to sustain them. They also find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Zadock however states that they are optimistic about the leather industry with organizations being formed such as the Kenya Leather Development Council (KLDC). “It is difficult but we must persevere.”
Rift Valley Leather participated in the Samsung Amaze Africa, which Robert described as “great fun”. The Amaze Africa Samsung initiative paired 7 accessories designers with 7 fashion designers from across the continent to create unique artistic collaborations and to start a cross-continent conversation about a new African design aesthetic.
“It reopened my eyes to what I want to do here, fashion designed and made in Africa and bought with pride by Africans.” Robert was put together with two designers from Angola named Projecto Mental who use exotic colors, wild clashing colors and patterns for men’s harem trousers with a smart jacket top, different colors right and left socks and shoes. (see pictures below from Amaze Africa).
“We are an infant industry so for now we can just about walk. We can’t run yet.”
One of the areas for improvement in the Kenyan fashion industry that both Robert and Zadock noted was a need for increased cooperation. Robert notes that since the industry is still small, he has experienced both unhealthy competition and jealousy. He describes the growth of the leather industry in Italy after the Second World War from virtually nothing. They grew strongly together through cooperation and through power in numbers were able to dictate to the tanneries the leather they needed and the colors they wanted produced. “Competition through cooperation” says Robert is the only way we will grow. “We have to start cooperating because we have so many common interests; if we have a bigger industry we have more power and influence on suppliers.”
With fashion designers scattered and suffering in silence with the same issues such as local production, availability of quality materials and consistency, cooperation will benefit everyone to grow together. “We shouldn’t be afraid of competition which will be a challenge which will inevitably improve strategy and product offering.” This is something to definitely look forward to in the Kenyan fashion industry: competition through cooperation resulting in growth and strength.
Rift Valley Leather is available at Talisman Restaurant, Karen Square, Mt Kenya Safari Club, Kongoni, Blue Rhino (Village Market and ABC Place), Banana Box and Carnivore.