A story is told of a university don who was once invited to an evening ball by his elite friends in one of the city’s upmarket suburbs.
The don decided to tag along with a friend who was a cobbler for an evening of merriment.
During the initial presentations, the don introduced his cobbler friend as a renowned businessman with vast interests in the leather sector.
But as the evening wore on, the cobbler had too much to drink and started misbehaving in front of the don’s wealthy friends.
The don got annoyed and shouted: “Please get someone to kick this cobbler out of the room!”
Such is the life of the Kenyan cobbler, an important but much maligned individual even in the context of the leather industry and whose craft plays a critical role in the economy.
This was manifested at a recent forum in Nairobi where the government invited all players in the leather sector to present their input in its ambitious plan to spur the industry which is an important cog of manufacturing – a pillar in the Big Four agenda.
Little known association
Among the invitees included tanners, who supposedly rake in the most revenues and account for 90 per cent of all the country’s leather exports. They were represented by their Tanners Association of Kenya (TAK) lobby.
The other participants were big footwear manufacturers who represented by the Kenya Footwear Manufacturers Association (KFMA).
The industry start-ups that dwell in the export and general sale of leather products were also present through their lobby, the Leather Articles Entrepreneurs Association (LAEA).
Also in the room were the cobblers who were represented by their little known Cobblers Association of Kenya (CAK).
The topic of the day, according to the Principal Secretary for Investment and Industry Betty Maina was how industry players could work with the Government to spur the leather industry.
The industry is part of a big manufacturing agenda with Sh300 billion set aside for it in the next three years.
While the other three big-time industry lobbies – TAK, KFMA and LAEA – passionately championed for the zero-rating of taxes on raw materials, the setting up of a leather park in Machakos County and the banning of imported shoes that are proving competitive in the local market, the cobblers seemed lost in the entire hubbub.
Their association spokesperson Peter Kitheka speaking to Weekend Business on the sidelines of the forum said from the discussions, it was clear that they were not on the Government’s agenda and it was a matter of time before they were edged out from the negotiating table on how to share the State billions just like their colleague from the don’s analogy.
“I can tell you for most of us who operate small shops in Kariokor Market, we have not heard exactly what the government intends to do to bring us into the fold of the industry,” Mr Kitheka said.
“We have been given promises, but nothing has to come to pass yet. This talk about taxes and leather parks is alien to us.”
What Kitheka is talking about, is a study that was carried out in 2015 by the World Bank.
The report pointed out that as a way to bring cobblers into Kenya’s leather manufacturing master plan, a development strategy was to be created commencing at Kariokor Market in Nairobi before spreading to other centres countrywide.
Kariokor was chosen because it is the biggest cobbler market in the county with 300 cobbler-stalls operating in it.
According to the World Bank recommendations, the market was to be declared a Common Manufacturing Facility (CMF).
By that it meant, the cobblers were to be provided with state-of-the-art machines that would make them produce high-quality shoes.
They were also to be provided with funding through concessional loans from such state-owned financial institutions like the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) and the Kenya Industrial Estates (KIE).
The agreement was if the cobblers were to be provided with such support, they were to increase their output from the 1.7 million shoes they produce annually to 10 million shoes that could go to the export market.
Currently, most of the handmade shoes by the cobblers go to the local market.
According to Ms Maina, the Government bought the machines in August 2016 at a cost of Sh90 million.
But more than two years later, the machines are still lying idle in boxes at the Kenya Leather Development Council headquarters.
“The machines were procured but we have not agreed on the modalities of which to use in presenting them to the cobblers. We had a presidential roundtable where the cobbler issue was discussed. We really feel their pain. Their plight has not been forgotten,” said the PS.
But even as the Government expresses empathy towards the cobblers, Kitheka and his colleagues are adamant that the State is only shedding the proverbial crocodile tears.
He explained that there was a deal where if the cobblers could be provided with the machines and increased their production and quality of their work, they were to be contracted to make footwear for the disciplined forces. This, however, never happened.
Instead, the deal went to Bata Shoe Company that has reportedly invested Sh45 million in a boots manufacturing plant with the aim of producing combat boots for the military.
Another big project in the leather industry – the proposed 500-hectare Kenanie Leather Park in Machakos whose infrastructural development alone is expected to cost the taxpayer Sh500 billion - was dangled to the cobblers when it was first launched in 2015.
But despite budgetary allocations to the tune of Sh5 billion since the launch, the project has stagnated, with only the occasional reminder from the tanners and the big footwear manufacturers who had vouched for its creation in the first place.
“We knew from the beginning that Kenanie was simply a playground for the big players in the industry and we wondered about the much enthusiasm the Government showed for it while completely ignoring the World Bank report that was looking at our plight,” Kitheka said.
“When you look at that leather park, our stalls will have to be transferred there. But we ask ourselves, there is the mama kiosk at Kariokor who sells us cheap food when we don’t have money on credit. How will that mama kiosk be accommodated at the park? Some of us live near our stall since we don’t make enough money for transport to work. It is a project only for the elites in the industry,” Kitheka said.
The Government certainly wants to make Kenya a big player in the African leather market, competing with such established players as Ethiopia and Morocco, but it would appear the place of the cobbler in this grand development plan is a dark, cold corner in a huge room belonging to the rich.