In the sulphurous stench of a Ouagadougou tanning factory, leather technician Riyaz Kamal checks the thickness of a goat hide that may end up as a pair of Italian designer shoes.
Kamal is one of three Indians working at Burkina Faso’s only tannery who left their homeland for a country ranked the world’s second least developed by the UN, lured by the prospect of higher pay.
“In India you have to get more experience — experienced technicians only can get more money there. So here I’m getting more than I can earn in India,” said Kamal, whose income at the Tan-Aliz plant is nearly three times what he earned in India.
The firm and its 300 workers are part of a lucrative global trade, supplying some of the biggest fashion labels, including Italy’s Gucci.
However, the global downturn has sent demand for luxury products tumbling and Burkina’s nascent leather industry is feeling the effects of the credit crunch.
“There is a lot of reduction in demand ... because of that even I have huge stock here, which needs to be sold,” said Tan-Aliz’s general manager, Mahanmadou Ouedraogo, sitting on a pile of bundled white sacks lying unsold.
When G20 leaders met in London earlier this month to discuss the economic crisis, critics reminded rich governments they must not abandon the poor countries that will feel the brunt and are likely to face rising poverty and social unrest.
The WTO has forecast global commerce will shrink by 9 percent this year, its biggest contraction since World War II, because of falling demand.
Moving to this hot, dusty and landlocked country was a leap into the unknown for the three Indian leather experts.
They packed Spanish phrasebooks only to discover that Burkina Faso — a country they had never heard of — speaks more French. They struggled over how to pronounce their new city’s name: “Wa-ga-du-gu.”
It is a far cry from the leather industry they grew up with in India, where the city of Chennai alone has nearly 1,000 tanneries and shoe factories. In Burkina, Tan-Aliz is the only one and it does not yet produce shoes.
Its hides may come from village goats and sheep, but they go to some glamorous destinations: Between 70 percent and 80 percent are exported to Italy, and a small quantity to Spain and India.
Tanning is an important chance to earn foreign revenue for the former French colony, which depends mostly on cotton.
Tan-Aliz, the largest leather plant in this part of West Africa, processes 25,000 skins a day and turns over 5 billion CFA francs (US$10.5 million) a year, mopping up 85 percent of all Burkina’s goat and sheep skins.
Ouedraogo has limited options for weathering the economic and trade crisis. He hopes to develop finished products for the local market, such as shoes, sofas and briefcases, but for now domestic buyers make up only 3 percent of the market.
There is not a customer in sight at the Tan-Aliz factory boutique, filled with bags etched with images of local drums and brightly colored sofas.
As with many industries, Ouedraogo hopes the answer to his problems may lie with Asia.
“China, definitely, also can give us a new opportunity because it is a huge market and you have also the possibility to sell a range of articles,” he said.
Growing the leather industry should help reduce Burkina Faso’s dependence on cotton farming, which makes it especially exposed to market fluctuations. Cotton prices have nearly halved in the past year because of global uncertainty.