I’m sitting in the Chinese restaurant Hsin Kwans and watching England trying to bowl South Africa out in their final innings of the test match. I’ve spent the week visiting tanneries, shoe and garment factories and have met more alumni than I can count. My picture shows me with Salman Butt who works as R&D Manager at the Siddiq Leather Works. Siddiq is part of the Shafi group and is one of the few tanneries in the world which is ISO14000 certified.
This is Lahore in Pakistan and it is eight years since I have had the chance to visit. It is like being with tanners and shoemakers anywhere in the world as within the first few minutes you are talking about events and people all over the world. If ever there was an industry that is worthy of the global name then it is the leather industry.
Watching the lights go out
One way you know you are in Pakistan is that every now and then the lights go out. In better restaurants like this and the bigger factories they have their own generators. After a moment these click in so you do not miss the South African captain Graeme Smith hitting his next four off Monty Panesar. For small factories and for people at home it is a disaster as you appear to lose many hours every day to power cuts, with no warning or possibility to plan.
In Lahore and Karachi are some fine tanneries that many of us know about not just from studying with the teams that now manage them, but also from seeing their leather in the market place over many years. Pakistan has a lot of good raw material, a number of top tanneries and we are seeing some emerging footwear and garment businesses also coming to the fore. An interesting moment when China is seemingly less interested in the leather industry.
The most famous tanning centre in Pakistan is without doubt Kasur. On my web site I found I had written many years ago just a couple of lines –
Near Lahore in Pakistan, a 200 year old tanning centre which in 2001 was still trying to resolve effluent problems with the help of UNIDO. Kasur tanners make from the raw and sell quite large amounts to Karachi and Sialkot tanners in wet blue
Things have changed now. There are still 250 tanneries whose history goes through the period of using local babool for tanning for the local market through making the EI material that underpinned so much of British leather making in the first half to three quarters of the 20th century. Since the 1970s they have been mostly chrome tanning, and as well as supplying wet blue to other tanneries in Pakistan they now have some limited finishing capabilities in the town and some of the larger units like HS Ali (also full of alumni) can make some fine leathers.
It is hard to get to grips with this place with its narrow streets and donkey carts everywhere. But every piece of waste is supposedly being removed and used effectively for glue, gelatine, leather-board, tent edges etc and the big primary treatment plant is working well. Taken on face value there is a lot to do to make this right from a health and safety point of view, and to move to secondary treatment at least but it is just like walking into an old S.Croce sull Arno. I have to say when I went to work in S.Croce in the early 1970s the smell was a lot worse than it is in Kasur.
Kasur will have to change and develop quite rapidly to survive, but with its well laid brick roads a deep clean and a little change of mindset those of you who know it should think of design centres, ice cream parlours and Starbucks with WiFi set in the brick buildings along the roads amidst these 250 crowded tanneries.
Well, someone has to dream.
2nd August 2008
PS two new posts have just been advertised in the BSLT. Well worth looking at.