Out of Africa

I do not know how many times over about the last thirty years I have stood in the balcony of a room at the Addis Hilton to look of the town. The sounds and the smells are just the same but two big differences stand out.  Nearly all the tin houses in the shanty town zones have satellite dishes and cranes cover the skyline in every direction.

After years of going backwards Ethiopia has been on the move for the last decade. Despite the dreadful wars, rising terrorism, tribalism and corruption all Africa is moving forward and it is generally felt that a rising middle class built on more manufacturing rather than just exporting commodities will allow the positive trends to overwhelm the negative instincts in this amazing continent.

Africa has been a significant player in the UK as far as leather is concerned.  We tend to think more of the Indian subcontinent as the auction price for skins in Madras (Chennai) were for a long time set in London. Africa was bigger, more diverse, yet Booths were amongst many groups with strong activities throughout the region. They ran tanneries in Kano, Nigeria and in Thika, Kenya and brought semi processed material back to Wades in Nottingham. Pittards have been sourcing skins for gloving from Ethiopia and many other African countries since the 19th century. And now it is Pittards who, without doubt, hold the leading role in helping the Ethiopian leather industry maximise its potential.

We have a long line of Northampton alumni in many parts of Africa, although the concentration in Ethiopia is one of the greatest. It will be a wonderful country for Northampton to work with. Perhaps the cities should twin?  It would be a clever move.  The funding for education world wide is changing and how and where it is taught is evolving also.  In Africa the link with aid is close, but that is not the way successive British governments like to work. Ethiopian funding to send large numbers of students for three year degree courses is not so available and we are likely to be teaching the teachers, accommodating MSc and PhD students more than large cohorts of undergraduates. Leather learning in Ethiopia seems more likely to become the domain of the new MOOCS (not so massive for leather, perhaps, short courses in both Ethiopia and the UK and other novel delivery methods.

Countries like Ethiopia are young, dynamic and moving forward. They are not being dragged back by the ageing populations that beset the west and even, now, China.  The young are, generally speaking, optimistic and perhaps we are seeing Africa bursting into life to become the Continent of the 21st century.  In the 20th century first colonialism and then Presidents who would not retire have stopped the real Africa getting out.  We hope to see some of this at the Meet in Africa trade show on Thursday. If you are around to experience the new spirit of Africa in Addis this week drop by the Hilton or ask for ICLT, Northampton on the Pittards stand. Share the excitement.

Mike Redwood