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Goatskin and Hides Rot in Eritrean Streets

The once thriving skin and hides business has declined so much that rotting skins in the streets have become a source of foul smell and trash in the streets of highly populated Eritrean towns, but mainly in the capital city of Asmara.

Recently, skins lost their value so much that they are often trashed due to lack of demand. It has become common to discard skins in the streets where they rot and omit putrid smell, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. In the past lamb hides were discarded because its market value is meager and not in demand.

According to trade sources in Asmara, “as of recently, different skins and hides have lost their value and are being discarded.’ He added, “it is strange, like a poor man throwing the little money he has in the streets.”

In 1991 when Eritrea became independent, there were four functioning tanneries in Asmara; only one tannery was established in 1995.

Traditionally slaughterers roam the streets to slaughter the animals and are paid in kind with the skin of the animal which they sold to skin and hide traders. Traditionally, the traders dried the skin using salt and roots and resold them to big trading houses who exported them to European markets, mainly Italy.  But in the last two decades, there were some exports to China, Pakistan, and India. However, the new market opportunities were lost because the quality of Eritrean leather products remained inferior.

The anti-business policies and attitude of the Eritrean government which is obsessed with running everything on its own discourages potential Eritrean investors and foreigners alike. In the past, meat and livestock export was a major source of hard currency and the meat processing and packaging industry provided ample job opportunities. In addition, the skin and hide tanning business supplied fleshed, dried and semi-cured hides to several footwear and other leather product factories in Asmara.

A large segment of the Eritrean population depends on herding for their livelihood and the livestock contribute greatly to the national economy.

In the past few years, major leather based businesses and tanneries either closed shop, are idle, or are operating at a bare survival level due to the many haphazard government legislations. They are hampered by the imposition of exorbitant taxes, interference by the government and the ruling party, lack of labor, and lack of supplies that require hard currency to import. The general decline of the Eritrean economy, and the government’s anti- private sector policies are also major encumbrances.

After 1991, some business had obtained modern machinery and attempted to expand and improve their production, but they never reached their full potential. But the fiscal policy of the government that was implemented over a year ago, and its strict control of cash in circulation, dealt a serious blow to most businesses.

Livestock and cattle herding is one of the major sectors of the Eritrean economy. Hence, skin trade and tannery used to be an important source of jobs and hard currency for the country that boasts of a huge number of livestock relative to its size and population.

According to a 2004 estimate, the size of livestock resources in Eritrea is: close to five-million goats; over two million sheep; over two million cattle; and about half a million camels.

Eritreans slaughter around ten-million animals every year, mainly sheep and goats but also bulls and camels. Muslims and Christians alike, strictly adhere to religious rituals and sacrifice animals during the many religious feasts—even the poor make sure to slaughter an animal during religious holidays.

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  • Kaddis

    Hi all,
    Since Asmara is part of the discussion; have anyone seen the ‘History of Africa’ programme on the BBC Sunday 29th by Zeinab Bedawi . I saw only the mute footage of Asmara, Adulis, the Aksumite kingdome and how inter-related the region looked from history point of view. I was at a public place and could not follow closely. Any reflection appreciated..

  • Mez

    Hi all,
    Provided it’s economic feasibility, it could be used as a chicken fodder input.

  • Abraham H.

    Dear Gedab News, I’ve also heard in the old times some Eritreans, particularly those in Semhar were involved in hunting snakes, selling their skin to be used for belts. It is really surprising why this important business of skin and hides has been abandoned to irrelevance as your report shows.
    I wonder how much of Eritrea’s export potential is being exploited under the pfdj regime:

    -fish and sea food products
    -fruits, vegetables, flowers
    -animals and animal products
    -minerals, this has been exploited for some time now to some degree with its proceeds most probably ending up in the coffers of the dictator in his private accounts outside the country

    It seems the main export of Eritrea under DIA regime has so far been its emaciated, brutalized, and traumatized youth, sadly.

    • Selam Abraham H.

      I think that you have in mind the so-called boa (anaconda, python), giant snakes meters long, that kill by constriction and can swallow a whole goat or sheep. Such snakes were also found in ethiopia. There skin was used for purses, wallets, and belts.
      I remember that it was prohibited by law, to kill and sell the skin, and the police could apprehend any person found with it, because it was an endangered species. I do not think that it could create a lucrative business, even at an individual level.
      Maybe, you have heard of crocodile farms in southern africa, which I think are successful, and they produce crocodile skin for luxury leather products, and these farms are even tourist attraction sites.

      • Abraham H.

        Dear Horizon, thanks for your addition. The business in snakeskin is actually a billion dollar worth and very lucrative, though controversial, according to one BBC report.
        “The nature of the trade is such that there is a strong financial incentive all along the supply chain to use illegal snakes. A skin that a villager in Indonesia might sell for $30 (£19) will end up as a bag in fashion boutiques in France or Italy selling for $15,000 (£9,300). The highest demand is for skins between three and four metres long.”-BBC

    • sara

      Dear Abraham ,
      Saudi Arabia has launched a massive tourism development project that will turn 50 islands and other sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts 200 km from the eritrean coast, just to add to your list above.

      • Abraham H.

        Dear sara, I only mentioned some potentials of export from Eritrea, even that list is incomplete. Eritrea is indeed, a blessed country when it comes to natural resources; coupled with its very strategic location along one of the main trade routes of the world, it could have quickly transformed itself economically. But that is not possible, at least for now; me and you may disagree on this one, but I don’t think outside forces are to blame for our multitude failures so far.
        Good to hear about any kind of investment that could make a change to the better in the living standards of our people, but I still have my reservations, and you know why.

      • Abraham H.

        Dear sara, after watching the news about this Saudi project, it is actually something interesting in the Saudi context. There are indications the authorities are going to relax the heavily conservative rules otherwise practiced in the mainland Saudi Arabia, in order to encourage international tourism to this hugely ambitious plan. One point, it is not near the Eritrean coast as you alluded to, it lies further north opposite the Egyptian coast.

        • sara

          Dear Abraham, good you followed the story,it shows the red sea has a lot of potential for such economic endeavors. Egypt,Israeli,Jordan have been the main beneficiaries in the past now saudi arabia is joining them. hopefully Sudan will do some thing soon. you see abraham our Red sea has so many potentials apart from being a port service provider, that eritrea will in due time could also join saudi arabia.
          apart from that you also forgot to list the Red sea (eritrea) fisheries potential..

    • Hayat Adem

      Hi Abraham, Everyone:
      Of all the list and listable, what pains me is the possible revenue from the idling ports. But generally speaking, no policy in Eritrea is run based on sound reasoning.There is no export economy to speak of. There is no taxable economy to speak of. Skin and hides could have been one good export sector. There used to be exportable leather products from Eritrea. Not any more.
      A decade ago or a bit earlier, the Eritrean regime admit sick sheep from Aus in the number of 50K+ that were destined for KSA but rejected for their unhealthiness. I remember the headlines of one media reading: Eritrea Willing to Take Embarrassing Sheep. Think about it: These were sheep meant for Saudi. The Saudi gvt rejected them for diseases or health issues. What country that has minimal self respect agrees to take such animals to feed its people!
      There is a parallel example. Al-Shabab used to control and administer the Kismayo part of Somalia for some time. So, Alshabab runs and taxes all businesses under the territory it controls. Its cashes come mainly from from the charcoal but that is not what I’m remembering now. Like PFDJ, al-Shabab, too, monopolizes many of the businesses including the retail ones. So, it retails all kinds of groceries people had to buy for household consumption as well. Meat was one of them. And then the meat al-Shabab was selling as lamb, mutton and beef were coming from killed hyenas.
      There are all kinds of weirdos out there. No one should be surprised by any act from the PFDJ world. Last week, a person in the know told me PFDJ officials offered transport money and accommodation for Ethiopians who can’t stay in KSA and not willing to go home. Do you count this as humanitarian gesture? There are close to a million Eritrean refugees in Sudan and unable to return home. There are 4 to 5k Eritreans fleeing. By YemeneM’s admission 2000 people per month (ya Allah!!!). And you offer this?!

      • Selam Hayat Adem,

        One possible explanation for offering transport money and accommodation for ethiopians who do not want to go back home could be that the pfdj is recruiting people for g7 and olf. As you said it is impossible to think that it is humanitarian.

  • Hameed Al-Arabi

    Hi AT,

    I think there is a mistake in, “Eritreans slaughter around ten-million animals every year, mainly sheep and goats but also bulls and camels.” in accordance with what they possess.


    • Abraham H.

      Hi Hameed Arabi, yes, 10 million seems way too many. About two million animals makes sense.

  • Bayan Nagash

    Dear AT,
    Many thanks for solving the pungency problem that I’d heard from close and trusted friend just two days ago. This friend was puzzled by it all. Nobody seemed to put a finger on it, but you did! How ironic, Asmara was added in the list of UNESCO’s Heritage Site – a coveted recognition – just a month or so ago.

    I distinctly remember in the early 90s in Los Angeles when Haile Dru’e made a comment – tongue and cheek – in how the Asmara Administration was not only trying to get Asmarinos from covering their noses when they passed the Fish Market but that it was trying to help them change their eating habits. I suppose one could’ve added Aba Shawul and Haddis Addi to the list, but hey, those were our slams that we continue to hold dearly. Besides, I wouldn’t mess with deQQi Abbashaul and deQQi Haddish Addi, these were rough and tough lots.

    Anyhow, I pity Asmara and its inhabitants for the pungency spreading city-wide. The incompetency of the regime seems to have no bounds. Those neatly tacked handkerchiefs that Asmarinos used to carry in their back pocket are now serving dual purposes, eh.


    • saay7

      Hala Beyan:

      Aba Shauel *is* listed in UNESCOs naming of Asmara as a world heritage city. It was done to create a contrast with the Art Deco buildings, the theme being what humanity is able to build. Somewhere Alamin Abduletif was smiling. (Homework for Nitrric: do you know where the neighborhood gets its name? Once you know you will be, to use ur favorite word, discombulated.)

      When Beyan and I were kids in Asmara, there was one season when you could sell the skin of a sheep/goat for more than the purchase price of the sheep/goat. But with PFDJ, you know, there was an asmarino word to describe them “feger!” SGJ will tell us the root of the word 🙂


      • Bayan Nagash

        Ya MerHab ya Saay,
        I do, indeed, remember the time when the price of the goat/sheep was equivalent to the price of its skin. As a kid, I remember my dad wanting to teach me how to skin. No recollection if it was a goat or a sheep. What I most remember though is how cautious he was in making sure that there would be no holes of any size, lest it be the size of Hirkam, if it is, the skin would have no value; in the case of the latter, well, I suppose the only thing the skin would be good for is for a prayer-mat or kebero. Whether one chooses to transform the skin to the spiritual realm or the entrancing homemade drum, it all depends on the family’s creative skills and their disposition toward one versus the other.

        In the event of no skilled men are left to make use of the skin like they appear to be in today’s Asmara, the foul odor would be the attendant outcome. The proverbial Asmainos’ sarcastic joke in the diaspora whereupon seeing an Eritrean wearing a worn-out leather jacket, by the way, is to insinuate to the wearer that he had worn the leather more than its original creature had. I will not open the Pandora’s Box of getting us started about Eritreans and their affinity toward wearing a jacket come rain or shine.