Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adventures in sourcing: horn & leather

Sourcing locally is a big deal for us in Uganda. I certainly appreciate the meaning of value-add - particularly in a country where so many resources are exported raw (coffee, tobacco, tea, cotton, to name a few). Our organic apparel line at One Mango Tree boasts "seed-to-sewn," but it's at a high cost. There is only one factory transforming Uganda's organic cotton crop into knit. High school economics taught me that only one company equals a monopoly, and we're learning - the hard way - all about the impacts on pricing. Pricing issues aside, the factory doesn't have the flexibility to mix in Lycra, or to produce heathered textures. We do what we can with what we have.

factory visit with our print manufacturer, july 2010

Another reason we try to keep supply chains in Uganda is because of logistics. Uganda is land-locked, so for us, the only way to import findings (zippers, buttons, rings, etc.) is using costly air freight to bring them in. We buy zips for our bags in the local markets, but the trusty YKK brand is not available in Uganda. We often have to sacrifice quality by buying in the local market.

adding a local market zipper to a coin purse in production

As we work on design improvements on our products, naturally the conversation falls to trims - small additions we can make to the bags that add a lot of value. Horn and leather are two items in Uganda that have a lot of market potential, so Gihan and I went on a little adventure to find both.


The horn guy wasn't too difficult to find - after all there's only one of him. All of the horn bowls, napkin rings, bracelets and rings in the local markets are made by one company. On a gray, rainy afternoon we drove out to visit Charles at his workshop. We pulled in to a water-logged field, the mud sucking our shoes as we stepped out of the Pajero. Charles invited us into his office, which was in a wooden building that had been lifted up onto cinder block stilts. I expected to see the striped stockings of the Wicked Witch of the West peeking out from the foundation. We walked down a creaking, tilted hallway and into the main office, where Charles explained the set up.

"You see, the government came in and improved the roundabout here," he gestured towards the road outside.

"Most people are happy about that. But I own this land, and when they build the new road, they elevated it. Now all the runoff comes right into my lands. Every time it rains, even a little, our workshops flood and people cannot work."

We weren't able to see the workshop that day, and learned that flooding is seriously hurting the business. Weather isn't his only problem. When we asked about high prices, Charles explained that the Chinese are coming in and buying up all the horn.

"I have a relationship with the butchers here. I've been working with them for many, many years," he explained.

"I used to go to trade shows in China to sell our horn products. Now the Chinese come and buy the horn straight from the butchers - by the CONTAINER! - and take it back to China to process it themselves. And," he paused, widening his eyes, "do you know that they are undercutting my prices?! They have increased the cost of horn for me here in Uganda, and they can still make the products cheaper than I can."

Gihan and I exchanged glances. This was becoming a familiar problem. Uganda's companies all seemed to be capital poor. While natural resources were abundant, they often found that they couldn't match the prices paid by foreign buyers. As a result, raw goods flew right out of the country before Ugandan companies could add value. We faced this all the time with Phenix, our organic cotton knit producer. With a worldwide cotton shortage, the Chinese, South Koreans and others had come in to Uganda and bought up all the raw organic cotton. Instead of buying knit from Phenix, they were taking it back and processing it themselves - and then selling the final knit version cheaper than the Ugandans could. We were left with the little Phenix could produce, which came with a very high price tag to make up for these losses.

We left Charles with some sample pieces for some horn jewelry we wanted to try, and picked our way through the marshy property back to the car.


Cows are a big deal in Uganda, so you might think leather goods would be a home run. Or that we could at least find some leather goods in Uganda. Or maybe just Ugandan leather. Our leads led us to a residential area off Ggaba Road, where we found what turned out to be a mid-size shoe factory. The scale of production was impressive - someone had clearly invested a lot of money into this project, judging by the heavy machinery that was being used to make work boots, sandals and all sorts of shoes for the local market. A friend suggested that they might sell us some leather to use for bag trims.

In the marketing office, the staff pulled out rolls and rolls of soft leather dyed in pastel colors. We marveled at the flexibility - it would work very well as piping and trim on bags. Gihan asked about the origins of the leather.

"Oh, this one? It is goat. From the UK. Very good quality. How much you want to buy?"

In a country FULL of cows and butcher shops, they were trying to sell us pastel British goat leather. The only Ugandan leather they had was extremely thick black leather used for uppers on work boots. Finally Joseph, our contact and the Director, came in from an outside meeting. After a brief conversation about our needs, he sent us off to a company called Fishnet, and we assured him that we'd be back if we ever got into the business of shoe-making.

Continuing on our journey, we headed back across the city into industrial area, to a compound not five minutes from our own apparel workshop. I'd heard that Fishnet sold leather, but Gihan was insistent that they only sold nets for catching fish. I enjoyed giving him a hard time about the huge detour we made with the shoe factory visit, when the leather place was our neighbor.

We walked into the main building, the facade tiled with undersea scenes. The reception area was empty. Gihan peered over the counter and waved me over excitedly. It was 330 in the afternoon, and the receptionist was sleeping. Not at her desk, but on an actual mattress next to her desk. She had a pillow and blanket, and was clearly sound asleep. We had to suppress our giggles as we walked down the hallway to find someone conscious to help us out.

I found a woman in the first doorway, labeled "Marketing Department," and walked into her office. I asked if we could find the person in charge of selling leather samples. She rolled her eyes dramatically and gestured to a chair outside her office. There was a one foot by one foot hole cut into the wall adjacent to her desk, with a chair sitting next to it. Apparently the protocol was that information could only be shared through the "window." Once I was in the chair, she perked up -

"Yes, hello. Welcome to Fishnet. How can I help you?" as if I hadn't met her just a second before.

I played along "Yes, thank you so much. We are looking for the person here who sells leather." Gihan stood in the hallway suppressing his laughter at me talking through this literal hole-in-the-wall.

After much back and forth, we found ourselves in a small room lined with shelves - shelves stacked high with high-quality, Ugandan leather. We bought a hide and drove the few minutes back to our workshop, content to add two more materials to our list of Ugandan-sourced supplies:

Organic cotton knit
Woven cotton prints
Banana leaf
Horn (could be made into buttons, toggles, loops/rings, etc.)
Leather (could be made into straps, trims, or whole bags)

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