I AM such a leather enthusiast that I can almost recall every genuine leather product I have owned since I was a child – which explains why I tend to keep shoes for longer than some people keep friends.
One of my most prized purchases is a rawhide-cover notebook with a popular clothing brand name that still sits in my desk drawer and accompanies me on some of my outings.
At the time I bought it, in the 1990s, the only Ugandan leather I could come across was so raw it was either wrapped around live meat walking through fields of grass or in steaming stinking piles at a yard in Kampala ready for export. Technically we couldn’t even call it leather.
When I later got involved in the Jua Kali sector by virtue of my employment at the time I spent months and months sifting through products made of cloth, cowhorn, metal, beads, soapstone and very, very few that were made of leather.
In many cases the leather ones were of the synthetic variety that didn’t seem to be linked to our cows here in Uganda.
But, slowly, we started seeing genuine leather products cropping up more and more, and priced just high enough to make one believe that they were, indeed, made in Uganda.
The leather industry picked up steam quickly after that but I just couldn’t get my hands onto any of it.
Until last year, at the Nairobi International Convention Centre, where I was attending the 20th anniversary of the East African Business Council and walked down a gauntlet of stalls offering wares made in the EAC. This was a much improved arrangement from the Jua Kali exhibitions of old.
Back then we would take up space on yards in places like the UMA Showgrounds and the KCCA field, then have the artisans pitch makeshift tents (and shacks) out of which to display and sell their products.
Here, there was more method and we felt like we were walking through ‘proper’ shops. It was impressive and comfortable, and I kept stopping wherever there were leather products, and collected the flyers and business cards of the artisans that made them. Most were from Kenya, which was good because this was the EAC and I was quite ready to support all my people.
At the end of the alley, right under the hot sun, were two young ladies who looked a little bit familiar and were quite lively in their presentation. Their products stood out more than the rest so I spent a bit more time gathering up their details.
The company or brand name ‘NaRoho’ was in Kiswahili and it was only after many minutes of chatting that I noticed that the products were actually branded ‘NaRoho Uganda’.
The young ladies, to my pleasure, revealed themselves to be Ugandan – but I had to suppress that nationalism for the wider objective for which I had crossed the border – we were East African.
So I waited till I was back home before making contact with one of them – Isabel Agol – and placing orders for things made out of Ugandan leather in Uganda by a Ugandan.
Isabel surprised me even more. Within a couple of months, I was toting around a bespoke leather laptop bag, a leather-bound notebook, and a credit card wallet all priced so affordably I couldn’t believe I had to travel all the way to Nairobi before meeting her.
Here she is working on my brand new, genuine leather steering wheel cover just a couple of weeks ago – made by her right here in Kampala, Uganda!
Once again, she did a fantastic job there!
She’s on my speed dial right now, and is making more leather products for me as I wonder what other precious products made here that I am missing out on.
For now, it’s a better thought than trying to work out why we went all those years watching those steaming, stinking piles of hides and skins in the yards in Kampala being sent to other countries where they underwent processes that resulted in expensive products coming back for us to fail to afford.