Meet the man changing the face of Nigeria’s leather craft

Walking through the exhibition centre at the third Lagos leather fair that took place on September 7 and 8 in Nigeria’s most populous city, I saw a lot of bags, shoes, keyholders and other accessories made from leather showcased in different branded booths. However, a particular handbag caught my attention; a blend of wheelbarrow tires and leather finely crafted into a potable handbag.

I have seen slippers, sculptures and other art from tires but never have I seen a bag made from the full 16inch (5.5lb) pneumatic wheelbarrow tires. This unusual art led me to a veteran Nigerian leather craftsman, Obiora Ononye Odinma popularly known as Obi leather.

The jovial middle-aged man in his early ’60s, no taller than 5.4 feet was very excited and happy to relive old memories while talking about his craft and his unique handbags. According to the craftsman, he has been making and producing tire bags for the last five years. For him, there was no singular idea that birthed the production. However, “once you make unusual things, you will always get ideas,” and this, Ononye said pointing to the bags, are one of those unusual ideas.

A typical wheelbarrow tire weighs 5.5 pounds and this bag which is made from leather and rubber has the weight of the full tire and more, including the leather and buckle. This is approximately the size of a West African royal antelope that a woman has to carry around in the name of a handbag. Nevertheless, Odinma says while some of the bags are heavy, some are not and those who purchase the bags do not mind the weight. Odinma said, “once the bag is strapped on, most of the weight is no longer felt by the carrier.”

Pneumatic tires are made of synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric, wire, carbon black as well as other chemical compounds. Tires consist mainly of a tread and a body. The tread provides traction while the body provides containment for a quantity of compressed air. So when the founder of Obi leather says “working with a tire is not easy” I do not doubt him.

When it comes to design thinking and the art of making tire bags, various things are taken into consideration. One of which is the size of the tires, the leather designer disclosed. For him, the tires of tricycle, popularly known as Keke in Nigeria are not appropriate because of its size and weight. Quite alright, tricycles use the same size of tires, however, they are thicker and heavier than the wheelbarrow tires which are the favoured choice in Obi leather’s factory.

However, when it comes to the bags produced by Odinma, the tires used are neither old nor condemned. In fact, “they have a good second-hand value because these are the tires wheelbarrows use.”

The leather used in producing these bags and other items produced by the company are sourced in Nigeria. Nigeria has the largest resource of goatskin and kidskin in Africa, representing 46 percent and 18 percent of the total in Africa market, respectively. Domestically, the industry represents the second major earner of foreign exchange after oil with a total export of tanned skins amounting to about $240 million in 2015. The Nigerian leather industry generates between $600 million to $800millon through export annually and has been projected by the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), to generate over $1 billion by 2025.

For Obiora Odinma, the leathercraft passion was not born out of the abundance of leather in Nigeria, but from the need to make the things he uses, from shoes to bags and occasionally clothing. “I am a sewing machine artist, and I could do whatever I want with the sewing machine,” Odinma noted.

Stroking his pale white beard, a chatty Odinma disclosed that he started the business of shoe and bag making when his beard was all black. “I have been doing leather stuff since 1977/78,” Odinma said reminding me that I was not born at the time he began his leather production and design business.

Reminiscing on his childhood, the veteran craftsman noted that he was a self-taught person and that he has always wanted to do something that wasn’t the norm “I went to high school in the ’70s and there weren’t a lot of things that you could do, and given my background, I could easily have done what my family wanted me to do but I did not want to go to formal school. Back then, doing things like these means that you did not follow the norm”

“Growing up in an educated family with good prospects and didn’t lack anything, I could have done whatever but there was no place to learn about shoes, no books and the highest was business faculty. To self learn, I had to go to airports. I travelled and going through the airport, there are duty-free shops and the airport was a good place to see bags in motion. At international airports, you see people with a lot of bags and you see a lot of luxury goods.”

Like a child who just found his favourite toy, a particular memory seemed to strike a visibly excited and jumpy Odinma who disclosed that he used to collect catalogues from the ’70s. “I still collect them and I still have the ones from the ’70s,” Odinma said adding that he had the interest as well as all the time. “I started supplying to UTC (Swiss-founded Union Trading Company PLC) in the mid-’60s when I was still in my early ’20s.”

Being among the last children in a big family which was a stickler for the rules, Odinma noted that he could have been a teacher if he stuck to the rules but he left home really early and was considered the black sheep of the family. “I wanted to do education and I was good with teaching. The first job I did was teaching, I was a primary school teacher and if you study education in the mid-’70s, you get a scholarship. So I could have been a teacher.” Teaching is still a passion for Obi leather founder who noted that some schools are trying to create a leather faculty and are in talks with him to bring him on board and share his knowledge.

Looking back on the path he chose and being the black sheep, the Delta States native stated that earlier on he used to get worried but right now he regrets nothing. Especially when he sees his children and gets to spend quality time with them, either at work in the factory or on the street when the go bike riding together. “I ride a bicycle all over Lagos state while my son sometimes takes me on his power bike. But in all, liking what you do and doing it as much as you can is all that matters. I like what I do and it has given me all I wanted and made me meet interesting people like you.”

Despite his age, Odinma is technologically savvy. He is a technology and self-reliance practitioner who relies on the technology from other fields to ensure his ideal shoes and bags are birthed. Beckoning on his son and co-worker Ezenwa to get the bag, Odinma explained how he deployed some carpentry tools to ensure the perfect finish he desires. However, he advises that shoemakers and leather artists should ensure that they invest only in technology that is absolutely necessary. This is because, “there are many people in Nigeria, Europe and other places that do things the traditional way and get even better results.”