With the Green Tanning Initiative we are taking steps towards a metal-free leather industry in Ethiopia. EU buyers are working with Ethiopian tanneries and leather manufacturers to make this happen.

Ethiopia is not well-known as a sourcing destination for leather products. “Wrongly so,” says Frans Tilstra, Business Developer at MVO Nederland. “Ethiopia has the largest quantity of livestock in Africa with about 60 million animals and has a long tradition of tanning and processing.” However, few European companies buy leather goods directly in Ethiopia. The industry could use a boost. That is why MVO Nederland started the Green Tanning Initiative: a project aiming to revive the industry by introducing sustainable practices and export opportunities.

Healthier and more environmentally friendly

Together with leather companies from the MVO Nederland network, Frans soon understood how to create a positive impact on the Ethiopian leather industry: making it metal-free. Metals like chromium are often used in leather tanning. If not processed properly, they often end up in the surface water, where they pose a health risk to humans, animals and the environment.

Moreover, tanning with metals requires a lot of water, energy and salt. Metal-free leather is therefore not only a healthier but also a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional leather. This is driving up demand for metal-free leather. However, the supply is still limited. Frans: “It’s a big opportunity for the Ethiopian leather industry. By investing in metal-free leather right now, the industry might be saved for the future.”

“By investing in metal-free leather right now, the industry might be saved for the future.”
“The project aims to tackle the entire leather value chain.”

Tackling the entire leather value chain

Together with the international network organisation Solidaridad and the leather chemicals supplier Stahl, MVO Nederland was able to scale up the Green Tanning Initiative in 2018. Frans: “The project aims to tackle the entire leather value chain: from improving the selection system for hides all the way through to implementing new tanning methods, improving waste treatment and improving working conditions.”

A selection of the actions planned under the programme include:

  • technical support for cleaner and more eco-friendly production
  • training and coaching of staff at abattoirs, tanneries and factories
  • trade missions and matchmaking with European buyers
  • knowledge-sharing at tannery, national and network level

Recruiting in Europe, training in Ethiopia

MVO Nederland is recruiting European buyers to join the project. “But that’s not all,” Frans says, “We’re also training tannery personnel to work with the self-assessment tool Tannery of the Future. This tool has been co-developed by MVO Nederland and is well known in the field. It addresses every topic to do with leather and CSR, from traceability and permits to corruption and labour conditions. Self-assessment gives tanneries a better proposition, as the tool is a stepping stone towards the prestigious LWG certification.”

“In addition, we provide training on environmentally friendly waste processing and doing business with European clients. Solidaridad focuses on training on social topics, such as discrimination, gender and living wage. It also supports abattoirs with their quality management,” says Frans. The Green Tanning Initiative is co-sponsored by the European Union’s SWITCH Africa Green Fund, promoting sustainable production and consumption in Africa.


Frans Tilstra closely follows developments in East Africa, such as the investments being made in the clothing industry by the Ethiopian government. “Large factory halls are being set up one after the other, and leading clothing chains are starting to move part of their production there. However, the leather industry is lagging behind, which is strange, because the circumstances are favourable: Ethiopia has decades of experience of tanning and processing and on top of that it has the largest quantity of livestock in Africa, with the endemic hair sheep as a unique asset. With that in mind, I turned to a few leather companies from the MVO Nederland network who got excited too. With them aboard, I decided to take a chance and start the Green Tanning Initiative.”


As for the future, slowly but surely the leather industry is starting to acknowledge that something needs to change. Frans: “The Green Tanning Initiative encourages other companies to make the transition to environmentally friendly leather. And we expect that opportunities will arise to expand to other countries, like India, Bangladesh and Vietnam.” Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the project is progressing steadily. In the near future the first bulk trials with metal-free leather production will take place at the three participating tanneries. Frans: “If metal-free becomes the new standard in leather, which seems to be happening, then Ethiopia will soon be well equipped to serve customers worldwide.”


One of the international brands that joined the Green Tanning Initiative is Dechase. This footwear brand has its origins in a barber shop visit in Ethiopia, where founder Tewodros Dechase crossed paths with a man wearing leather boots that grabbed his attention.

Dechase is striving to become a sustainable brand that creates footwear with local craftsmen to enforce and positively influence economic, environmental and social

development. A beautiful match with the Green Tanning Initiative. Tewodros: “During a factory visit in Ethiopia I overheard people speaking Dutch and decided to say hi. That is when I met Frans Tilstra from MVO Nederland. He told me the Green Tanning Initiative story and I immediately knew that this fitted our brand perfectly. With Dechase, we want to show the world that sustainable products can also be made in Africa. We are working hard to be the first to introduce chrome-free leather products from Africa.”


Contact Frans Tilstra