A Nigerian tannery supplying leather for Ralph Lauren shirts that sell for £2,000 in some of the world’s most exclusive boutiques has received funding from British taxpayers. Thousands of pounds of foreign aid was spent on two failed projects at the tannery in Kano State where, according to officials, workers also prepare hides used to make designer goods for luxury brand Louis Vuitton, the Mail on Sunday has reported. At the weekend, the extraordinary revelation that overseas aid funds have been used to support the multi-billion-pound fashion industry sparked a furious reaction from British members of parliament (MPs) demanding an end to the UK’s commitment to spend at least 0.7 per cent of national income on foreign aid. MP Jacob Rees Mogg said: “No one expects British aid money to subsidise the likes of Louis Vuitton, they are quite capable of paying their own way. It is not the right approach for overseas aid at all.” A Mail on Sunday investigation has discovered that the British Council provided cash for two disastrous projects at God’s Little Tannery, which is on the northern boundary of the sprawling city of Kano in northern Nigeria.
One scheme was to treat effluent from the factory, so that harmful chemicals could be extracted, avoiding the pollution of a nearby river. It was halted because large fans needed for the process never arrived. The other project was an attempt to make poultry feed from by-products of the leather production process. Both schemes would no doubt be welcomed by the fashion industry which is under pressure to improve its ethical credentials. Mr Rees Mogg added: “If you look in the annual reports of these big fashion companies they will have a statement on their social and environmental policy. “It will almost certainly say they work to the highest social and environmental standards. These are the sort of projects they volunteer to take on and they can’t expect the cost of it to fall on British tax payers.” The newspaper’s investigators charted the incredible journey of the leather hides from the dilapidated tannery in Kano to the hub of the African leather importing business in Southern Italy. The majority of the God’s Little Tannery skins shipped to Southern Italy are bought by leather agents the Romano brothers who in turn sell them on to a local tannery called Europell. There the hides are turned into suede and then sold on to factories in Tuscany and northern Italy that produce clothes, bags and shoes for a host of designer brands, including Yves Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren, Fendi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Valentino.
One of the Tuscan factories is run by the Morelli Group owned by Monaldo Morelli. His company has 200 employees and an annual turnover of around £35 million. Mr. Morelli said: “They [the suede items] started in Nigeria.” Production development manager at Morelli, Allegra Colussi, showed off a suede women’s shirt for Ralph Lauren which was made using Nigerian suede from Europell. Named the Charmain, the suede shirt is destined to be part of Ralph Lauren’s forthcoming collection. Senior product manager at Morelli, Valentina Zancarlin, said the factory sells items such as the shirt to Ralph Lauren for around £275. The fashion giant will then mark up the garment by seven or eight times – meaning the Charmain shirt will be expected to retail for more than £2,000. Ralph Lauren failed to respond to requests to discuss its forthcoming collection, but a similar shirt currently available on the company’s website costs £1,882. Back in Kano, Winston Udeagha, eldest son of God’s Little Tannery owner Kofi Udeagha, said his supervisors earned around £100 a month and that the company sold the skins for £1.40 per square metre. He said his company had been dealing with Louis Vuitton for 16 years. At the tannery, workers dip goatskins into vats of chemicals wearing black bin-liners adapted as aprons around their waists.
Professor Abdul Audu, former head of chemistry at Bayero University in Kano, was involved in the British Council project to manage the impact of effluent when it was launched in 2008. He revealed: “I instructed the management to dig a large pit where we could install machinery to assist in the separation of chemicals. The pit was dug but it turned out that further work was impossible.” The second scheme backed by the British Council concerned poultry feed. For several months hundreds of chickens were fed pomo – a food made from boiling cow, goat or sheep skin. It is a porridge-like meal eaten by some Nigerians. A control group of birds fed regular feed, maize and palm kernels did far better so the scheme was scrapped. Together, the schemes cost the British Council £10,000. In September 2011 the British Council also spent £2,000 flying top British leather designer Bill Amberg to a fashion week in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. The council is officially a registered charity, but receives 20 per cent of its funding from the Foreign Office. A spokesman for the British Council said it had made a “small contribution” to the business in 2007. He added: “It makes a positive contribution to the Nigerian economy which helps to stabilise the region.” Louis Vuitton declined to comment.