Cape Karoo International, is a vertically integrated enterprise responsible for the processing and commercialization of ostriches and has approximately 1000 farmers involved in the different phases of ostrich rearing. Current production capacity allows the group to process 200 000 ostrich skins annually at its two South African Tanneries. The tanneries are based in Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo and Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape, making Cape Karoo International the largest ostrich leather producer in the world.
The smaller plant is situated in the picturesque coastal town of Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape region of South Africa, better known as the Garden Route. The area is steeped in history, well known for various landmarks, such as the Post Tree and the replica of the Carvel, the ship in which Bartholomew Dias sailed around Africa in 1488.
The Klein Karoo offers the ideal climate for ostriches. This dry, sun-drenched land is home to Cape Karoo International’s second, more extensive tannery, which is based in the “Ostrich Capital of the World,” Oudtshoorn. The region has been home to many knowledgeable and dedicated ostrich farmers for generations.
Top international fashion houses include Cape Karoo International’s highly valued exotic leather in their collections to enhance the exclusivity and exceptionality of their designs. Ostrich leather’s durability and strength has made it possible for this industry to expand beyond fashion garments and accessories to other areas such as bespoke furniture and the luxury automotive industry.
The accumulation of decades of skills and knowledge applied in the tanning and finishing of our leather makes this versatile leather a unique design material that is only limited by your own imagination.
The tanneries are situated halfway between two ports, namely Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. We pride ourselves on our relationships with expert global leaders in the field of export forwarding to ensure that our customers worldwide receive a high level of customer service and to maintain our reputation as a reliable supplier of ostrich leather.
The teams of the Oudtshoorn and Mossel Bay tanneries have perfected the transformation of nature’s rare gift – Struthio Camelus. Through hard work they establish a flawless reputation in the global leather industry. The resultant ostrich leather that enhances and enriches the lives of style- and quality-driven people.
A Rich History
In the early 1960’s after the market had crashed, it seemed as though it would never recover. In those years, the farmers sold a little biltong meat, feathers were auctioned, and cured skins were sold as well. The farmers did not care what the tanners did with the skins. For the first time the possibility of an abattoir and a tannery was raised. Farmers still slaughtered on the farms. They scraped the fat off the skin and sent the skin in its green cured form to tanners like the Pienaars in Pretoria, Gast in Almelo, Holland, Pompom in France and Komstam in England.
Piet Greeff, the general manager of the co-operative was a man with vision for the industry. His far-sightedness was simply brilliant, and he contacted his friends, the Pienaars and obtained their services as tanners. On 19 December 1966, a delegation of the Klein Karoo Koöperasie held a meeting with Mr P Pienaar of TMC Fur and Leather from Pretoria to initiate the establishment of a co-operative tannery. TMC Fur and Leather produced ostrich leather of a satisfactory quality. The tannery was small, but effective.
The more they thought about it, the more they realised that ostrich skin was a unique product. It had to be transformed into an asset. Crocodile and snake skins earned lots of money in America and the karakul farmer was doing something about his unique product. The ostrich farmer could not afford to lag, especially since they could not get the ostrich feather market going again.
It was a foregone conclusion that a tannery should be established. It was out of the question that any organisation other than the co-operative should control it, so that costs could, among other things, be limited. The business prospects were investigated intensively. The fact that local manufacturers were buying tanned skins was proof of the good quality. Furthermore, many skins were exported.
On 31 March 1967, another chapter in the unique history of Klein Karoo was written. A meeting was held in the boardroom of the co-operative. Present were chairman Joey Potgieter, Manie Potgieter, Snyman le Roux, Arnold de Jager, general manager, Piet Greeff and Hannes Louw, deputy general manager who acted as secretary. They were members of a committee charged with establishing Volstruisprodukte Sentraal Koöperatief. It was decided that Snyman le Roux, Arnold de Jager, Piet Greeff, and Johann Pienaar from TMC, should go abroad in connection with ostrich skin affairs.
The first mission abroad visited Rome, Milan, Zürich, Basle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Almelo, London and Paris. They were instructed to investigate tannery buildings, machinery and equipment. About 500 tanneries were visited in total. It was important to explain to Mr Gast in Almelo and Mr Figgis in London that they were tanning in the Republic and that Klein Karoo contemplating tanning co-operatively. Co-operation in respect of the proposed tannery or the distribution of skins in some way could be looked at. It was intended that full information on all matters should be gathered, and that a full report would be discussed by the board of directors of VSK in order to take a decision.
Within a short period, what originally had been a dream became a desirability, then necessity and eventually a reality. During their visits to tanners in Holland, Italy, Germany and France, they received little or no assistance from any of these business associates. Before VSK was established, they once argued from dusk till dawn with the directors of a private tannery on the possibility of entering into a partnership. All the time during the difficult discussions they kept the back door open and retained the co-operation of the tanners.
Arnold de Jager tells the story: “We visited hundreds of tanneries in Europe and learnt something at every one. Sometimes we had to peep through small windows to see how they tanned. We were not allowed inside to see the process. We visited ostrich skin tanners with whom we had relations. In Milan we visited Felix Ambrosini, and in Holland, Gast. We received little or no assistance from any of them. That was also the case at Offenbach in Germany and Pompom in Paris.”
It became clear that there was no possibility of co-operation with South African tanners, Klein Karoo Koöperasie had no choice. If the industry was to be regulated, the co-operative would have to build its own tannery.
Arnold de Jager, and his wife, Diane, were on holiday overseas in 1969 when they received a telex from the co-operative. Arnold had to go to Komstam in England. His grandfather exported to Figures and Company in London and Arnold decided to visit him and ask if he will accompany him to Komstam. He offered Komstam the agency once Klein Karoo got started. He needed a price and asked whether they would be willing to train one of the tanners for a year to 18 months. After long negotiations they could not agree on a price, after which he then gave up.
“It was clear, they wanted to keep us out of the industry”, said Arnold. On their way back in the train to London across the Thames, they saw Rowe & Son. His companion from Figures suggested to stop, he knows them well. They tan a little bit of ostrich leather. Not the best, but quite acceptable. Arnold de Jager requested if they will take in an apprentice tanner if they offer them the agency. He also shared that he needs a price of 1/6. They agreed.
At home, Johann Wilkens, an excellent tanner of Grahamstown was approached. He was willing to start a tannery for Klein Karoo although he said, “I am just an ordinary tanner”. He had no experience with ostrich leather and faced the challenge of mastering the tannery technology of this unique leather within four months.
In 1969, Hannes Louw, Snyman le Roux and Johann Wilkens went abroad. Johann would receive four months’ training in London and the other two had to do research on tanneries and buy the necessary equipment.
Until Klein Karoo started tanning, South African manufacturers were dependent on foreigners to make ostrich leather goods. Often the best skins remained in Europe, and only third and fourth grade skins were sent back to South Africa. At this stage, Gast of the Netherlands bought and processed about 45 percent of all skins. The rest was sent to a German tannery.
On 1 December 1969, the plans started to become reality. Everything was planned in detail and presented to the board, but unfortunately cost had to be cut because they were working with fellow farmers money. It was short-sighted and an expensive mistake. Within three years, they had to double the building in size and a few years later it was expanded again.
Joey Potgieter ceremonially lay the first foundation stone. He turned the occasion into something really special by declaring: “This building is a monument for all those who helped to develop this co-operative so that we could reach this milestone of building a tannery. This monument will be here to remind later generations of what can be done through the power of co-operation. This breakthrough will inspire us to even greater success on the road ahead.”
The tannery, which cost about R2 million, was opened officially by Dirk Uys, the Minister of Agriculture, on 24 August 1970.
When the first skins were finally processed in August 1970, a quarter of a century after the founding of the co-operative it was done in a spirit of true co-operation. The long cherished ideal to run this industry for the farmer at the lowest possible cost was within reach. It would be possible to control the product.
In the early years the tanning of ostrich skins posed unique problems. As bird lives in semi-desert conditions, it usually has large fat reserves in horizontal, fibrillose layers under the skin. The uneven form of the hide and the deep roots of the feathers also has special requirements.
In September 1970 the first “crop” of 146 tanned skins was ready. By the end of 1970, a total of 514 skins had been tanned. After that, the tannery gathered speed and in one month, between 11 January and 11 February 1971, 976 skins were tanned. The first consignments from Klein Karoo’s own tannery were sold in May 1971.
The skins that were supplied were of a high quality. The knowledge of the tanners was remarkable. All the criteria for a tannery had been taken into consideration from the very beginning the equipment was adapted to the requirements of ostrich leather.
Johann Wilken made several breakthroughs. He not only perfected the tanning process in time, he also refined the finish. He took advice and input from agents and customers and first they only produced a pigmented Classic finish. Johann developed the Saddle Finish, a drum dyed full aniline leather, soft to the touch and suitable for different applications. He constantly looked at the different characteristics of the leather. In co-operation with the Italians and the Japanese, Johann developed methods to ensure better colourfastness and minimize colour variation within the same batch.
Oudtshoorn Tannery Today
Today, ostrich leather is still processed at the Oudtshoorn Veterinary Approved Tannery,ZA 16/27 and ISO9000 and ISO14000:2004 accredited and remain the largest ostrich tannery in the world. Under the Management of Du Toit Kruger, Tannery Manager, and his team of 160 employees the same culture established by Johann Wilken in 1970 still applies. Innovation and the use of the latest technology and methods to develop a product not seen anywhere else in the world remain part of this team pride.
Mossel Bay Tannery
Mossel Bay History
As part of the vertical integration of the ostrich industry in the Southern Cape, Mosstrich Limited, an ostrich processing plant with modern abattoir, was established in 1996 by 180 ostrich farmers in the area. This integration process was taken a step further with the establishment of South Cape Ostrich Tanning (SCOT), a vibrant tanning company that operated as part of the Mosstrich Group.
SCOT tannery obtained its raw material from Mosstrich, as well as from independent producers, as the market required. The tannery was established to process 75 000 ostrich skins per annum and offered a wide range of colours and speciality finishes to meet the demands of the fashion industry.
SCOT established itself as one of the leading ostrich leather producing tanneries since it commenced with operations in May 2000. Under the management of Tannery Manager Pieter Yzelle, with years’ experience in the ostrich industry, the quality of ostrich leather produced by SCOT was quickly widely accepted by the manufacturers of exclusive leather items. SCOT continuously endeavoured to improve the quality of raw material, tanning processes and service in order to be able to offer its clientele a superior product.
Mossel Bay Today
The Mossel Bay tannery, formally know as SCOT, is one of the most technologically sophisticated ostrich leather tanneries and the second largest ostrich tannery in the world.
The Mossel Bay Tannery has ISO 14001:2015 Certification. Charl du Pisani (Tannery Manager) and his management team have decades of experience between its members. These leather crafters and technicians are passionate about producing ostrich leather of the highest quality.