Since 1994, Forward Sports in Sialkot in north-eastern Pakistan has been producing footballs for Adidas, the world’s second-largest sporting goods manufacturer. It has supplied Adidas footballs for the German and French national leagues and for the UEFA Champions League, but the company had never won a World Cup contract.
Then, last year, Forward’s CEO, Khawaja Masood Akhtar, heard that Adidas’ Chinese supplier for the 2014 World Cup couldn’t keep up with demand, and he invited executives to his football manufacturing plant. The move paid off and Forward Sports was given a contract to produce the 3,000 Brazuca footballs in use at the month-long tournament in Brazil, and an estimated two million Brazuca balls of various grades that are now on sale across the globe.
Forward Sports’ success is a sign that Sialkot, an established leather products centre located in Punjab province, is starting to win back orders lost to rivals in east and south-east Asia during first decade of the new century. Pakistan was the world’s leading football manufacturer until the 1990s, and Forward’s Khawaja Hassan Masood hopes his country can regain its position. He told Bloomberg, “Pakistan can regain much lost share of football manufacturing from China, Vietnam and Indonesia”, adding that it can raise its share of world football production from its current 18 percent to 50 percent in four years. “We get an edge with our labour wages as they are cheaper than China.”
But it is not just more competitive wages that are bringing a resurgence in demand to Sialkot’s leather industry. Companies like Forward Sports have had to increase productivity, improve quality and working conditions, and embrace new technology in order to comply with the requirements of foreign buyers.
These challenging tasks are being met with help from the Leather Products Development Institute (LPDI), a training centre established by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in March 2001. The LPDI equips local leather companies and their workers with the knowledge and skills needed to compete on the international market.
According to Muhammad Atif, LPDI’s former project manager, Forward Sports is one of the Sialkot-based leather companies that have benefited from the services the Institute provides. He said that some of Forward’s 1,400 workers have received “training in quality control and more efficient production techniques”, and that the company has been tested for compliance with required working conditions and environmental standards, including its ability to provide “clean drinking water and low noise levels” and its capacity to deal with waste water and reduce emissions.
Forward Sports has also benefited from the LPDI's focus on providing training to aspiring female workers. Nearly a quarter of the company's entire workforce are women, an unusually high ratio for Pakistan's manufacturing sector. These women workers say they are the first females in their families to have jobs in the formal sector. Ninety percent of those working on the production of the Brazuca ball are women because, according to Khawaja Masood Aktar, they are more diligent and meticulous than their male colleagues.
For more information about UNIDO and its support for the leather industry see: UNIDO Leather and Leather Products Industry Panel
Also see BBC News on "Brazuka: Official World Cup ball to be used in Brazil"
By Charles Arthur and ZHONG Xingfei
Posted June 2014