Kenya: Newton Owino does business by turning fish skin into leather in Kisumu


Have you ever heard of fish skin? If not, Newton Owino, 42, can tell you a lot because his company, Alisam Products Development and Design, manufactures several products made from fish skin and other waste from processing companies. fish from Kisumu County.

The company, established in 2010, started to operate fully in 2013 as a fish leather manufacturing enterprise.

“I started my business with a capital of 200 Sh, because the fish skin, considered as waste, was obtained for free. With the money, I bought a plastic basin and then I bought rods wooden stirring, “he begins.

“I extracted the tanning agents from locally available plants such as papaya, cassava and river algae while I extracted the dyes from plants such as hibiscus and true violet.”

The company, now worth 110 million shillings, was created to sustainably manage waste from the fish filleting industries along Lake Victoria. Since the establishment of his company, Owino has developed, produced and sold a total of 14 different products.

“My company transforms fish skin into leather and produces leather goods such as shoes, jackets, belts, gloves, drums, chairs and caps. From fish bones, we produce buttons, earrings and bracelets, ”he explains.

Fish leather shoes range from 2,500 to 6,000 shillings depending on their size. Sandals range from Sh700 to Sh1500 while jackets cost Sh3000 to Sh6,500. Drums and chairs cost from Sh1500 to Sh3500. A team of women collects and sorts the waste from the fish, and once they have done the shelling and fleshing, they deliver it to the Alisam tannery in Kajulu.

At the tannery, workers use plant extracts to get rid of the odor and prepare it for tanning. With the help of additional plant compounds, the skin is turned into leather by a team of young people. A part is sold and the rest delivered to a team of 22 people with various disabilities to produce shoes, jackets, belts, caps, among others.

Its best seller is the finished fish leather, part of which is exported to international fashion houses. With 11 full-time employees, nine casual workers and 270 who benefit indirectly from the business, they make a profit of between 2 and 5 million shillings in a good year.

“Most of our market is in Europe, South Africa and East Africa, particularly Iceland, France, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda. We are also focusing on local markets, targeting shoe manufacturers and fashion industries, ”says Owino.

Kisumu is home to around nine fish filleting industries, three in Homa Bay, one in Kakamega and two in Siaya. All of these products produce approximately 150,000 metric tonnes of fish waste per year.

“There was a serious disposal problem, and that led to the shutdown of some of these industries. Most of this wastes polluted the surroundings and caused disease as it flowed back into the lake causing eutrophication (water enrichment) a factor that led to the strong survival of the water hyacinth, which is a threat – the bad grass interferes with the transport system and discourages fishing, ”explains the businessman.

It was therefore necessary to manage waste sustainably. Owino says the emerging market availability for leather from non-mammalian sources such as fish also motivated the creation of the company.

“I wanted to develop an income-generating activity that would draw on local resources and also be a business owner instead of finding a job. The fish waste that we work with includes the skin, bones, intestines and head. For a long time this waste was a big pollutant, but now it is useful. “

For example, fishbones and eyes are used to make jewelry such as earrings while scales are used to make decorative flowers. In addition, the intestines are tanned and used to make sandals. That’s not all, the collagen part of fish skin is steamed to produce “fish glue”, which is used to join the shoes the company makes.

The Switch Africa Green Project, an initiative supported by the United Nations Environment Program to promote green businesses, has played an important role in marketing Owino’s business locally and abroad, leading to his growth. He has also gained considerable visibility by being featured by media outlets such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.

“My first sale was women’s sandals, which I sold for 700 shillings. At the time, sales were difficult as not many people had seen fish skin shoes. My wife and I were the first customers.” , explains the businessman.

Owino had assumed that it would be easier to find labor, but he learned that Kenya only has two institutions that offer a course in leather science – the Kabete National Polytechnic and the University. from Nairobi.

“I had to integrate some of these students and give them adequate training for almost a year, which resulted in a production delay,” he explains.

Fish leather

With a steadily growing industry, another challenge it faces is how to meet the growing demand for fish leather and fish leather products locally and globally. Another is obsolete machinery.

“The large-scale use of obsolete technology has a serious negative effect on production, and the lack of appropriate financing mechanisms for such investments in innovation contributes to inefficient production,” says Owino.

It intends to improve local knowledge and expertise in industrial symbiosis and integrated fish waste management techniques to empower the local community and develop their capacity and knowledge regarding pre-tanning operations with the aim of to ensure a continuous supply of semi-processed fish skin to its tannery.

He plans to become a blue economy pioneer in the sustainable management of fish waste in the country and develop eco-entrepreneurship opportunities through on-the-job training of women in the slums on along Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana.

“I want to identify business links for new sustainable product designs in local and international markets and finally organize trainings and implement internship and exchange programs to build skills for the blue economy.”

What future for his company?

He plans to increase production by modernizing production processes and building a leather training school specializing in sustainable production processes based on green tanning.

Owino, holder of a BSc. Leather Chemistry from the University of Pantnagar, India, worked for a number of international research organizations as a researcher, before starting his own business. It has won numerous awards, including the Excellent MSE Innovation Award, the Best Nile Basin and Scientific Innovation Award, and the Best Circular Enterprise Innovation Award.


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