Mamboleo estate in Kisumu is populous but quiet. Walking in the area, one gets a feeling that the district is perhaps one of the best places to run a business because of the readily available market and labour.
It is in Mamboleo that one finds Newton Owino, who runs a mini tannery from where he makes bags, shoes and belts from fish skin, scales and innards.
When Seeds of Gold meets Owino at the tannery, he is busy polishing women’s handbags before he delivers them to a customer.
He had been making the merchandise for the past one week.
“These bags are needed in California, US in the next two days,” he says as he packs them in a small container that would later be taken to Kisumu International Airport for export.
The bags go for Sh1,500, and they were 400 of them. Owino makes the products from the raw materials obtained from Nile perch and catfish.
The products include leather jackets, bags, shoes, wallets, caps, purses, sandals, watch handles, binders, belts and utensils.
The cost of the items range from between Sh1,500 and Sh6,000 each. “I went into the business after noticing that fish by-products are underutilised yet they can be used to make good items that earn the country a lot of foreign exchange,” says the 35-year-old, who mainly exports the products.
The trade has made him utilise fish skin, which causes environmental pollution in many parts of Kisumu and Nyanza in general.
“Fish skin produces a very bad smell, attracting flocks of birds, which interfere with aircraft operations at the airport.”
In 1999, narrates Owino, an aircraft crash landed at Chula Imbo after a bird was sucked in its engine.
Kisumu principal fisheries officer Robert Wanyama estimates the waste produced from the five fish processing plants in the area at 20 tonnes daily.
For Owino, it was a rare opportunity to make use of the raw materials that are readily and cheaply available.
“I specialised in leather chemistry when I was studying at G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Pantnagar) in India in 1996 for my undergraduate studies,” he says.
In 2006, Owino resigned from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) where he worked as a research scientist for 11 years.
His innovative business has transformed the lives of fishermen in the lakeside town.
Owino has contracted 20 of them to help in collecting and transporting the raw materials to his Alisam Product Development and Design Tannery Centre.
He also has seven full-time employees. They are the ones who do the work at different stages, including making the final products.
“When I started this business, I could only process 200kg of fish skin in a week. Now I tan about 15 tonnes, and export the products to Denmark, Italy and US, among other countries,” says Owino, whose initial capital was Sh100,000.
Once they get the skin and other waste material, they soak them in clean water and then add salt which prevents the material from rotting.
After scaling the fish skin, the tanning process begins. It involves converting the skin into leather. He does not use any electric machine to make the products. Even the tanning is done manually using a charcoal iron box to smoothen the leather.
This is done by ironing the skin until it becomes fine leather.
The skin is then soaked for about one hour, then removed from the water and banana extract is added into it. Salt is also added to reduce the bacterial infection on the skin.
It is again soaked in water for eight hours. The banana extract is meant to get rid of the smell of fish and strengthen the fibre.
Thereafter, he adds baking powder to remove any salt and other bacterial elements that coulad have remained on the skin.
The skin is then dried under the shade for two to three hours. This is called curing.
Owino says his products caught the attention of international clients after his story was highlighted by an international news channel two years ago.
Besides exporting finished products, he also exports semi-finished fish leather, which is in what is referred to as ‘‘wet blue stage’’.
He exports the items on a monthly basis through Export Promotion Council, an agency in charge of clearing and forwarding of goods and services to foreign countries.
Owino exports about three tonnes of the items to Italy and one tonne of wet blue semi-finished leather to Ethiopia every month.
A piece of fish leather goes for Sh750. One tonne contains between 400 and 600 pieces.
He hopes to launch a shoe manufacturing company next month. “I want to save parents from the agony of shoe polish through my good quality shoes,”
says Owino who has done a leather project with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
He says shoes made from fish leather are water proof and do not require polish. The fish leather shoes cost between Sh1,000 and Sh1,200.
Owino faces several challenges. There is a shortage of fish skin due to the dwindling Nile perch in Lake Victoria.
“The use of illegal fishing gear has led to the disappearance of Nile perch whose skin is the best for making shoes. At times I have to source the fish skin from Tanzania and Uganda.”
Besides making and selling the fish leather products, Owino also does academic presentation on fish leather in various countries. He has presented papers in Italy, Denmark and California.