Newton Owino makes business out of turning fish skin into leather in Kisumu

Nelson Owino

Newton Owino wears a jacket and a hat made from fish leather. He exports the leather to a number of fashion houses.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Fish leather shoes range from Sh2,500 to Sh6,000 depending on their size

Ever heard of fish leather? If you haven’t, Newton Owino, 42, can tell you a lot about it because his firm, Alisam Products Development and Design, manufactures several products made from fish skin and other waste sourced from fish processing firms in Kisumu County.

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

“I started my business with a capital of Sh200, since fish skin, considered waste, was obtained for free. With the money, I bought a plastic basin and then sourced wooden stirring rods,” he begins.

"I extracted the tanning agents from locally available plants such as pawpaw, cassava and algae from the rivers while I extracted dyes from plants such as hibiscus and true violet plant.”

The enterprise, now worth Sh110 million, was established to sustainably manage waste emanating from fish filleting industries along the Lake Victoria. Since establishing his company, Owino has developed, produced and sold a total of 14 different products.

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

Nelson Owino

Newton Owino displays an artwork made using fish borns at his workstation in Kisumu on September 30, 2021. 

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

Fish leather shoes range from Sh2,500 to Sh6,000 depending on their size. The sandals range between Sh700 to Sh1,500 while the jackets cost between Sh3,000 to Sh6,500. The drums and chairs go for between Sh1,500 to Sh3,500. A team of women collect and sort the waste from the fish, and once they do the scaling and fleshing, they deliver to Alisam tannery in Kajulu.

At the tannery, workers use plant extracts to get rid of the odour and prepare it for tanning. Using additional plant compounds, the skin is converted into leather by a team of youths. Part of it is sold and the rest delivered to a team of 22 people with a variety of disabilities to produce shoes, jackets, belts, caps, among other items.

His top seller is finished fish leather, some of which is exported to international fashion design houses. Together with 11 full time employees, nine casual employees and 270 who benefit from the venture indirectly, they make a profit of between Sh2 million to Sh5 million in a good year.

“Most of our market is in Europe, South Africa and East Africa, specifically, Ice-land, France, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda. We also focus on local markets, targeting shoe makers and fashion industries,” explains Owino.

Kisumu hosts around nine fish filleting industries, three in Homa Bay, one in Kakamega and two in Siaya. All these produce approximately 150,000 metric tons of fish waste annually.

“There was a serious disposal problem, and this lead to the closure of some of these industries. Most of these wastes were polluting the surroundings and causing diseases since they were running back into the lake causing eutrophication (enriching the water) a factor that led to the high survival of water hyacinth, which is a menace - the weed interferes with the transport system and deters fishing,” explains the businessman.

There was, therefore, a need to sustainably manage the waste. Owino says that emerging availability of market for leather from non-mammalian sources such as fish also motivated the establishment of the enterprise.

Fish leather

Newton Owino displays some of the fish leather processed at his workstation in Kisumu on September 30, 2021. 

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

 “I wanted to develop an income generating activity that would rely on local resources and also to be a proprietor of a business venture as opposed to getting employed. The fish waste we work with includes the skin, the bones, the intestines and the head. For a long time, this waste had been a big pollutant, but now there is use for it.”

For instance, the fish bones and the eyes are used to make jewellery such as earrings while the scales are used to make decorative flowers. In addition, the intestines are tanned and used to make sandals. This is not all, the collagen part of the fish skin is steamed to produce ‘fish glue’, which is used to join the shoes the company manufactures.

The Switch Africa Green project, an initiative supported by the United Nations Environment Programme to promote green businesses – has played a big role in marketing Owino’s business locally and abroad, which has led to its growth. He has also gained considerable exposure from being featured by media outlets such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.

“My first sale was women sandals, which I sold for Sh700. Back then, sales were difficult, as not many people had seen fish skin shoes. My wife and I were the first clients,” says the businessman.

Owino had assumed it would be easier to source labour, but he learnt that Kenya only has two institutions that offer a course in leather science - The Kabete National Polytechnic and the University of Nairobi.

“I had to bring on board some of these students and give them proper training for close to a year, which led to delay in production,” he explains.

Fish leather

With a sector that is gradually growing, another challenge he experiences is how to meet the increasing demand of fish leather and fish leather products locally and globally. Another is outdated machinery.

 “Wide scale reliance on obsolete technology has a serious negative effect on production, and lack of appropriate financing mechanisms for such innovation investments contribute to inefficiency in production,” explains Owino.

He 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 in an effort to ensure continuous supply of semi-processed fish skin to his tannery.

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

“I want to identify market linkages for new sustainable product designs in local and international markets and finally organise training and implement internship and exchange programs to boost aptitudes for the Blue Economy.”

What next for his company?

He plans to upscale production by modernising production processes and build a leather training school that specialises on sustainable production processes based on green tanning.

Owino, a holder of BSc. Leather Chemistry from Pantnagar University, India, has worked for a number of international research organisations as a researcher, prior to establishing his own enterprise. He has won a number of awards, including Excellent MSE Innovation Award, Best Nile Basin and Scientific innovation Award and Best Circular Enterprise Innovation Award.