Newton Owino has truly earned his ‘innovator’ label. From processing fish skin into leather to adding value to products for the export market, his is a no mean feat.
Mr Owino’s company, Alisam Product Development, designs and makes a wide range of fish leather products.
“I make leather jackets, bags, shoes, wallets, caps, purses, sandals, binders, belts and utensils from raw materials obtained from Nile Perch,” he says.
Mr Owino got the business idea when he realised that fish factories in Kisumu were producing too much waste which pollutes the environment.
He started the business in 2002 as a pilot project on turning fish skin waste into leather.
“There are five filleting processing firms in Kisumu. My target was to use the skin which decomposes very fast, polluting the environment,” says Mr Owino whose initial capital was Sh100,000.
Every week, about 70 tonnes of fish skin waste are generated in the region.
Kisumu county director of fisheries Jonam Etyang estimated that up to 20 tonnes of waste are produced from the five fish processing plants in the area daily.
When he started the business, Mr Owino only processed 200kg of fish skin in a week. Currently, he handles 15 tonnes.
Mr Owino is a graduate of G.B Pant University of Agriculture and technology where he gained specialised knowledge in leather chemistry. He now has over 17 years of experience in leather research.
“When doing the turning process, (from fish skin to leather), often it is associated with pollution because of the toxic chemicals used. I decided to go the green way by using plant extracts as the turning agents,” says 39-year-old entrepreneur.
He uses locally fabricated machine to turn the fish skin into leather. The turning process takes approximately 12 hours.
Using the tannery machine, after the removal of fish scales, the fish skin is soaked for an hour. Banana extract is then added to get rid of the fish odour and strengthen the fibre. Salt is added to reduce the bacterial infection on the skin. The skin is then soaked for eight hour before it is dried.
The entrepreneur extracts latex-based gum from the fish skin as binding agent for the shoes.
“We extract the collagen on the fish skin to make the glue used in binding shoes. Normally people use synthetic latex as the ‘shoe cement’,” says the father of two.
The cost of the value added fish leather items is between Sh1,500 and Sh6,000. A square foot of the fish leather goes for Sh700.
Alisam sells value-added products locally and internationally in Canada, Italy, United States, Denmark, Ethiopia and Rwanda.
“This is a good business as it does not require too much expenses. We source the materials for free at the nearby fish factories in Kisumu,” he says, adding that he can earn more than Sh500,000 in a month from selling and exporting fish leather products.
The entrepreneur has six employees and has hired 78 women who supply fish skin waste from the filleting firms in Obunga, Kisumu.
Mr Owino says the major challenge is his company’s limited capacity to process fish skin leather.
“Our capacity is a bit low despite the huge demand for the fish leather in the international market. We have few personnel who have the skills to use green technology in the processing of fish leather,” he says.
In addition, the leather processing venture requires heavy financial investment to sustain the export market.
In the next five years, Mr Owino intends to partner with institutions such as the Kenya Technical Trainers College to come up with a training centre and formulate occupational standards for other alternative leather products using green technology.
“In Africa we hardly have any training centre where learners can gain knowledge to make leather using green technology,” says director of Alisam Product Development.