A bridal outfit made from fish skin in Kenya costs Sh80,000 while a purse goes for Sh10,000, double the price of one made from cow hide. But it is not easy to get fish leather which is increasingly becoming sought-after because of its rarity.
Robert Topping, the technical designer fashion at Rift Valley Leather, a company that has been making very stylish bags, said they used to source for processed fish leather from Uganda to make premium items such as hats, totes, purses and belts.
“We enjoyed bumper sales and requisitioned for more but getting the raw material has become impossible. We have been forced to cancel orders for fear of destroying the loyalty we enjoy from consumers of our products,” he said.
Speaking on the sidelines of the just ended global meeting, Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, in Nairobi, Mr Topping said there is need to grow capacity among fish processors on leather harvesting and financially empower them to acquire the relevant machinery that will help them skin tilapia fish or Nile perch.
Jamil Walji, a Nairobi-based international designer who has been making objects out of fish skin said using the leather has expanded his product offering. Fish skin is more decorative than cow hide.
Mr Walji, who has won global awards in fashion design across the world since 2008, said the use of fish leather presents Kenya with a new raw material for making excellent products that are currently in demand.
“Customers want unique items that make them stand out during special events such as weddings, end-year ceremonies among other events,” says the designer who is known for his outstanding haute couture designs, stitched by hand.
Mr Walji, who owns the JW Couture fashion line working from his one-man studio in Westlands, Nairobi said he customises his attires to fit individual tastes.
“A fish leather tie goes for Sh15,000, a pair of trousers is worth Sh20,000 while an entire fish leather outfit would go for Sh40,000,” said Mr Walji.
He has participated in fashion shows in Sao Paulo, Kuala Lumpur and in Maputo among other notable local events. He also displayed some of his stunning fish dresses at a fashion show at the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference.
As demand for the rare leather grows, James Ambani, the chief executive of Victoria Foods is among those trying to feed the fashion market. Instead of throwing away fish skins, he acquired new machines to process the leather that he exports to European markets, earning him Sh2.5 million in 2015.
“I process fish leather in semi-processed and finished form which has so far earned me Sh3 million this year, solely from exports but I lack adequate local demand to unlock my leather processing machine’s full capacity,” he said.
Mr Ambani has been processing fillet for sale to retail chains across Kenya, fish meal for poultry feed, fish bladder for sale to the Chinese market and chippings used in making sausages.
He said sensitising Kenyan cobblers and other leather product manufacturers on availability of fish leather could excite a bigger market and new designs.
Before receiving orders from Europe, Mr Ambani used to throw the skin as waste, yet it is sought for its shiny and multi-coloured complexion.
It is popular among designers of premium priced shoes, belts and bangles. For instance, a cow skin purse would cost Sh5,000 but the price doubles after it is gets a touch of fish skin on the front part.
Mr Topping said they tested the market for fish leather products by making fish leather coated memory stick mementoes that sold out fast.
For most buyers and manufacturers, the reservation would be if the leather is durable and how to clean it.
Zaddock Lang’at, the Rift Valley Leather marketing director said fish leather is strong enough to make even shoes or clothes but one must ensure washing is done by professional launders.