At a throbbing fish market in Mombasa, there are hundreds of beautiful fish on sale. Some are yellow, others are blue while others have tough grey skin that is as hard as a goat’s hide.
As the fishmongers fillet the fish, they throw the beautiful skin into Indian Ocean as waste. Yet the waste that includes bladders could earn them millions of shillings in foreign markets.
To high-end brands such as Prada, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Salvatore Ferragamo, this rare fish skin is perhaps like gold. They favour it for its rarity, shiny and multi-coloured complexion that is suitable for making luxury apparel, shoes and bags.
Hamisi Bakari, a fishmonger in Mombasa, says he knows little about fish leather. Two years ago, a woman came to the market and bought the waste. Thereafter, they started giving it to her for free.
“We only sell the fish fillet and throw away the rest. In some cases, we give away the bones to customers to make soup. We scrap off the fish scales using a knife or an improvised scrapper made from bottle tops nailed on a piece of wood,” Mr Bakari says.
“When the fish are many, the fishmongers can throw away waste that fills a 20-litre bucket every day,” he says, adding that he would be interested to learn how to re-use the waste.
At a private beach in Nyali, Mombsa, about five traders carry fish in a plastic basin from a makeshift boat. They also have rare varieties, some that are four-metres tall. They have crocodile fish, red and white snapper, salmon, painted grunt, variegated emperor, marbled parrot fish, rabbit fish, king fish, variegated emperor and five fingers. They are very appealing. They have red spots, some are shiny blue, black, grey, silver, gold, yellow with animal prints.
The fishmongers sit under a tree, remove the scales and skin, and throw it away together with the crab shells in the Indian Ocean, then package the fillet in buckets ready for sale.
“No one has ever approached us to buy the skin. We don’t even know the names of some of these fish. Most have beautiful skin but we don’t sell it. We feed the skin to these seabirds,” says Fadhili Hamisi, pointing at scavengers milling around fish skin and intestines.
He has been coming to help his father fillet fish and wash prawns, octopus and crabs at this beach for three years now. His father who has been a fishmonger for 23 years now has never heard of fish leather but if he were to get a market, he would sell a kilo of raw fish skin for Sh50.
In Kenya, there are few entrepreneurs like James Ambani, the chief executive of Victoria Foods and Newton Owino of Alisam Product Development who feed the fashion market.
Kenya mainly exports Nile Perch skin to European markets yet there are tens of species from barracuda, rabbitfish to parrotfish, which have beautiful skin that goes to waste.
Mr Owino says any fish skin can be turned into leather.
“The larger the fish, the better the skin and it should not have holes,” he says.
Currently, he uses barracuda fish skin, which he gets from small processing plants in Bondeni and Watamu in Coast and Somalia.
To break into the European market, there is need to grow capacity among fish processors on leather harvesting and financially empower them to acquire machinery that will help them skin the fish.
Mr Owino encourages anglers to harvest mature fish, which have stronger skin, making the process of turning it into leather easier.
But at his tannery, even the small fish skin is useful. Through a process known as speeding, he extracts gum from the skin and uses it as a binding agent.
“We extract the collagen on the fish skin to make glue used in binding shoes. Normally, people use synthetic latex as the ‘shoe cement’,” says the 39-year-old entrepreneur who studied agriculture and technology.
In Trans Nzoia, Ira Kidemu, a director of leather production at Victoria Foods, a company that makes handbags, shoes, belts and wallets for export says she buys whole Nile Perch fish from Lake Turkana.
After selling the fish fillet, she does not throw away the skin and bones. She processes the skin into leather and bone into animal feeds at her small tannery in Kitale.
She has employed a group of women who help her in turning the fish skin into leather.
“It can be exported in wet blue stage or pical stage which can be made finer,” she says.
She has partnered with a local company to make shoes, bags and wallets. The shoes range from Sh3,000 to Sh80,000, while the bags range from Sh2,000 to Sh200,000.
Buyers love fish leather because it is softer and it comes in many colours.
In high-end stores, the future of fashion is exotic skins.
Designers are producing handbags and accessory items from exotic skins, products that are appreciated like those bejewelled with diamonds or gold.
In Paris, a fish skin product can cost 400 euros (Sh45,400) but a luxury Chanel bag that is pre-owned and made from stingray fish can cost up to $4,000 (Sh400,000).
“Most wealthy shoppers buy products made from crocodile or lambskin, but there are luxury bags that are made from stingray fish,” says Maryanne Maina, a professional shopper based in Paris and Lagos who shops for the wealthy from different parts of the world.
As global demand for fish skin grows, Africa offers attractive niches for aspiring leather manufacturers.
For over 20 years, Iceland has been selling fish leather to luxury brands. Atlantic Leather, a company in Iceland, supplies Prada, Dior, Nike, Ferragamo and Puma with fish leather.
This could be a new high-profile niche market for Kenya but most traders lack awareness and processors have no machines to harvest and process the leather.
The tanning process, according to Mr Owino, takes 12 hours. He uses a locally-made tannery machine which does all the processes including removing the scales.
The skin is soaked for an hour and banana extract is added to get rid of the smell and strengthen the fibre. Salt is added to cut out bacterial infections on the skin. The skin is again soaked for eight hour before it is dried.
For Ms Kidemu, she has no specialised machine. She uses vegetable extracts or minerals in making the fish leather which she mainly sells in London and Paris.