By Prudence Minayo
Newton Owino has for more than a decade manufactured leather products, such as bags and shoes from fish skin. He had realized that a lot of fish wastes were being thrown away leading to environmental pollution since they emanate a very foul smell, and polluted water. To solve this problem, he started collecting these waste and processing it into products he has sold in different countries including the United States.
The businessman started the business with Ksh200 which he used to purchase a plastic basin and wooden stirring rods. He got the fish skin for free since it was considered waste. He then got tanning materials from locally grown plants, like pawpaw and algae and dyes from true violet and hibiscus plants.
This is his story as told by WoK.
Education and career
While pursuing his undergraduate degree at India’s G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, he specialized in leather chemistry.
Later, he got a job with the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) as a research scientist. He resigned after 11 years and began laying the foundation for his company in 2010.
Alisam Products Development and Design
Alisam Products Development and Design began operations in 2013 and initially, he could only process 200 kilogram of fish skin weekly. The fish skin is gotten mainly from the Nile Perch.
The products made from fish wastes include: sandals, leather jacket, shoes, gloves, bags, caps, wallets, belts, drums and chairs. Apart from fish skin, they make use of bones, intestines and the fish head. The eyes and bones are used to make earrings, bracelets and buttons. The intestines can be tanned to make sandals, the scales are manufactured into decorative flowers, and the fish collagen is steamed to produce glue sold to shoe manufacturers.
He told The Nation in a 2014 interview that shoes made from leather are water proof and do not require shoe polish. In the same interview, he explained how the fish waste products are soaked in clean salt water to prevent rotting. The tanning process then begins, which at the time he did without machinery. The leather is smoothened manually using a charcoal iron box and the skin is ironed until it turns into fine leather.
It is then soaked for an hour then removed before a banana extract is added to it. It is then laced with salt and soaked for eight hours. The banana extract’s purpose is to improve the fibre as it removes the fishy smell. Baking powder is added to remove salt and any present bacteria before the skin is cured in a shade for three hours.
Success, sales and challenges
The businessman gained a famed after being featured on various international media stations including Al Jazeera, CNN and BBC.
He got the opportunity to do academic presentations on fish leather in Italy, Denmark and the United States among other countries. He also worked on a leather project with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Uganda and DRC
In a 2021 interview with Nation, he said that they export to several markets within and outside the continent, such as, Iceland, South Africa, Nigeria, France and Uganda. He added that the leather shoes cost between Ksh2,500 to Ksh6,000 depending on size, sandals from Ksh700; to Ksh1500, the leather jackets from Ksh2500 to Ksh6,500 and the drums and chairs from Ksh1,500 to Ksh3,500. The company was making annual profits of between Ksh2 million to Ksh5 million.
Some of the challenges he has encountered include:
- Sourcing for skilled labour since there are only two institutes in Kenya that teach leather science.
- The demand for the fish leather and its products is at times higher than the fish waste products.
- The use of outdated machinery.
In the future, he hopes to open a leather school that will teach entrepreneurs sustainable processes of production.
His business is now worth Ksh110 million.