Fish leather shoes: Kenyan entrepreneur finds export market for innovative products

Newton Owino

Entrepreneur Newton Owino’s company manufactures several products from utilising the waste produced by the fish processing industry in the western Kenyan city of Kisumu, situated on the shores of Lake Victoria. Alisam Products Development and Design’s top seller is finished fish leather, some of which is exported to international fashion design houses. The company also makes shoes, belts, jackets and bags from fish leather as well as other items from fish bones and scales.

In an interview with How we made it in Africa’s Nelly Murungi, Owino explained how he used his leather science background to build a company which now employs 17 full-time staff.

Give us an overview of your business and how you came up with the idea.

Kisumu is home to several filleting factories which produce close to 150,000 tonnes of fish waste every year. When I say fish waste, I refer to the skin, the bones, the intestines and the head. For a long time, this waste had been causing a lot of environmental issues.

Ladies shoes made from fish leather.

The fillets are exported to Europe but what remains here is the waste. We wanted to manage this waste which led us into tanning – the conversion of the fish skin into leather. We also produce artefacts using the fish bones, ladies earrings from the fish eyes, and flowers from the scales. In addition, we tan the intestines to make strings used in ladies’ sandals. Furthermore, we steam the collagen part of the fish skin which gives us ‘fish glue’, used to join our shoes.

For the tanning, we use extracts from plants found in western Kenya, including banana, cassava and papaya. The dyes are also extracted from plants.

Who are your main customers?

Most of our clients are in European countries such as Iceland, France and Poland. We also export to the US and Canada. And in Africa, we sell to Zambia, South Africa, Ethiopia and Egypt.

So far, what has proven to be the most successful form of marketing?

The Switch Africa Green project – an initiative led by United Nations Environment Programme to promote green businesses – has played a very big role in marketing us abroad and locally, which has led to an influx of clients. We have also gained considerable exposure from being featured by media outlets such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.

Do you remember your first sale?

My first sale was women sandals for 700 Kenyan shillings (about $7). Back then sales were difficult, as not many people have seen fish skin shoes. My wife and I were the first to wear the shoes. As we walked around, more and more people became interested in the product.

In terms of international orders, our environmentally-friendly credentials played a major role in driving sales.

If you were given $1 million to invest in your company now, where would it go?

At the moment, demand is far higher than what we can supply. I would therefore use the money to invest to buy several modern machines. This would enable us to scale up production dramatically. My production capacity can currently only absorb a fraction of the total fish waste. By purchasing this modern equipment, we would be able to utilise up to 70% of the waste.

Jacket made from fish leather.

Where do you see the growth opportunities for your business?

The flowers we produce from the fish scales is becoming a lucrative product. Many of the cut flowers produced in East Africa are contaminated with pesticides. However, fish scales contain only calcium.

Demand for natural tanning materials has also gone up.

Tell us about your biggest mistake.

My biggest mistake was to venture into the international market before I was properly prepared. This led to a number of embarrassing moments. I accepted orders for 20 tonnes of fish leather whereas our production capacity is only about four tonnes per month. You can imagine the consequences … Over the years I’ve learnt that customers don’t buy sympathy, they buy products. I had to work really hard to ensure we consistently produce high-quality products that meet international standards.

I also assumed it would be easier to source labour. Kenya only has the Kabete National Polytechnic and the University of Nairobi that offer basic training on leather science. For this reason, there aren’t many Kenyans venturing into leather tanning. I had to bring on board some of these students and give them proper training for close to a year, which led to delays in production.

Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

It was when the first order for six tonnes of fish leather left Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for Iceland. And receiving the first euro payment for that sale.

Further reading

[May 2020] How Kenya’s Wandia Gichuru has tackled the business of fashion
[May 2020] A Nigerian toy empire built from the ground up
[May 2020] Spotting opportunities in Ethiopia: The story of serial entrepreneur Addis Alemayehou
[May 2020] A mix between serviced apartments and a hotel: Nigerian talks about his hospitality business
[April 2020] How this entrepreneur went where nobody goes to start dried fruit business in Mozambique