From fish skin to shoes and bags

MEET KENYAN MAN, NEWTON OWINO, WHO MAKES SHOES, BAGS AND BELTS FROM FISH SKIN, SCALES

In 2013, I started exporting my products and made Sh13.7 million. In 2014, I made Sh14.1 million and last year it reached Sh21 million.
— NEWTON OWINO

With a current staff number of seven full-time employees, Newton's long term plan is to open a shoe manufacturing company, his company, Alisam Product Development and Design Tannery Centre, is situated in Mamboleo estate, Kisumu, Kenya- it produces  bags, jackets, wallets, caps, purses, watch handles, binders, utensils, shoes and belts . Can we talk about the ingenuity of this business altogether before we proceed to applaud all the money it brings in? Like plainly speaking fish skin is the last thing I can easily process would become a perfectly created shoe or bag. To think i cringe at merely having to clean up and wash the inside of a fish. 

Usually the skin of the fish and every other part to be used is dried in the sun for hours.The skin and other waste material is first soaked in clean water before the addition of salt for preservation. After scaling the fish skin, the tanning process begins.  Tanning converts the skin into leather, which is then refined by smoothening with charcoal iron box.  The skin is then soaked for up to one hour then removed from the water, before banana extract is added to remove the fish odour and to strengthen the fiber.  Salt is added again to kill bacterial infection.  Again the skin is soaked for eight hours, and baking powder is added to remove salt and any bacterial residue that could have remained.  The skin is dried under the shade for two to three hours for curing. To solve the problem of shortage of raw materials Newton's raw materials are made available by the Approximately 20 tons of waste are produced daily by the fish processing plants around Kisumu and he also resorts to importing from Uganda and Tanzania.

Turning waste into products

Every week, 35-year-old Newton tans about 15 tons of fish skins, turns them into marketable products, and exports the products to Denmark, Italy and the U.S. The tanning is all done by hand and represents a detailed process that turns the skins into fine leather. Salt and banana extract is added to reduce the bacterial infection on the skin, eliminate fish odor, and strengthen the fiber.

The cost of the products that Newton makes range from between Sh1,500 and Sh6,000 each (about $14 to $58 USD). All of the materials he uses are readily available, in fact, they are considered fish waste from perch, catfish and others. One recent order he completed to ship to California included 400 bags at Sh1,500 each. He also points out that the shoes he makes from fish skins are waterproof and do not need to be polished.

Some of the fish skins he gets for free from fish-processing plants who are glad to get rid of them. Although many thought he was crazy at first, his idea has really paid off. As he explains, "In 2013, I started exporting my products and made Sh13.7 million. In 2014, I made Sh14.1 million and last year it reached Sh21 million,” he says.

Education

Newton studied studying leather chemistry at G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Pantnagar) in India. He worked as a research scientist for 11 years at the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). Now he is in business for himself and has a staff of 7 full-time employees. His goal is to soon open a shoe manufacturing company using his refined process.
 

Oh, did you know that shoes made from fish skin are water-proof and need no poilishing?