A fishmonger at her stall in Obunga fish market. [Olivia Odhiambo, Standard]

A stroll at Obunga market reveals a puzzling but increasingly common activity that has been the lifeline of several fishmongers and offered a livelihood for over 300 households.

Here, the Nile Perch species is a goldmine that is earning women income with its by-products transforming how the fish can improve income through its by-products.

The Nile by-products consist of fish skin, fish frames also called ‘mgongo wazi’, fish eggs, fish fats, bones, intestines, and fish fillets.

From the byproducts that they buy from fish markets and factories such as Sea Foods in Kisumu and Lake Treasures in Mbita, they also produce human food, chicken feeds, pig feeds, fish feeds, leather, organic manure, and jewelry among other things. 

Nileperch skin used by fishmongers to make leather and also prepare human food. [Olivia Odhiambo, Standard]

When Smart Harvest visited the market, 44-year-old Carren Anyango was carrying the Nile perch skins in a bucket.

She says the skins are used to make leather which she sells to other business people who make products like shoes, belts, handbags, earrings, and even bracelets from them.

Anyango says she started this business in 2013 and has been able to go places and visit several countries as a trainer consultant on leather matters.

She pours the skins on a surface in her workshop as she prepares to start the process of preparing leather.

This process, she says, takes five days to leather.

“Each process takes between five to six hours. This process involves the use of chemicals, so I have to allow the chemicals to do their work properly before moving to another step if I have to come up with a fine product,” she explains.

She notes that the Nile perch by-products like bones, scales, intestines, and even fats are also used to make other products by other traders. 

Rose Atieno, Chairperson Obunga Fish Market holds nileperch skeletons known as mgongo wazi. [Olivia Odhiambo, Standard]

Anyango says she uses a particular size of the Nile perch skin which she has to measure to enable her to get the right quantity of chemicals to use in the preparation process.

She starts the process by aligning the skin to remove the scales. Then she adds a chemical in the second stage which she refers to as the delining process where she has to remove all the scales which may be deep within the skin to make it very light. 

“After this stage, I move to another stage which involves the process of greasing. In this stage, I use a grease agent which is paraffin. This enables the skin to hold itself together. After this, she adds to the product both strong and weak acids which include sulfuric and stomach acids. At this stage, she leaves the product for a day,” she explains.

Anyango says after a day, she adds another chemical that is used for the fixation stage where the chemical holds the product together.

“At this stage, I leave the product for another day after adding to it a turning agent. The whole process takes five days to have real leather,” she notes.

After the process, she says, she comes out with wet blue leather, which will need a lot of ironing and coloring depending on the customer’s preference.

“For Ironing of the leather to make it smooth, I have to take it to Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (KIRDI) which is here in Kisumu luckily,” she adds.

Anyango says initially before the Covid-19 pandemic, her markets were in Iceland and Germany but now she only manages to sell locally to shoemakers.

“I also make shoes but only if a customer wants me to. If someone asks me to make shoes, I will not hesitate because it gives me more financial value right now since I sell locally,” she says.

Anyango notes that among the setbacks she goes through is the price of chemicals which are very high currently and only found in Nairobi.

She says she has been able to visit countries like Lebanon, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Egypt where she did consultancy work on training about leather to university students and women groups.

Pamela Aruda, a fishmonger dealing with Nile perch skeleton commonly known as ‘mgongo wazi’ for the past ten years says they have a group, known as Obunga Pap dry fish, who also sell the Nile perch skin as a by-product although as human food.

She says once filleting is done, they are given the skin to make other by-products.

“We remove the skin. We remove scales and also sell because there is another group who uses the scales to make other things here. We do not throw anything,” she says.

For some, it is a delicacy that must frequent their dining tables. But for others, it is the most profitable fish in Lake Victoria due to its highly valuable fish maws.

The maws, or the fish air bladder, which is basically the stomach of the Nile Perch - locally known as ‘Mbuta’ - are much sought after for their nutritious content. For consumers in Asia, this is actually an aphrodisiac.

For starters, one kilogram of maws costs about Sh20,000. This has pushed more traders into an illegal hunt for Nile Perch.

And more than 65 years since the introduction of the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, scientists have been raising the alarm over its invasive contribution to the diminishing of other fish species. The Haplochromis species has been the worst affected.