Three years ago, Newton Owino approached fish processing plants in Lake Victoria with a ‘strange’ request. He wanted to buy nile-perch skin.
Considered waste and a disposal nightmare for the plants, the owners were glad to be rid of the skins and they offered these to Owino for free.
The young man used just Sh200 to have the products ferried to his tiny rental house in Kibos where his factory was located at the time. Many thought he was insane to be taking such ‘gabbage’ but Owino knew this was his avenue to millions.
However, penetrating the Kenyan market was difficult since many people did not believe fish skin could be used to produce leather. But today, Owino owns the first fish leather factory in Africa that tans its product organically.
“I realised there was a big gap in Africa, since most of those who were doing tanning were using synthetic chemicals like chromium oxide which is a heavy toxic metal. I decided to focus on using organic bio-compounds for tanning,” he says.
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Owino who is Alisam Product Development and Design Director also realised that most of those doing tanning concentrate on domestic and wild animal’s hides.
“Fish hide for leather is a new thing. When I began this trade in Kisumu in 2012, after trying it out in Mwanza, the market was not responsive. I only made Sh80,000,” he says.
Undeterred, Owino set his sights beyond Kenya and that was when the returns started flowing in.
“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.
His first market was Alexandria in Egypt, then Italy and Mauritius. The market has since extended to Ethiopia and the Kenyan Embassy in the US has also helped him access markets in Florida.
“Africa only has two people exporting fish leather. One is in Congo but he does not undertake organic tanning,” Owino said.
The tanner did his Bachelor of Science in Leather Chemistry at a University in India and worked in several leather industries in Calcuta, where he gained a lot of experience. He also worked with International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology.
This knowledge garnered and first hand experience is what has set him apart and ensures that his product has international appeal.
“I have been able to achieve this feat due to the support I receive from the Kenya Leather Development Council, Export Promotion Council, and Kisumu County’s Agriculture and Veterinarian Department,” he says.
Owino has also won several awards with the recent one being the small and medium-sized enterprises awards. He was second runners up during the Kisii Summit Innovations Award and has also scooped the Nile Basin Best Innovation Awards among others.
“I am going for a Leipzig University (Germany) Award ceremony to be celebrated in Taiwan where I also emerged the best,” he says.