Entrepreneur Newton Owino’s company makes several products from the waste produced by the fish processing industry in the western Kenyan town of Kisumu, located on the shores of Lake Victoria. The best seller of Alisam Products Development and Design is the finished fish leather, part of which is exported to international fashion design houses. The company also manufactures fish leather shoes, belts, jackets and bags, as well as other fish bone and scale items.
In an interview with How we did it in Africa Nelly Murungi, Owino explained how he used his training in leather science to start a business that now employs 17 people full time.
Give us an overview of your business and how you came up with the idea.
Kisumu is home to several filleting factories which annually produce nearly 150,000 tonnes of fish waste. When I say fish waste, I am referring to the skin, bones, intestines and head. For a long time, this waste caused many environmental problems.
The nets are exported to Europe but what remains here is the waste. We wanted to manage this waste that led us to tanning – the transformation of fish skin into leather. We also produce items using fish bones, fish eye ladies earrings and scale flowers. In addition, we tan the intestines to make strings used in women’s sandals. In addition, we steam the collagen part of the fish’s skin which gives us the âfish glueâ, which is used to join our shoes.
For tanning, we use extracts from plants found in western Kenya, including bananas, cassava and papaya. Dyes are also extracted from plants.
Who are your main customers?
Most of our clients are located in European countries such as Iceland, France and Poland. We also export to the United States and Canada. And in Africa, we sell to Zambia, South Africa, Ethiopia and Egypt.
What is the most effective form of marketing so far?
The Switch Africa Green Project – an initiative led by the United Nations Environment Program to promote green businesses – has played a huge role in our marketing overseas and locally, leading to an influx of customers . We have also gained considerable visibility by being featured by media such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.
Do you remember your first sale?
My first sale was women’s sandals for 700 Kenyan shillings (around $ 7). Back then, sales were tough as not many people saw 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 environmental references have played a major role in driving sales.
If you were given $ 1 million to invest in your business now, where would it go?
Right now the demand is much higher than what we can supply. So I would use the money to invest to buy several modern machines. This would allow us to significantly increase production. My production capacity can currently only absorb a fraction of the total fish waste. By purchasing this modern equipment, we could use up to 70% of the waste.
Where do you see the growth opportunities for your business?
The flowers that we produce from the scales of fish become a lucrative product. Many cut flowers produced in East Africa are contaminated with pesticides. However, fish scales only contain calcium.
The demand for natural tanning materials has also increased.
Tell us about your biggest mistake.
My biggest mistake was to venture into the international market before being properly prepared. This led to a number of embarrassing moments. I have accepted orders for 20 tons of fish leather when our production capacity is only about four tons per month. You can imagine the consequencesâ¦ Over the years I have learned that customers don’t buy sympathy, they buy products. I had to work really hard to make sure that we were consistently producing high quality products that met international standards.
I also assumed that it would be easier to find labor. Kenya only has the Kabete National Polytechnic and the University of Nairobi which provide basic training in leather science. For this reason, there are not many Kenyans who venture into leather tanning. I had to integrate some of these students and give them proper training for almost a year, which resulted in production delays.
Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.
It was then that the first order of six tonnes of fish leather left Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for Iceland. And receive the first payment in euros for this sale.
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