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WATCH: Smelly skins make for fishy fashion in Kenya

Published: Updated:

(AFP) - Women sharpen their knives before setting about stinking piles of fish skins, flesh and bones that cover the floor at an unusual artisanal tannery in western Kenya.

Set up by a 39-year-old industrial chemist named Newton Owino, Alisom Products separates fish skins from the rest of the waste, then tans them to make a kind of leather used to manufacture handbags, wallets, shoes, hats and jackets.

Kisumu, on Lake Victoria, is a piscatorial place, a city where grilled tilapia and Nile perch are an ubiquitous delicacy, and from where cleaned fillets are exported around the region and the world.

But Owino saw opportunity in the leftovers.

An estimated 150,000 tonnes of fish waste is produced every year and 80 percent of it is dumped. Owino and his dozen employees offer an alternative.

"My major business here is (to) turn fish skin into leather," he says, pacing the yard in gumboots and a polo shirt. "(There are) plenty of raw materials that we have around here."

Fleets of bicycle transporters bring sacks of skins from fishermen, restaurants and factories to his little facility every day.

There, workers strip the last pieces of rancid flesh from fly-covered skins and hang them to dry on wooden beams, like clothes on a washing line. Hungry birds peck at his product.

The dried skins are stuffed inside a rusty hand-cranked drum and drenched in an acidic herbal solution, based on local fruits such as papaya or avocado that tans them into fish leather.

"We now do what is called the drum turn," says Owino, putting his shoulder into spinning the contraption.