Agribyte: Making exotic fish leather from waste skins

Dyed Tilapia fish leather

You would like to raise or harvest fish for its nutritious white meat. Yet, you will waste 30-70 per cent of its inedible body parts like skin, head and backbones. Thanks to green and blue fashion innovators in Kenya, you can now find some use of those unused fish parts. In this article, we focus on using waste fish skins to make valuable and exotic durable leather.

Kenya is endowed,  with several freshwater lakes like Victoria, Naivasha and Turkana. These support her thriving fish sector that produces food, jobs and income for many people in the country. Some of her know species are Nile perch and Tilapia.

Fish processors have little use of waste parts of skins after filleting and distribution of fish fillets. Over time, they leave them to accumulate in unmanaged fills that pose a significant hazard to residents in the area. Innovators are rising into the space to manage this waste menace in a rare method, making exotic leather.

How to tan fish skin to leather

Making fish leather is not expensive or complicated. You can do it in a minor cottage industry using local resources. The video above features a local tannery in Kisumu city. It uses manual power and local workers for its processing.

 Another one in Kitale, a few miles north, is more automated. It produces around 400kg of leather a week.

You will need ample resources to dry the skin before you can tan it. In tanning, you will lime, flesh and de-lime the skins. Then you will proceed to bathe, degrease and pickle it to end with the crust. It is a semi-complete leather product.  Last stages are dyeing and finishing leather.

You can prefer using vegetable tanning process. It uses natural chemicals from bananas and pawpaw fruits that are not carcinogenic to people’s health.

If you prefer the mineral tanning process, you will need the following chemicals, water, salt, sodium sulfide and chalk. Others are formic acid, sulfuric acid, sulphate oils, cromosal B, compound SB and Mimosa.

Why fish leather?

A strong wallet made of fish leather. It is lighter but 9 times stronger than cow or lamb leather.

The following are advantages of making and using fish leather in the blue fashion industry.

  • It has a unique natural pattern; tilapia and perch skins, for example, have the scales pattern like a reptile.
  • It absorbs different colours (see the figure above) and dyes well.
  • It is lighter far lighter than, for example, cow leather.
  • It is nine (9) times stronger than lamb or cow leather of similar thickness. Clothing and accessories made from it are unique and extremely durable.
  • It is likely to attract learners and tourists diversifying your income sources from agritourism and trainings fees.
  • Fish leather processing will support cottage industry growth, add up to 30% value for fishers and mongers as it improves job creation and income for all value chain players.
  • Use of waste fish’s skin can reduce demand for snake and alligator skins for exotic leather from endangered species. In the long term, it may see a less need for cow leather.

How profitable is fish leather processing?

The price depends on the type of fish. CEO of Victorian foods a fish tannery in Kenya report to sell Nile perch fish leather for $5 (Ksh500) per square foot. The same size from salmon skins sells for $12.30 (KSH 1,230) from Atlantic Leather, a tanner in Iceland.

What can you make using fish leather?

Knife sheath made of strong and durable fish leather

There is a range of products you can make using fish leather. They have a growing demand in domestic and export markets like France, Poland, the US and Canada.

The food and agriculture organization (FAO) estimate that fish leather accounts for 1 per cent of all leather supply.

Fish leather products require similar care to other leather products: i.e. Spot clean with mild soap and water or use a suede brush. 

As a green entrepreneur in the blue economy sector, you can produce a range of men’s and woman’s items. They include designer shoes, clothing and other fashion items such as belts, purses, bags and wallets. You can also be creative and make fast-moving minor items with high-volume sales like knife sheaths, bookbinders, key holders and hip flask covers.

As a fisherman or processor, there is more to it than food. Consider investing in fish leather processing. Do it as an individual or a group to improve on fish processing and food waste management.

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