Promoting a sustainable blue economy to support livelihoods in Kenya

The skin of the fish is more and more recognized for its leather. It has several advantages: it offers a unique natural pattern, it absorbs colors well and finally, it is lighter and more durable than cowhide. Fish-derived products increase the value of catches, offering higher prices to fishers and creating alternative local jobs for the community, especially for women and young people.

Tucked away in Kenya’s northernmost region along the border with Ethiopia sits Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. Poverty is widespread in this area. Infrastructure is almost non-existent; only sandy, unpaved roads breach these limits, but even for trucks, it is a challenging feat.  

The region’s isolation, however, means something different for Lake Turkana and its fish. Both remain relatively underutilized. Rural people and nomadic communities here have suffered the impacts of longer dry seasons and other changes in climate. They have now turned to the lake to support themselves and have begun to fish for Nile perch, a lake fish that can grow up to six feet long. Once caught, the fish is usually fileted and transported to Kitale, where it is processed and shipped around the country and abroad.

Because the fish is fileted, the skin is largely unused or sold for little value as fertilizer or animal feed. In general, 30-70 percent of a fish is wasted; its parts, like the head, viscera and backbones, are often undervalued, even if they are high in micronutrients.

But some companies, like Victorian Foods and other initiatives, are starting to find use for one of these by-products: the skin. Fish skin is gaining recognition as an interesting source of leather. Though fish leather is relatively new to the market, it offers several advantages. Each fish skin has a unique natural pattern, and perch skin, for example, absorbs colours extremely well. The resulting material is also far lighter than, for example, cow leather.

In addition, the large size of the Nile perch means that the skins have wider surface areas compared to most other fish skins. The alignment of the perch leather (crisscrossed instead of parallel) also means that the resulting material is the second strongest type of leather and clothing and accessories made from it are unique and extremely durable.

In the factory in Kitale, skilled workers are now fileting the fish in a way that best preserves the skin. These workers, known as “skinners”, have become highly skilled at their jobs. In order to preserve their natural look in the tanning processed, the skins must be removed correctly.

Once the skinners have done their work, the fish skin  is then washed and drained before going through the various stages – liming, fleshing, de-liming, bating, degreasing and pickling. Afterwards, the tanning process begins to convert the fish skin into leather. Next comes dyeing and finishing.

The additional products made from locally caught fish adds value to the catch, offering higher prices to the fishers and creates alternative local employment for the community. The goal at Victorian Foods is to ensure that 60 percent of those working on creating fish leather are local women and youth, two demographic groups for which unemployment is high.

“I can see a huge potential in this, considering the fact that in East Africa alone we have several freshwater lakes because of the Rift Valley. Lake Victoria is quite big, being shared among three countries. Turkana is also quite big, so I see a huge potential in Kenya and the neighboring countries,” states CEO of Victorian Foods in Kitale, James Ambani.

Photo: The skin of the fish is more and more recognized for its leather. It has several advantages: it offers a unique natural pattern, it absorbs colors well and finally, it is lighter and more durable than cowhide. Fish-derived products increase the value of catches, offering higher prices to fishers and creating alternative local jobs for the community, especially for women and young people. ©FAO /Luis Tato

Blue Fashion is an emerging sector in the Blue Economy, as the fashion industry is one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world. Blue, sustainable fashion focuses on the use of marine raw materials and by-products to develop sustainable bio-alternatives for the fashion industry.

On 27 November, as part of the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi, FAO is partnering with the Nordic Atlantic Cooperation (NORA) and the Commonwealth Fashion Council on a Blue Fashion show. Victorian Foods was selected as the official supplier of Kenyan fish leather, and African fashion designers were asked to create signature pieces inspired by seas and lakes. Those creations will be unveiled at the fashion show.

One of the designers of the Kenyan Fashion scene taking part in the show is Jamil Walji. Born in Kenya, Walji recently journeyed to Kitale, where he oversaw the production of the fish leather he will be using for his creations. For him this is an inspiration: “Designing with fish leather was one of my exciting experiences because to my surprise it was durable, strong and comes in interesting shapes and sizes… I was very inspired from the whole process during my Kitale visit. It made me appreciate the product more. My clients’ reactions to this sustainable fashion was full of amazement. I was asked: ‘Fish leather, why is it that I never knew about it?’ It’s something so different that blows my imagination.”

FAO is a strong supporter and partner in building vibrant fisheries and coastal communities. 59.6 million are directly employed in fisheries and aquaculture, and around 200 million people in total are employed along the value chain from harvesting to distribution. Through its Blue Growth Initiative, FAO emphasizes conservation and sustainable management on the premise that healthy ocean ecosystems are vital for productive and long-lasting, ocean-based economies. The initiative promotes and protects the essential ecosystems and biodiversity of the “Blue World” for the benefit of the communities that depend on fisheries and related industries for its food and livelihoods.

FAO has created tools like the Voluntary Guidelines on Catch Documentation Schemes and the Port State Measures Agreement to eliminate harmful practices and instead incentivize approaches that promote growth, improve conservation, build sustainable fisheries and end illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Blue Fashion is one more innovative way to support fisher communities while reducing waste and offering sustainable alternatives to the fashion industry. Strengthening the livelihoods of the millions involved in the fisheries sector and creating a sustainable blue economy means working toward a better future of food and a Zero Hunger world.

Source: FAO

Illustration Photo: Nile perch (credits: Victor Ochieng / Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0))

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