29 Nov 2018 - UN FAO - 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.
Fish skin is gaining recognition as an interesting source of leather. It has several advantages: offers unique natural pattern, absorbs colours well and is lighter, yet more durable than cow leather. The additional products also add value to the catch, offering higher prices to the fishers and creating alternative local employment for the community, especially to women and youth. ©FAO/Luis Tato
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.
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