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#BlueFashion We had a look and feel of this Kenyan handbag worth $2000 made from fish skin at Kenya’s first blue economy conference and here’s what's inside

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Compared to cow or goat skins synonymous with the leather industry fish leather is far more durable and outshines the former from its intricate design, texture to the DNA itself.

play A look and feel of Kenyan handbag worth Sh200,000 made of Fish skin. (George Tubei)

 

  • Blue fashion is an emerging trend in the multi-billion fashion industry where a number of once discarded low-value materials from the agriculture industry are now being turned into high-value innovative products.
  • Business Insider SSA (BISSA) had a chat with Ira Kidemu, Managing Director, Victorian Foods, Kenya at the Blue economy conference.
  • Ira is a former stay-at-home mum who took up hobbies and pastimes to fight boredom.

"Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you've fed him for a lifetime." This saying couldn’t be truer than James Ambani and Ira Kidemu’s fishy tales.

James Ambani and Ira Kidemu are co-founders of Victorian Foods, Kenya, a premier fish processing firm that make fintastic fish.

Sitting pretty next to petroleum, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world today.

play A model wearing one of the clothes designs made from fish skin at the blue fashion show. (BISSA)

 

Blue fashion is, however, slowing changing this narrative one fish at a time.

Blue fashion is an emerging trend in the multi-billion fashion industry where a number of once discarded low value materials from the agriculture industry are now being turned into high value innovative products.

Blue, sustainable fashion focuses on the use of marine raw materials and by-products to develop sustainable bio-alternatives for the fashion industry.

play models wearing several clothes designs made from fish skin at the blue fashion show. (BISSA)

Registered in 2007 and founded in 2013, Victorian Foods started out as a supplier of whole fish to processing plants within Kisumu City. Dwindling stocks and unscrupulous suppliers, however, soon drove James Ambani and Ira Kidemu out of business.

The couple was “washed” (the local Kenyan term for being conned) by one of their buyers – who refused to pay them, claiming their delivery was all ‘bad’.

play Two models wearing beautiful clothe designs made from fish skin. (BISSA)

 

After overcoming the initial disappointment, James and Kidemu soon decided to focus their attention and energy on starting their own fish processing plant.

We make our leather from Nile perch, we choose Nile perch because it’s really a big fish and therefore you can get a lot of leather from it, a mature fish can grow up to six feet,” said James at the at the Blue Fashion for Blue Growth event.

play James Ambani speaking at the at the Blue Fashion for Blue Growth’ event. (BISSA)

 

Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) is native to rivers and lakes in Africa. It is a large mouthed predator that preys on smaller fish and can grow up to 1.8 metres long and weigh as much as 140kg.

Tucked away in Kenya’s northernmost region along the border with Ethiopia sits Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, which until then largely sat under-utilised save for a few fishing expeditions for consumption and sale.

play Florence Anyango tries fishing in hyacinth covered water in Lake Victoria. (The Standard)

 

Compared to Lake Victoria where fish is hard to come by and getting increasingly chocked by the day by unabated water hyacinth, Lake Turkana, known as the Jade Sea, because of the remarkable, almost incandescent, colour of its waters,  which stretches over 250 kilometers long -- longer than the entire Kenyan coast – caught the sights of the two ‘washed’ and wandering entrepreneurs to drop their anchor at the shore of what is one of Kenya’s most beautiful lakes  found at the floor of Rift Valley.

play Lake Turkana (innov8tiv.)

The company currently makes fish fillet, fish meals and fish leather.

Business Insider SSA (BISSA) had a chat with Ira Kidemu, Managing Director, Victorian Foods, Kenya at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) to have a look and feel of their signature Giovanni Ambani handbag made purely from Fish leather.

play Ira Kidemu, Managing Director, Victorian Foods, Kenya posing with one of their red handbags made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (George Tubei)

 

Ira is a former stay-at-home mum who took up hobbies and pastimes to fight boredom.

You need one extra-large piece of Nile perch skin to make this handbag” she told BISSA.

The company sources its materials from Lake Turkana before transporting it to Maili Saba, Kitale where their fully-fledged fish processing plant is located.

play Victorian Foods, Kenya use Nile Perch to make leather for their products. (courtesy)

 

Once the fish skins arrive at Maili Saba they are treated before work starts on turning the dull looking skins into an eye-catching luxurious designer handbag worth thousands.

“From the minute we get the fish from Lake Turkana it will go to our factory in Kitale where we will process it, we will remove the skin, there are skinners who will remove the skin very well so that it does not tear and then it will go to our tannery where we will start liming then fleshing the skin, by that I mean we remove all the flesh and scales from the skin and then it will go through seven other stages till it goes to a stage  that is called wetblue and from that stage you can dye it whatever colour you want,” explained Ira.

play James Ambani displays some of the Nile Perch skin which they use to make beautiful handbags and clothes. (courtesy)

Compared to cow or goat skins synonymous with the leather industry fish leather is far more durable and outshines the former from its intricate design, texture to the DNA itself.

This handbag and any fish skin leather product for that matter can outlast you, it’s very strong leather, actually the way it is structured is it crisscrosses which gives it extra strength compared to say a cow skin’s whose structure just flows in one direction and hence weaker on top of it fish skins also come in two layers so it's quite tough and produce very good durable leather,” Ira breaks it down.

play A wet blue leather (Alibaba)

As a result, Giovanni Ambani handbags fetch top dollar.

This red handbag is the most expensive item on display today it retails at Sh200,000 ($2000) and it has already been bought by a Kenyan during this blue economy conference,” says Ira.

play Ira Kidemu, Managing Director, Victorian Foods, Kenya displays one of their red handbags made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (George Tubei)

 

Buoyed by the sale and growing keen interest of Fish skin products, the company is now working on rolling out other products to meet all Kenyans and international dressing and fashion needs from all from head to toe.

We are actually making a jacket as well but it was not ready for the Fashion show, that jacket will be Sh1000,000 ($10,000) when it’s done, I promise you,”

 

Currently due to the small market at home which is slowly growing though thanks to more awareness and conferences such as Kenya’s blue economy, the company exports most of their products to the European markets where they sale like hot cakes fetching top dollar prices.

 “The cheapest handbag we have made went for Sh90,000 ($900),” says Ira.

play One of the Victorian Foods, Kenya handbags made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (courtesy)

 

The company is a godsend to hundreds of families who depend on it to put food on the table. It currently employs close to 400 employees.

“We employ from the beach where we have 300 fishermen and then at the factory, we have 50 people at anytime working and then at the tannery we have 8 to 20 women working there,” says Ida.

play Victorian Foods currently employs close to 400 employees majority of whom are women. (courtesy)

Fish leather has been successfully used in the production of trinkets, wallets, jackets, shoes, belts and bags and slowly the world is waking up to the fact that they too can have a piece of blue economy.

These eye-catching heels made by love from Victorian Foods, Kenya was once a 4 foot predator roaming the depths of Lake Turkana.

I will tell Kenyans and anybody out there that I sell to Prada, I sell to Nike and several other global brands and so if you want a good quality and unique handbag you can get it here,” says Ira.

play One of the Victorian Foods, Kenya shoes made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (George Tubei)

And that’s not even half the depths of Victorian Foods, Kenya whose mission is to sustainably maximize the resources of Lake Turkana, and empower communities surrounding Lake Turkana, all Giovanni Ambani handbags are hand stitched and no two handbags are the same.

Everything is done manually, we don’t have machines to do this so from filleting to the tannery to stitching everything is handmade and that’s why it is that expensive,”

play One of the Victorian Foods, Kenya shoes made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (George Tubei)

Ira says it’s a labour of love.

It takes a week to make one Giovanni Ambani handbag

play It takes a week to make one Giovanni Ambani handbag. (George Tubei)

 

The end product is an eye-catching durable and fashionable handbag second to none.

And they are all different, no bag is the same no leather is the same, every fish has a unique pattern and so when you buy this handbag you find not someone else with the same pattern,” says Ira.

play One of the Victorian Foods, Kenya handbags made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (George Tubei)

 

At the moment the company makes about 10 designer handbags in a month but with the demand growing rapidly the company is looking at doubling if not tripling that figure soon.

The company is also expanding and has already started making shoes from fish skins as well.

We have just launched these so last month we successfully made ten bags. We will grow but for now we just have ten designs but we can make shoes as well, we already have flat shoes and heels which was showcased today by the models so we are very optimistic and slowly the company will grow,”

play One of the Victorian Foods, Kenya handbags made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (George Tubei)

 

At the end of the day, Ida says while she loves the fact that she is making money and flying high the Kenyan flag out there, what truly makes her whole is the fintastic fishy tales and positive vibes Victorian Foods, Kenya is slowly stitching.

I enjoy working with the women, the women are amazing in Kitale those women work because they only have the factory to work at, if it’s not in January when they are planting or December when they are harvesting they don’t have work so they really love working and when you see the skill that goes into it you will appreciate that bag more in fact I should up the price (laughs).”

play Ira Kidemu, Managing Director, Victorian Foods, Kenya displays one of their handbags made using Fish leather at the ongoing Blue economy conference held at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) (George Tubei)

 

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