I grew up along the swampy shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, where fish is our favorite meal.
When I travel home to my village, over 300 miles from Nairobi, I enjoy watching rural family members hook worms or other insects to a fishing line before casting it out into a local stream and reeling in tilapia, trout, catfish, mudfish, and more.
But around Lake Victoria, villagers fish for food and income—not for fun. It amuses them to think that people might fish as a hobby.
At a recent USAID event though, I met an entrepreneur named Carol Mbutura who showed me that some Kenyans also make a good living from this hobby—supplying lures to the leisure-fishing industry. Carol was showing off a large display of dainty, hand-tied fishing flies created in Kenya and destined for overseas markets.
I knew there was a story here: Fly-tying is not a traditional Kenyan craft. How on earth did Carol get into the fly-tying business?
She told me the cottage industry dates from the 1930s when a young Englishman came to Kenya to recover from a broken back. Mad about fishing, he taught some local Kenyans to tie fishing lures. They then started selling to British settlers—for catching trout imported from Britain, which still inhabit highland streams today.
More recently, an American company called Flydeal began buying flies from Kenya. Carol Mbutura had developed a shipping company based in Nairobi—and Flydeal hired her to send the products to the United States.
Keeping up quality and production numbers from 10,000 miles away, however, proved increasingly difficult. So four years ago, the Flydeal asked Carol to step in, manage production, and become a business partner.
USAID has helped Mbutura and other African entrepreneurs take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows duty-free imports of some African products to the United States. In 2011, training provided by USAID AGOA Resource Centers has sparked millions of dollars in new trade deals, which benefit both U.S. and African businesses and spur economic growth.
With Carol to supervise, sales have grown several times; Flydeal now provides jobs for approximately100 full-time and 50 part-time Kenyan workers in ten factories around Nairobi. Together they produce 7,000-8,000 dozen of lures a month. The company sells mainly online and exports worldwide, though United States is the primary market.
The delicate but tough, hand-made lures resemble little creatures that fish might eat: flies of course, but also frogs, tiny fish, baby mice, cockroaches, grasshoppers, butterflies, mosquitos… Recently, the factories have begun making jewelry, too, from the feathers, beads, and wires used for lures.
Carol’s advice for other would-be entrepreneurs: “With your own work you must have patience, perseverance and tolerance; don’t ever quit if someone lets you down, be it a customer or supplier.”
Next time I visit home, I’m going to bring some Flydeal flies with me. I want to see if Kenyan fish go for them—and what my cousins say about using these artsy artifacts instead of an old-fashioned worm.