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The Fluffy but Lethal Creations that have Made Kenya a Global Hub of Fly-tying

Johnny Onslow, a 67-year-old retired head teacher whose fly-tying firm near the Kenyan town of Rongai is called Gone Fishing, reckons that at least 60% of the world’s supply of artificial flies tied to little fish-hooks is made in Kenya. No one really knows, because there are thousands of freelance tyers who do not register with Kenya’s tax authorities. This unusual cottage industry was started in the 1930s by a young Briton after he had broken his back in England playing rugby. Nowadays there are scores of workshops dotted across the country, where entrepreneurial Kenyans of all ethnicities, from freelance tyers in sheds to employers of more than a hundred at long tables, meet orders from as far afield as Chile, Estonia and New Zealand. By far the biggest markets, however, are in north America and western Europe. As the reputation of Kenya’s fly-tyers has spread farther afield, rival firms have sprung up in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Kenyans reckon their ingenuity, speedy delivery, reliability and modest wages should keep them ahead.