Kenyan island business makes high-end handbags from washed up objects

When Ali Omar, a local fisherman on the Kenyan island Lamu, asked Swiss photographer Daniela Bleattler for a job in 2008, he had no idea that they would soon become the owners of one of Lamu’s most well-known businesses.

Daniela Bleattler and Ali Omar, co-founders of Ali Lamu

Daniela Bleattler and Ali Omar, co-founders of Ali Lamu

Omar and Bleattler are the founders of Ali Lamu, a company that designs and produces paintings, high-end handbags and other artistic creations from old dhow sails, fishing material and whatever else they can find that washes up on the shores of Lamu.

The business is named after the nickname Lamu residents have for Omar. Today the company has grown to include 34 permanent staff, although the founders sometime employ as many as 70 people to assist with the growing interest in and demand for their handmade products.

“Ali Lamu is a growing family and to feed everyone every day, and send all the children to school, is another, not small challenge,” said Omar.

From tourism to exports

The business environment and opportunities for employment in Lamu have fallen in recent years alongside its waning tourism industry.

Lamu Island, which lies just off the Kenyan coast near the Somalia border, is a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site and was considered a popular tourism resort up until a few years ago.

In September 2011, a British woman was abducted and her husband killed while on holiday in Kiwayu (on the Lamu Archipelago). Two weeks later, a 66-year-old disabled French woman was kidnapped from her beach house. Both attacks are believed to have been carried out by Somali gangsters linked to terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

The weeks following the attacks saw a fall in tourism, with British and US governments being among those that warned their citizens to stay away from Lamu. This shattered local businesses that had previously catered to the tourism industry.

For Omar and Bleattler, who had sold their first piece of art to tourists visiting Lamu in 2008, their business now relies heavily on exports.

“We would never have survived if we had to depend on tourism in Lamu in these last three years,” explained Omar. “We made it because of exports, and this has been our focus for a few years. We produce everything in Kenya but sell outside of Kenya, so that we can survive through all weather.”

Despite the fall in tourism, Omar said the island still offers opportunities for business, although success will not necessarily come easily.

“Of course, there are many opportunities here, but one has to be ready to commit and be patient… Africa is tough but Africa can. Everything is possible here if you want it enough, and work hard enough,” added Omar.

The company has distributors in the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US which sell Ali Lamu’s creations online, and Omar said they are planning on marketing their products on their own website in the near future.

However, while exports form a large part of business, the cost of transporting goods from Lamu to elsewhere in the world can be expensive and even unreliable. “

The transport from here to them is a big challenge every time,” continued Omar. “Donkey, boat, bus, tuk-tuk, and then finally on a big plane; the cost is high and clients complain. Sometimes boxes disappear. We have lost a lot of money over the years, but it is all part of the game – we live, we learn and we grow.”

Keeping up with demand

The Ali Lamu founders also find themselves faced with the challenge of finding enough materials to keep up with production demands.

“Our main material is the old sails of the boats. We do not buy it in a shop; we travel, we sail, we encounter fishermen and buy old sails from them. It’s not easy when you start to produce hundreds and hundreds of bags. But when we think that we won’t be able to continue, a new little door always opens up for us and up we start again.”

Recently, Ali Lamu has received some international attention and was featured on CNN’s African Start-Up.

“I remember six years ago when we sold our first painting and Daniela said to me: ‘One day you, Ali Lamu, will be known all around the world.’ I smiled with a taste of a dream and hope in my heart,” reflected Omar.

When asked why he thinks Ali Lamu products have such appeal, Omar said it is because of their signature heart design, often painted on handbags or duvet covers, which he believes people “feel”.

“We always try to involve as many people as possible in one bag or painting because we have so many people who need to work. So this means the price may go up and up together with the quality and the feeling of the product too,” he concluded.