The outfit makes bags and soft furnishings from old dhow sails collected from the fishermen based on the island. With just a few simple designs, “always the same but always 100 per cent heart and handmade”, Alilamu products are truly a joy to own.
The entrepreneur, Mr Ali Lamu comes from a generation of fishermen and fishing is all he knew until he met Daniele Bateleur, a photographer. She had come to their beach one day six years ago.
Busy drying his fish with fellow fishermen, Ms Bateleur asked to take their pictures. They declined at first, so she asked whether she could do anything for them, they asked for spaghetti and cigarettes, and with these humble gifts exchanged, the two soon become friends.
One day, Bateleur asked for an old sail from the dhow. Ali brought one with a big hole in middle, which he describes as “created by the strength of the wind, sun and life’” Daniela looked at it and saw the possibility of creating something new.
“She said, ‘If I paint a big red heart around this hole it will look just as my heart at the moment — a big broken heart”. I left and came back later with a tin of red paint and started to paint the big broken heart. She then got some black paint and wrote ‘love again forever whatever’,” he recalls.
Both loved what they had created that they decided to frame it and take it to a friend’s shop to see whether it would sell. Two hours later an American couple on holiday bought it.
Knowing they were onto something, the two began to work on their first products.
“Our first collection was about the feeling of a broken heart and the struggle of being a fisherman, to save this beautiful ocean and to survive at the same time.
“Then the collections started to change together with feelings, but the heart was always there, sometime with wings and others with a hole,” says Lamu.
Alilamu products have animals, hearts, powerful love, courage messages, the map of Africa and stars. He says the pick of what to paint on a product depends on the mood of the day, the feeling of the heart and sometimes what is happening in the world. And with it, the workshop started with two products and growing every day.
“We do not really know what fashion is or follow it. I’m a fisherman. We are not fashion designers. We do struggle to make our products. We do not need to make many different bags because every single bag is unique and it will always be,” he says.
Being a fisherman, he says, has given him an advantage in running Alilamu — not only a strong foundation one can possibly get, but also finding the best and honest colleagues anyone can ever hope for.
“My father gave the best education a child could have. He taught me how to survive in any kind of weather or situations, how to adjust my sail and reach my destination where ever I’m and whatever is happening around me. I will always be a fisherman in my heart and spirit and this is what pushes me ahead every day,” says Lamu.
Alilamu has grown with the two business partners at the helm, knowing that the venture could not exist without each other.
“The wind is behind us and the weather is good today. So let’s go for it, enjoy the journey and collect as many fish as we can when we can because nothing last forever,” he says.
One of the challenges, he cites, is the dealing with people. He likes to think that everyone is honest and good hearted but in the business world, he has found it rough with “many sharks or hyenas”. However, he says he is learning to cope.
Currently, Alilamu exports its products to Holland, Spain, Australia and South Africa. For Kenyan buyers, an email to Lamu gets one the products of one’s choice.
“Fishing is all I knew and now Alilamu has been my biggest fish ever, and still struggling to get it out of the water,” says Lamu.