Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Broken heart no more: Old boat sails turned into uplifting art

By Teo Kermeliotis and Jessica Ellis, CNN
updated 5:52 AM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
 Ali Lamu is a business transforming old sails and other recycled items into artwork and handbags. Ali Lamu is a business transforming old sails and other recycled items into artwork and handbags.
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Made with love...Ali Lamu's creations
Island paradise
  • Ali Lamu turns old fishing material and recycled items into artwork and handicrafts
  • The handmade creations are mostly made by old dhow sails, or 'tanga' in Swahili
  • The artisans paint thoughtful messages on the creations promoting love and peace
  • Clients can buy Ali Lamu's offerings from a small boutique on the island or online

(CNN) -- One summer day back in 2008, fisherman Ali Omar went to see Daniela Bleattler, a Swiss photographer living in Lamu, the beautiful island off the Kenyan coast. Struggling to make a living, Omar asked Bleattler if she had a job for him. Bleattler didn't, but asked him instead whether he could help her find any "tanga," the old sails from the traditional dhows that she loved.

A couple of days later, the local fisherman returned with a magnificent brownish old sail, weathered by years of salt and storms from navigating the Indian Ocean waters. "It had a big hole in the center created by the wind and the old age of the material," remembers Bleattler, who at the time had just come out of a relationship. "I just laughed and said to him, 'if I do a big red heart around it, this will look just like my broken heart at the moment.'"

So Omar left again to return this time with tins of red and black paint he used for his dhow. Together, they started painting a big red heart around the hole; once done, Bleattler dipped the brush into the black paint and added the words "Love Again Forever Whatever."

Read this: Fishing craft to foosball tables, furniture to float your boat

"Love Again Forever Whatever" -- Ali Lamu.

"We looked at it and we just loved it so much," says Bleattler. "I said I think we should frame it and put in the shop of a friend of mine." Less than two hours later, an American couple walked into the art store and stood in front of the broken heart holding hands. "They said 'that is beautiful, how much is it?'" recalls Bleattler. "I had no idea and I just kind of said a (very expensive) price but they said 'well, we want it" -- it started exactly like this."

Ali Lamu

From fisherman to handbag designer
Will oil plans ruin an African paradise?

What started was Ali Lamu, a business launched by Omar and Bleattler producing anything from whimsical paintings and high-end handbags to beautiful bed covers and cushions. Six years after their first sale, they have sold several broken hearts -- as well as other designs -- to customers from all over the world. Everything is handmade, created from old fishing material and whatever washes up on the shores of Lamu.

"We are making more and more," says Bleattler. "We are actually in the process of thinking wider and bigger."

Read this: Artist's spectacular glasses 'give trash a second chance'

Ali Lamu, which is also the name some locals use for Omar, has 34 permanent staff and sometimes employs as many as 70 people. The business has a couple of workshops on the island but most of the craftsmanship is done in the artisans' homes. These are people who are usually Omar's family members, friends and other local fishermen.

"Ali's family is happy because of this business because they all have a job from this company." says Juma Kilonzo, a friend and artisan. "We are the friends so we are close now like brothers," he adds. "So we also depend on this company."

"Wake Up And Love"

The artisans also paint thoughtful and uplifting messages on many of their designs, promoting love, peace and care for the environment -- slogans like "Wake Up And Love," "The Only Way to Save The World Is With My Heart" and "Heart That Loves Never Gets Old."

The fishermen, the people I'm working with are my big inspiration.
Daniela, Ali Lamu

"I just close my eyes and see what the day brings," says Bleattler, describing where she draws inspiration for the messages adorning Ali Lamu's one-of-a-kind creations. "Depending on the mood of the day," she continues, "what is going on around the world and the people around me -- the fishermen, the people I'm working with are my big inspiration, so it's from them I find all these sayings."

The company sells its designs from a small boutique on Lamu, mostly to tourists. But one of the main challenges for the business has been a drop in the number of people visiting the stunning island recently. Lamu, which is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is very close to Somalia and has previously been targeted in terror attacks.

Watch this: Lamu deals with the tourism blues

"We do survive because of exports, otherwise we wouldn't make it," says Bleattler.

In hopes of attracting a bigger clientele, they've put themselves online so that people from all over the world can see their works and make custom orders.

"In 10 years I hope Ali Lamu can be all over the world," says Omar. "So my company has a really good life."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:49 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
In north-west Cameroon, a cooperative of women beekeepers gently nurture hives in the rural outskirts of the town of Bamenda.
updated 7:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
East Africa's vibrant music scene has been steadily gaining exposure, and now entrepreneurs and investors are catching on.
updated 10:03 AM EST, Fri November 28, 2014
 A woman sells Liberian flags on the street near an Ebola isolation ward on August 15, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. People suspected of contracting the Ebola virus are being brought by health workers to the center, a closed primary school originally built by USAID, while larger facililities are being constructed to house the surging number of patients. The Ebola epidemic has killed more than 1,000 people in four West African countries. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Workers and entrepreneurs in Liberia are struggling to deal with the economic impact of the Ebola crisis.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Fri November 28, 2014
Taxis remain a common mode of getting around in many African cities. Is this three-wheeler about to change that?
updated 9:09 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Christine Mbabazi started designing clothes in her bedroom, now a store owner, she has bigger plans; to become household name.
updated 5:46 AM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Dakar is the vibrant home of a growing community of surfers taking advantage of the warm weather, year-round waves and cheap flights.
updated 7:01 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Jeffrey Mulaudzi's tourism business is a learning experience on two wheels, giving visitors an opportunity to see the local lifestyle up close.
updated 9:48 AM EST, Mon November 3, 2014
War long made Goma a difficult place to live in, but one woman has set out to change that -- and she's using soft croissants and fresh coffee.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
When you think chocolate, you probably don't think Uganda. But if two local entrepreneurs have their way, you will soon...
updated 5:34 AM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
If someone has shined your shoes in a South African airport, it's probably thanks to Lere Mgayiya.
updated 5:24 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
Meet Kemi Kalikawe, the owner of Naledi Lifestyle Store which specializes in fashion and household items in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
On the streets of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, scores of vulnerable children face uncertain futures.
updated 11:50 AM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
Translating local charm into eye-catching designs, Definition Africa is a booming t-shirt retailer staying true to its Ugandan roots.
updated 6:46 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Janet Fredman Designs transforms modest materials such as seeds, wood and leather into high-end jewelry.
See the full coverage of CNN's African Start-Up -- the show that follows entrepreneurs across the continent making their dreams become reality.