Hakai Magazine

fishing gear upcycler Ali Omar
Ali Omar started by sewing one bag and quickly built an upcycling design business from there. Photo by Jessica Ellis

Coastal Job: Fishing Gear Upcycler

With a spark of inspiration from a stranger, designer Ali Omar built a business by converting used fishing gear into coveted personal goods.

Authored by

As told to Shadrack Omuka

Article body copy

Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Ali Omar is the founder and owner of Ali Lamu a business based on the Kenyan island of Lamu that creates bags, decor, and art from old dhow sails salvaged from the shores of the Indian Ocean.

I was born into a deprived polygamous family of fishers, and I started fishing at the age of seven to help earn money. I was too young for the job, but it was our family culture—I couldn’t avoid it.

My brothers taught me to fish, and I eventually joined a group of other boys from my village. We fished at night on a dhow and spent the better part of the day sleeping, but sometimes spent hours selling our catches.

In 2007, when I was 23, my colleagues and I were fishing at night and were shot at by unknown assailants on another boat. We survived, but our boat sank, and we lost all of our fishing gear.

From that day, I dumped fishing and started looking for employment. In 2008, while walking along the beach, I met a woman named Daniela, a Swiss photographer. I asked her for employment, but she had none to offer.

She was carrying a nice bag that attracted my interest, though. I asked her how much it cost and she told me she made it herself from sailcloth. She explained everything, including where to get the materials; the next morning, I went to the shores to look for old sails.

After I’d found some, I cleaned the fabric, then cut it and started joining the parts. Finally, I came up with a bag. I placed canvas at the bottom to strengthen it. On the ends, I used different colors of thread to make it more attractive. I made it all without a machine.

After that, I took some paints and sketched a heart on it. That heart has remained our mark ever since. And we still make every bag by hand.

I sold that first bag to a tourist and it was a breakthrough—it opened doors. The following day, other tourists came to me to buy bags. I took orders and immediately started making more. I made three bags in a day and the following day they were all bought.

A few months later, I opened a beachside workshop. The business started booming, and I hired a few women to assist me. Within six months, we had moved to a bigger shop.

I depended heavily on tourists. When a Dutch tourist was abducted and killed in 2011, tourism on Lamu diminished. The abductions continued and eventually no tourists came.

To salvage the situation, I contacted former clients, mostly in Europe and the United States, asking them to buy more bags. The response was encouraging—the majority of them placed orders—and that is how I started exporting. I sent 10 at first, and the numbers slowly increased. Now we have sales executives in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and Ali Lamu has 15 permanent employees and 40 casual laborers.

We still make our bags and other products from sails that my employees collect from the beach or receive from fishers or environmentalists; I’m proud that my business helps care for the environment and creates jobs in my community.