How buying art can help tackle the coronavirus

In Community by Samia Omar Bwana

About four years ago I dreamed up the idea of starting a halal travel company to get more people to travel to my home country of Kenya and Africa as a whole. One and a half years ago, Halal Safaris Africa was born, the first ever travel company providing halal luxury safaris in Kenya. I would never have expected that I would today be using our tourism networks to sell arts and crafts online and auctioning art for charity to help tackle the economic impacts of COVID-19 in Lamu instead.


Halal Safaris is a pioneer in offering halal luxury safaris and exclusive Islamic heritage in the East African Coast, especially in Lamu. We organize exclusive trips to learn about the Islamic heritage, history and culture of different countries while also exploring rich nature and popular cultural destinations in the region. We also created a new niche with our especially popular women-only halal safaris. Our first destination and most popular of our trips are to Lamu.


Lamu Archipelago is located on the North East Coast of Kenya, along the Indian Ocean coastline. It is one of the earliest seaports in East Africa that attracted traders from various parts of world. The Archipelago saw many visitors over its long history, including traders and explorers from China, Oman, India, China, Yemen and many more. Lamu town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that dates to probably the 10th century from archaeological records, was an important independent city-state among those that stretch along the East African coast. Lamu’s majority Muslim culture is intact to date as the oldest and the best-preserved living settlement among the Swahili towns on the East African Coast.


When we started the travel company, the global economy looked great, people were increasingly traveling, travel blogging was the ‘in’ thing. Now all of a sudden, no one is travelling. We could never have predicted this when I conjured up this business idea with my sister.


A few months ago when we first heard about COVID-19 in Kenya, we thought it would just be like the Swine flu, H1N1, Ebola and all those other outbreaks before where it would all just disappear and never reach our shores, so we went on business as usual. But then here we are today. Flights grounded. Borders closed. Doors closed. No travelling anytime soon for anyone.


Two months ago we stopped selling any more trips with Halal Safaris, we postponed our scheduled 2020 Sisters Safari, a women’s only trip that was supposed to happen in August this year to Zanzibar.  But after we did all that to make sure we don’t risk spreading the disease and be responsible citizens, it dawned on me the luxury that we have, to close down our business and still have food on the table.

Some of the driftwood art and frames for sale by recycle artist Isiah Chepyator

I thought of my tourism partners: the hotels now closed and having to let people go, the tour guides with no tourists to tip them, the arts and crafts shops with no one to buy their souvenirs, and charities that now lack European donors as priorities shift. Alhamdulillah. I am very lucky a roof over our heads, and have no worries except how to keep our children from being bored while staying home. So I ruminated for days on what my next steps would be.


One day I was cleaning up my home office, I noticed all the art lying around that has been there for months and I remembered my private pet project that never really kicked off fully because I was too busy with Halal Safaris.


What many people don’t know is while selling travel experiences is my business, I was actually born an artist. That is why to combine all my passions, when people as what I am, I say an “artivist”. I don’t know if that word really exists but I said it once and it stuck. I had been drawing, designing and crafting as far back as I can remember. But there was always that person advising you that: “you can never make money from being an artist”, “drawing people is haram” etc. So I never really fully nurtured that interest.

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Samia with local Lamu artist Abu Abu, with his handmade metal maps of Africa made from recycled tin.

However, to get rid of my art bug, I had established networks with local artists in Lamu for the last seven years and came up with an idea that was always in the sketchbooks, but never materialized. While I was the County Executive for Trade, Tourism and Culture in Lamu I networked with many of the artists in Lamu to not only collect my own art, but with dreams that one day I could help the artists have a fair trade business to sell the arts directly to their clients online and with a workshop. But that never came to pas soon enough as you need a lot more capital and time for it than starting a travel company, so I started Halal Safaris instead.



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Isiah Chepyator repurposes andrecycles drift wood and flip flops to create beautiful fish art.

While I shelved the idea temporarily, I still bought a few pieces hoping to show one or two friends so as to promote the local artists. We would also make sure that our tour groups go through the local arts and craft shops to encourage them to buy from the artists. A few months ago we also launched a Halal Safaris art and craft tour experience with one of the artists on AirBnB before COVID19 put it on hold.  .


Because of this, I had several samples of their arts at home and so many photos and videos of the local arts. And then it struck me; why don’t I help them sell their art online to reach the tourists who can’t travel!


Most of Lamu is poor and over 70% of the economy is either directly or indirectly dependent on tourism. As such, the impact of the virus has brought the destination to its knees with no tourists walking the streets. Furthermore, charities have usually depended on European donors but, all of a sudden, the money has stopped flowing in as much. Fortunately there is no coronavirus case currently in Lamu. However, the County is locked as the major cities of Mombasa, Malindi and Nairobi that usually connect the only flights and buses out of Lamu have had their borders closed. The economic impact of this Lockdown is huge.


And so here I am today, utilizing my travel company to provide a platform promote local artists and charities to help cushion the community from the economic impact of Covid-19.


How does it work?

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We have three objectives:

  1. To promote arts by local artists and help them get them online to bypass the issue of tourists no longer travelling to Lamu, known as the EcoSoko project.
  2. To ask future travellers to donate to partnering charities, what we call #StayHome and #TravelTomorrow campaign.
  3. To auction or sell art to support local community projects.


In all the above, if anyone spends $20 or more, Halal Safaris is giving 15% off travel vouchers to travel until December 2021. We are also auctioning free two nights and tour in Lamu as well.


For now, we are working worked with five artists and three charities to raise $5,000 by the end of the month. So far we have raised almost $2,000. We hope that we can succeed to be able to expand to more charities and artists to help us reach that goal if need be.



Art for Good


In April Anidan, an orphanage in Lamu, sold their prized painting through the EcoSoko project for $1,000. The funds will go towards supporting vulnerable children with housing, education and free medical care. The painting itself was created by children housed at the orphanage and trained at the Anidan Art Centre.


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This month we are partnering with Safari Doctors, a charitable organization that provides free medical care to marginalized communities in Lamu to also sell their art. We are auctioning a painting that was gifted to Safari Doctors together with two nights and a tour of Lamu  to raise funds for the charity. We are also asking our followers and clients to donate to them directly to be eligible for the free 15% off travel voucher.


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Painting of the Safari Vet Clinic that is on auction for Safari Doctors


How to take part

  • You can take part and support Lamu’s local artists by purchasing and bidding for items over here on our Instagram page, Facebook and Twitter.
  • If you prefer to make a one-off donation to Safari Doctors you can do so  right here. 100% of the proceeds will support their mobile clinic. Each monthly outreach costs Safari Doctors $5,000, during which the team travels to 15 remote villages, by boat and road, over 6 days to reach over 1,000 people in need of health services, and at least 200 animals with their Safari Vets programme.
  • Another Charity is the Lamu Youth Alliance (LYA) who have been tirelessly fighting for many years to protect our youth from turning to violent groups or violent actions to support their basic needs. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has started sewing masks, providing relief food, and raising awareness to help prevent the virus. Together we are raising awareness also to our partners to help in the provision of non-medical support to communities.


Reflecting on the changes that have happened so fast in the last two months, I can’t help but be grateful. I might be doing the opposite of what my jobs with Halal Safaris asks i.e. telling people to stay home instead of travelling, but I am glad to have revived my passion and instead bring the place I love, Lamu, into peoples homes so that they can travel vicariously through the art instead. Hopefully someday when our borders reopen again, those buyers can visit us and helps things get back to normal. With our travel vouchers giving them incentive to come back, why not?

And that is how selling art can help tackle the short-term and long-term economic impacts of the new Coronavirus. That is what “artivism” means to me.


About EcoSoko Project

Instead of taking a vacation, Halal Safaris is encouraging future travellers who want to support local businesses and help cushion from the ailing economy can buy from EcoSoko, a social entrepreneurship project started by Halal Safaris to curate all the partnering artists.


The selected artists mostly include recycle artists from Lamu who make unique products using trash and their natural resources in the environment. The curated art include crafts and frames made from drift wood and flip-flops, hanging art made from recycle tin, carved wooden Islamic calligraphy, woven baskets, recycled dhow sail bags and much more. Since most of the artists aren’t online, we have listed them on our website and will be selling their art on their behalf. Payments can be made via Paypal.


Halal Safaris is giving 15% off travel vouchers to Kenya to anyone who spends over $20 from partnering local art businesses on the online catalog at Halal Safaris.  You can view the online catalog here.   Considering the urgency of the crisis with COVID, we unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to create a full ecommerce website but clients can inquire on products either to buy or have their own unique art made.

You can find out more about the Halal Safaris’ #StayHome #TravelTomorrow and EcoSoko Campaigns at You can get more information about EcoSoko and the artists at


If you donate to the above charities and or buy from artists, email us at your name, donation/spending amount, name of charity/shop supported and a copy of payment confirmation to get your voucher. Use the subject “#TRAVELTOMORROW Voucher”.