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December 15, 2018

Flip-flop dhow to fight plastic waste in historic Lamu-to-Cape Town voyage

Dhow makers work on the dhow
Dhow makers work on the dhow

Did you know that flip-flops, one of the largest marine pollutants on Indian Ocean beaches, can be used to make a dhow?

Wonder no more.

A one of a kind dhow in the world is set to make its maiden trip from Lamu to Cape Town, a journey of 5,250km, in January next year.


The Flipflopi boat will be a world first, from the unique building techniques to the pioneering expedition, which will see the boat travel further south than any other previous dhow expedition, into the treacherous Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn.

The dhow, which is made of flip-flops among other plastic wastes, is being built on Lamu island.

The dhow will depart from Lamu in January next year and travel along the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and onwards to South Africa.

The voyage will take between three and four months, arriving in Cape Town in March next year.

One of the biggest challenges will be the wind and the increasingly rough sea as it heads south.

Along the way, there will be a number of beach clean-ups and visits to a number of marine conservation and plastic recycling initiatives.

Traditionally, lateen-rigged vessels only ventured as far south as Beira (halfway down the coast of Mozambique), because at this point, the direction of the prevailing winds change.

The following 3,000km will make for incredibly challenging sailing, culminating in a rounding of the treacherous Cape of Good Hope at the southern point of Africa, and arriving shortly thereafter at Cape Town.

Traditionally, Lamu has been the most important centre for dhow-building in the region.

The sleepy fishing county, where people still lead a traditional way of life, is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa.

The county has been inhabited since 1370, and boat building is still dominated by traditional techniques.


Flipflopi Project founder Ben Morison said the dhow will venture into the treacherous Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn.

Morison, who grew up in Kenya before working in London arranging Safari holidays to Kenya and the rest of Africa, says he was surprised to see a lot of plastic in marine environment.

“I was making a living from holidays. People wanting to come to Kenya specifically to see what is beautiful about Kenya, it’s wildlife, it’s environment, it’s coastline... that is why people come. Plastic was visible in the environment and I was inspired to make something from flip-flops,” he says.

The founder, who is also a travel industry entrepreneur, started the Flipflopi Project after coming face to face with the shocking quantity of plastic and flip-flops on so many of East Africa’s beaches, and the impact they are having on marine and land ecosystems.

Morison and the Flipflopi Project team believe that any serious attempt at impacting the outcome requires a change in consumer behaviours upstream in the life cycle of single-use plastics.

He said it is important to connect plastic use to everyday lives, as it has an impact on food security.

“I walk down the road, I throw my plastic bag onto the street then the rains takes into the river before getting to a sea or a lake. We go to the lake to fish. When the plastics gets to the lake or sea, it breaks down micro plastics which are smaller. Fish eats it. That is why sea birds have plastic inside them, because they eat fish and every fish has micro plastic. All of a sudden you are eating your own plastic,” he says.

Morison says the dhow is innovative, as end of use plastic wastes are being used.

“The Watamu Marine Association and Ocean Sole are creating souvenirs that are being sought internationally. I saw some people doing something interesting and positive using plastic. Instead of thinking single use, they were recycling it. That is my inspiration,” he says.


Morison says the dhow is “pioneering”, adding that the challenge of building a dhow out of a different substance is incredibly difficult.

“We have spent a lot of time on research and development, as it is the first time. It has never been done through Kenyan artisans, who are known for making dhow out of wood. It is through their experience and knowledge that we have overcome those challenges,” he says, adding that local knowledge had been utilised.

Five tonnes of the plastic wastes were collected in September last year in just three hours by locals during an ocean cleanup before being weighed.

This was collected in 5km of the coastline by a team of 50 people.

It was then recycled at Regeneration Africa, an environmental recycling company in Malindi.

Actual measurements of the dhow are first taken before local metal fabricators make steel moulds in shapes of big parts of the dhow.

These parts were traditionally made of giant hard wood, which is no longer found easily.

The waste is melted and poured into the hollow section of the dhow.

It took the team eight months to innovate as no one has done it before.

Set to weigh nearly 50 tonnes, the dhow is four and half metres high and 18m in length.

To make the dhow bright and beautiful, some 20,000 flip-flops were then glued to the outer side of the dhow.

Morison said that by 2050, the number of plastics in oceans will be equal to the number of fish.

In a recent report, Unep warns that much of the marine life now carries plastic that either entered them directly or by eating smaller marine creatures.


Morison says there will be no single sea bird in the world that will not have ingested plastics into their bodies as plastics continue to get into the ocean at an alarming rate.

He says between 90 and 95 per cent of sea birds worldwide have plastics in their bodies.

“The situation is significant as Indian Ocean is not only Kenya’s ocean, it is Sri Lanka’s ocean, India’s ocean. It is the ocean that connects to South East Asia and to the Philippines, to Vietnam. So a lot of waste we have been collecting has brand names of countries from across the other side of the ocean,” he says, adding that the dhow will send the message to several other countries.

Unep said the world, with a population of 2.5 billion in 1950, produced 1.5 million tons of plastic.

However, last year, with a global population of more than 7 billion people, produced over 300 million tons of plastic, with severe consequences for marine plants and animals.

Morison says a way in which the effects of plastics can be communicated needs to be found.

He said the Flipflopi project will help raise awareness, as people do not care about something they do not know.

“We have to showcase innovation. What we are doing is taking something that is of single use and recycling it. Look at what we did, we even made a dhow from plastic from the roadside. We want to stimulate innovation so that there is an alternative,” he says, adding that many will be inspired by their work in every day’s challenges to find a solution.


Morison says Kenya is the best country for innovation, as it has an entrepreneurial population that has several ideas.

He said the dhow will communicate to the global audience to have a global voice about plastics for a plastic revolution to happen.

The government earlier this year announced that it will ban plastic carrier bags through a gazette notice dated February 27.

Morison praised the move, saying it shows that East Africa has now taken up the plastic revolution head-on.

Environment CS Judi Wakhungu notified the public that six months from February 27, the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging will be banned.

Previous attempts to ban plastics in Kenya have flopped.

In 2007, the government issued a ban against bags below 0.3mm in thickness, which also failed.

In January 2011, Nema declared a ban on bags below 0.6mm in thickness, but no results were achieved.

Manufacturers and importers are required to stop providing plastic, single-use carrier bags to customers by August 28.

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