• Before Ali Skanda co-founded Flipflopi, he was known as a carpenter/dhow builder
• Now at the helm of Takataka Foundation, he advocates cleanups, waste management
Lamu has made the news in recent years for its environmental activism. It is the birthplace of Save Lamu, a community movement that successfully fought the construction of a large coal plant, and Flipflopi, the world’s first sailing dhow made entirely from plastic waste and covered in 30,000 multi-coloured flip flops.
The county is a Swahili paradise on Kenya’s north coast, famed for its friendly community, stunning beaches, rich Swahili culture, breathtaking architecture, lyrical Taarab music, hordes of donkeys and its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Sadly, as each day passes, Lamu is under increased threat of growing pollution. Floating plastic packaging is no longer a rare sight. Neither are plastic bottles littering the turquoise waters, plastic waste washed up on the sandy white beaches and the smell of burnt plastic battling the salty ocean breeze.
Residents have decided to stand up and make a change. Today, we sit down with Ali Skanda, Flipflopi captain and co-founder, as well as the founder of Takataka Foundation (Flipflopi’s partner project on the north coast of Kenya).
We seek to find out more about what they do, why they do it, how they’ve been affected by Covid-19 and what the way forward is.
Skanda and his team of traditional dhow-building experts put Lamu on the world map when they built the world’s first boat made from recycled marine plastic, named Flipflopi.
We have a vision to set up a new face of Lamu, with clean community gardens, better housing for the community, fish farms and composting sites, where we can turn waste into fertiliser that can be sold to support incomes of community members
What is Takataka Foundation?
Takataka Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in Lamu, Kenya, with the goal of eliminating waste from the seafront and streets of this idyllic island through education, clean-ups and improving infrastructure.
It was formed after the culmination of UN Environment Assembly-4 in 2019. With a core team of nine members, Takataka Foundation is driven by the core belief that the local community can work together and make a difference in cleaning up their island, protecting their immediate environment and restoring the island to its natural beauty.
While the foundation’s focus is particularly on plastic waste and its devastating effect on human, animal and ecosystem health, we work to tackle the different forms of taka taka (waste) that threaten the island.
What problems are you trying to solve?
Lamu town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is an island only accessible by boat. No plastic is produced on the island, but as the years have passed by, more and more plastic products are ferried onto the island, most of them single-use non-recyclable products that cannot be handled by the existing waste management infrastructure.
Currently, Lamu Town and its surrounding villages have no organised rubbish collection system. There is only one official collection site that serves approximately 4,500 households, and this is currently out of order as the market is being rebuilt.
As a result, illegal dumpsites are now scattered around the island and the major dumpsite is overwhelmed. The amount of waste produced far exceeds what we can handle, and the result is a tide of pollution that threatens to drown our beautiful home.
This mismanagement of waste has hurt the health of residents, contaminated our soil and water table, multiplied the number of mosquitoes, harmed the health of donkeys, hit tourism and business and blocked sewages, leading to back-ups, floods and an increase in waterborne diseases.
How are you working to tackle this issue?
Our work falls under three main pillars:
1. Education: We educate community members on sorting waste in their households, and work with schools and madrasas on how they can tackle waste at the source before it becomes pollution. Furthermore, we spotlight the damage caused by pollution to our environment, including donkeys feeding on plastic waste and getting sick.
We believe the younger generation are tomorrow’s leaders, and that by starting now with their environmental education, we can positively influence their behaviour and that of their families.
We are also engaging hotels that are big waste producers and encouraging them to sort their waste and use more sustainable products.
2. Clean Ups: There are very many small organisations and CBOs in Lamu that are focused on beach clean-ups and clean-ups of the island. For a long time, these organisations worked alone and did not collaborate or work towards a shared vision.
That’s why Takataka Foundation formed an umbrella organisation, with the goal to unite all of these organisations under a shared vision. Together, we have a focus and a plan for tackling pollution.
While we realise beach clean-ups are not sustainable (waste needs to be stopped before it gets to the beach), we target to hold a clean-up every month to keep our island clean as we tackle the problem at its source.
To get the community involved (including children and waste pickers), we use town choirs and local radio stations to share our message and get volunteers to participate in these initiatives. Hotels also donate funds and labour towards clean-ups.
We are also digging up plastic waste from a plot of reclaimed land, which will take time.
3. Improving Infrastructure: A few decades ago, the Lamu government bought a 4-5-acre plot of farmland in the middle of the island, which was thriving with mango trees, coconut trees, spice trees and tamarind trees.
They turned this farmland into the central dumpsite for the town, and today, the dumpsite is overwhelmed. Thin plastic is often blown into the town, burned waste is affecting the health of residents and toxins from the trash at the dumpsite is hurting nearby farms.
There is no segregation at the dumpsite and there is no recycling. Even after we encourage households to segregate their waste, and even after we sort waste that we collect during clean-ups, the county government collects this waste and dumps it all together.
As part of the work of the foundation, we are actively advocating better waste management infrastructure, including organised and regular rubbish collection as well as sorting, segregation and recycling of waste.
How many people do you serve?
We are working on the northern side of Lamu town, which is home to around 3,000 people. We are also targeting small villages behind the town, including the Wiyoni and Orma villages, the latter of which has around 100 households.
What role is the county government playing in fighting waste?
It is the role of the county government to manage waste in Lamu. However, they have not taken responsibility for this.
That is why we are constantly working to engage local leaders, county officials, environmental committees and Nema in our work. We have been to the county assembly multiple times, seeking to pass by-laws on how to manage the housing of garbage and the segregation of household litter, as well as the regular collection of garbage.
Moreover, we are asking them to take a stand against poor quality plastic products, which are flooding the island. No one wants to recycle this plastic, so why is it being allowed to enter and litter the island?
To tackle this problem, we need better leadership and to make decisions not based on money but on the health and survival of our ecosystem. We believe the county government can play a greater role in this.
What impact have you witnessed?
Before we began working with the residents in Wiyoni village, they used to throw their garbage everywhere. Today, garbage is often gathered in one area, until it is collected and transported to the dumpsite. Behaviour change is slow, and so we continue to educate the community on how to best manage their waste.
How has Flipflopi contributed to your work?
Before I co-founded Flipflopi, I was mainly known as a carpenter and a dhow builder. Since I started working with Flipflopi, I am known as an environmentalist. My dreams are now focused on preserving our environment, and this inspired me to form Takataka Foundation.
Additionally, as we work towards having recycling facilities in Lamu, Flipflopi has donated a machine that can recycle waste into small products like keychains. We will begin to use and demonstrate the work of this machine once it arrives in our workshop.
Also, the coronavirus has hit small villages in Lamu very hard. Villages like Wiyoni and Orma are poor and are home to older generations.
Flipflopi donated masks and soap to these communities which we as Takataka Foundation have begun to distribute. We are also looking to donate food to get households through this tough time.
How has Covid-19 impacted your work?
We are lucky that to date, Lamu has recorded no incidents of the virus. However, we are heavily reliant on tourism, and therefore, incomes for most of the town’s residents have been disrupted.
We have also postponed clean-ups due to social distancing rules, but also because at this time, people are most concerned about how to sustain themselves and their family.
Sadly, we can see trash piling up again, but as we distribute masks and sanitisers, we are encouraging people to sort their litter from home, in addition to spreading awareness on how to stay safe during this time.
We also worked with Save Lamu and the Youth Alliance to set up sanitiser spray tents at the jetty, in order to combat the virus.
What are your goals for the future?
We have a vision to set up a new face of Lamu, with clean community gardens, better housing for the community, fish farms and composting sites, where we can turn waste into fertiliser that can be sold to support incomes of community members (I have donated my 3-acre farm to set up this facility).
We aim to protect and use traditional knowledge to create a better Lamu and spur innovation on transforming waste and giving it a second life. We want to be an example for communities on what can happen when we come together and take responsibility for our environment.
We also envision a segregated dumpsite, local recycling facilities, and the use of more sustainable packaging and products within Lamu. We hope that each Lamu resident can leave a legacy for the next generation.
Edited by T Jalio