EXPEDITION WITH A PURPOSE

How Flipflopi is turning the plastic pollution tide

Builders of the dhow want its message to reach 4.8 billion people

In Summary

• In 2019, Flipflopi sailed from Lamu to Zanzibar, creating awareness on plastic waste

• It did an encore around L Victoria this year, shining a light on homegrown solutions

A boat made of recycled plastic is set to sail on Lake Victoria on a three-country expedition. The boat dubbed Flipflopi, the world's first sailing boat made from ...

In 2015, Ben Morison was shocked by the number of plastics, especially flip-flops, littering the beautiful beaches of the Coast.

He was intrigued to learn that the plastics could be used to make a dhow.

Morison ventured into building a boat from this plastic waste as one way of celebrating the centuries-old traditional craft of dhow building that is a cornerstone of the Swahili culture, while also sharing a positive message about the need for change.

Shortly after, Morison joined forces with Ali Skanda, a renowned sailing dhow builder from Lamu.

Together, they set about building a traditional sailing dhow entirely from waste plastic, with the aim of creating a positive example of how single-use plastic could have a second life.

The duo combined traditional boat building with new techniques.

They would later collect 10 tonnes of plastic waste from the Kenyan coast before melting, shaping and carving it.

The team came up with the 'Flipflopi', a dhow that is over nine metres long and weighs 7 tonnes.

As they embarked on building the dhow, the team did not know that it would one day gain international attention.

The dhow is now being used to raise awareness about the impact of single-use plastics. It was launched in Lamu in September 2018.

The builders want the dhow to be seen and the message on plastic pollution be heard by an estimated 4.8 billion people.

Kenya banned the use of single-use carrier bags in February 2017, and the ban went into effect on August 28 that year.

Those found with plastics in Kenya are fined between Sh2 million and Sh4 million or a jail term of 1-2 years, or both.

Flipflopi, the dhow sailing boat made entirely from plastic trash collected from Kenya’s beaches. Image: FILE
Flipflopi, the dhow sailing boat made entirely from plastic trash collected from Kenya’s beaches. Image: FILE

ZANZIBAR TRIP

Flipflopi made global headlines in 2019 when it sailed 500km from Lamu, Kenya to Zanzibar, Tanzania as part of the UN Environment Programme's Clean Seas initiative.

During the journey, the dhow met 12 communities in Kenya and Tanzania and organised and ran seven community events for thousands of people, with more than 50 local and regional partners.

The crew conducted a number of practical recycling workshops, presentations, beach clean-ups and visited many marine conservation and innovative plastic recycling initiatives to shine a light on positive homegrown solutions.

The expedition raised awareness that reached all corners of the world, with features in over 50 local, regional and international media.

Some 3,000 schoolchildren came on the boat to learn about plastic pollution, while 39 businesses in the local tourism industry have pledged to ban or reduce single-use plastic.

Mombasa county committed to closing the largest dumpsite and instal environmentally friendly waste management systems in its place.

National government officials and environmental governing bodies in Kenya and Zanzibar made commitments for long-term progress.

EAC TRIP

Early this year, the dhow embarked on its second voyage, taking to riverine communities in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya to highlight the importance of reversing the damage of plastic pollution to communities that depend on Lake Victoria.

It embarked on the journey on March 7 and the crew was expected to spend three weeks on the water, engaging with communities, activists and local entrepreneurs, and highlighting the challenge of microplastics and their impact on fish stocks and water quality.

The dhow was set to cover more than 68,8000 square kilometres.

Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world and the world’s second-largest freshwater lake.

Despite its size, the lake is faced with a myriad of problems.

Population around the lake has swollen. In turn, fish stocks have declined as a result of overfishing, invasive species such as the water hyacinth and the impacts of climate change.

The lake is also faced with pollution by microplastics, with a recent study estimating that one in five of the fish in Lake Victoria has ingested plastic.

“Plastic pollution in Lake Victoria adds another burden to the lake ecosystem, which is already stressed,” said Robert Egessa, a scientist attached to the Flipflopi team.

“The interactions between plastics and organic and inorganic pollutants will be felt along the fish value chain if a timely solution is not provided.”

Unep is supporting the voyage of the Flipflopi through its Clean Seas Campaign, which works with governments, businesses and citizens to curtail what experts call an epidemic of plastic pollution.

The world produces 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, of which eight million tonnes end up in the ocean, poisoning fish, littering beaches and, sometimes, entering the human food chain.

The dhow has encouraged local communities across East Africa to participate in cleaning up plastic pollution.

“What we are witnessing now is a real desire by policymakers and leaders of our country to effect change,” said Dipesh Pabari, the co-founder of the Flipflopi expedition.

“We built Flipflopi to show alternate uses of waste plastic and to inspire innovation. Now we see she can be used to convene the key stakeholders who actually hold the keys to changing policy around single-use plastic. We hope governors will help build the movement around the lakeside counties of Lake Victoria.”

Over the three-week sail around Lake Victoria, with stops in Kenya and Uganda before arriving in Tanzania, the Flipflopi crew were to join boat races, participate in beach clean-up activities and work closely with local fishing villages to understand the problems associated with plastic pollution.

In addition, scientists sought to collect data and water samples to understand the extent of the plastic pollution problem in the lake.

“It is important to comprehend Lake Victoria as a whole to fight against its pollution,” said Victor Beguerie, who is responsible for monitoring and evaluation as part of the Flipflopi research team.

“It makes no sense to impose local bans in Kenya on plastic bags, or straws in Tanzania or earbuds in Uganda because waste has no boundaries. For Lake Victoria to continue providing healthy food and employment to millions in East Africa, preservation measures need to be taken at a regional level.”

Using traditional dhow building techniques and with the participation of traditional dhow builders, the boat is a manifestation of the possibilities inherent in the circular economy and the use of recycled plastic, say crew.

CIRCULAR ECONOMY

In the years since that first voyage, Flipflopi, which is made in part from old flip-flops, has spurred circular economy innovation in the fishing and tourist communities in Lamu.

The Kwale Plastics Plus Collectors is a locally run initiative to clean up the land, rivers, beaches and the Indian Ocean by upgrading waste management and segregating waste as a source of revenue.

Another local initiative in Lamu is run by the Takataka Foundation to create a closed-loop sustainable waste management facility.

Unep is working with countries across Africa to tackle the triple planetary crises of climate change, species loss and pollution.

In December 2020, in a landmark move, Ministers of Environment from 54 African countries agreed to support a comprehensive green recovery plan from Covid-19 called the African Green Stimulus Programme.

Unep is supporting this initiative, which leverages the Covid-19 recovery to mainstream environmental considerations across all facets of African economies.

The dhow would again steal the show during the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly of the Unep held between March 11 and 15, 2019, at Unep Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Assembly was under the theme, ‘Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production,’ It addressed environmental challenges related to poverty and natural resources management, including sustainable food systems, food security and halting biodiversity loss.

It also tackled Life-cycle approaches to resource efficiency, energy, chemicals, and waste management, and innovative sustainable business development at a time of rapid technological change.

Delegates, who included President Uhuru Kenyatta, could not hide their joy after seeing the dhow.

In the midst of this, brightly coloured Flipflopi drew in hundreds of dignitaries, government officials, private sector representatives, media and curious citizens, with the team answering questions about the groundbreaking Lamu to Zanzibar expedition, sparking awareness around the danger of plastic pollutants, motivating the necessity of a Plastic Revolution, and stressing urgent action around single-use plastics and plastic waste management.

During the Assembly, several countries pledged to become part of a global movement turning the tide on plastics.

Flipflopi project co-founder Dipesh Pabari addresses the media inside the boat
Flipflopi project co-founder Dipesh Pabari addresses the media inside the boat
Image: FAITH MATETE