Ben Morison’s epiphany came early one morning as he set out for a swim on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. The Kenyan tour operator counted 13 pieces of plastic, including bottles and flip flops, as he walked to the sea. With a jolt, he realized how degraded the coastline he loved – and marketed as a dream destination – had become. He had to act.
“It’s all too easy to look to the left or the right and wait for somebody else to do something but I thought, ‘What can I do that could help bring this to light, and be fun and cheerful?’,” he says.
The answer became the Flipflopi project: an ambitious plan to build a traditional dhow from recycled plastic and sail it along the East African coast to spread the message that our reliance on single-use plastics is wasteful and destructive.
More than two years later, that vision has become reality. On 15 September, the nine-metre Flipflopi dhow, a rainbow-hued triumph of pioneering craftsmanship made from 10 tonnes of Kenyan recycled plastic, was launched from the island of Lamu on its inaugural trip.
Early next year, the Flipflopi will sail to Zanzibar as part of a campaign, backed by the UN Environment’s Clean Seas initiative, to spread a ‘plastic revolution’ along a coastline often speckled with plastic waste from as far away as Thailand and Malaysia.
For Flipflopi founder Morison and his enthusiastic team of volunteers, the sparky dhow represents all that is best about Kenyan creativity and resilience. It vividly demonstrates that discarding single-use plastic makes no sense while it also stands as a technicolor tribute to the can-do attitude that permeates many developing communities.
“The key point of difference is the African leadership and the African DNA,” Morison says.
“We have expressly limited ourselves to locally available resources. We built this boat with traditional boat builders. There’s not a computer in sight. There’s barely a power tool in sight. We could have completed the project in five months and it’s taken two and a half years. That’s because we explicitly wanted to demonstrate that this recycling, this ability to repurpose plastic, can be done in this kind of environment,” he says.
The Flipflopi was built from planks made from recycled plastic while the hull and decking were covered with panels made from around 30,000 recycled flip flops.
Plastic was collected from the beaches of Lamu and from the streets of Nairobi, Malindi and Mombasa. It was sorted and then sent to recycling plants where it was melted down and refashioned.
“We have a very young plastic recycling industry in Kenya. It’s very low-tech but it’s good because it’s making a commodity of something that people would otherwise see as trash,” Morison says.
Trial and error became the watchwords as the team struggled to create the correct balance of flex and rigidity in the plastic planks. Master craftsmen Ali Skanda led the boat-building team, carving the plastic planks with the dexterity and skill that have seen his work displayed in several museums. Skanda comes from a family of carpenters and dhow builders in Lamu that traces its roots to the first settlers who arrived on the island in the 1300s.
The use of flip flops was an obvious choice for Morison and his team, which includes project leader Dipesh Pabari and design engineer Leonard Schurg.
“Around three billion people on planet earth wear or own flip flops. They are the most ubiquitous bit of footwear. They are worn by black people, white people, people from Australia to North America. They cross language barriers and age barriers. They are a brilliant connector,” Morison says.
The Flipflopi is the latest chapter in Kenya’s push to become a global leader in dealing with plastic pollution. In August 2017, the country introduced the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags with anyone producing, selling or using a plastic bag risking imprisonment of up to four years or fines of $40,000.
The Kenyan ban has inspired other African countries – including Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan – to consider following suit. Rwanda already banned plastic bags in 2008.
Morison situates his project squarely in this context of African leadership on a global problem. “Our objective has always been to demonstrate to other people how you can use something like plastic in a way that’s really valuable. We can do what we like with this boat. We can ship cargo, we can ship tourists,” he says.
This is not the first time plastic waste has been used to make boats – although it is the first time a dhow has been built out of plastic. In August, environmental campaigners launched a boat made almost entirely of recycled plastic waste on the River Thames in London. The “PET Project” boat will be used to collect plastic rubbish from the river. And an Italian film-maker has sailed a raft made of 1,000 plastic containers around Ischia, off the coast of Naples, to highlight the problem of marine plastic pollution.
Morison knows he could simply have ordered recycled plastic planks from another country but he believes that communities like those on Kenya’s coast are most in need of viable, sustainable ways of reusing and recycling plastic.
“For this to be meaningful it had to be a Kenyan project. It had to be limited by its environment and be achievable. So everything we’ve done is scalable. It can be done in low-resource environments.”
As emerging economies develop in Africa and Southeast Asia, more people are gaining access to the consumerist, throwaway lifestyle that residents of richer countries have come to see as their birthright. Sixty per cent of all plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans comes from just six countries in Asia.
“The responsible consumption of plastic will be defined by populations in emerging consumer environments ... These are not consumers who are listening to (British presenter and campaigner) David Attenborough … Our objective was to find a way to communicate and inspire these people,” Morison says, noting the poignant injustice inherent in pointing the finger of blame at emerging nations.
“We’ve had 40 years of gluttony over this wonderfully useful resource (in richer countries) and if I was in Kenya’s emerging class, I would think why shouldn’t I be allowed to use this stuff? I would feel angry. So I think it’s important to communicate as Africans to our peers and other people in these environments,” he says.
The global dimension of the problem was starkly illustrated by the plastic picked up by volunteers during the Flipflopi project. Residents and environmentalists from the town of Shela, schoolchildren, women’s groups and staff from the tourism industry all helped collect the waste from beaches and other locations around the coast.
“You look at the label of a bottle or on a flip flop and it’s in Thai script. I picked up a crisp two-litre bottle of water from Malaysia, just north of Lamu,” says Morison. Witnessing the provenance of the plastic litter has made him even more determined to pursue his dream of eventually building a bigger boat, even if the estimated $500,000 price tag is a daunting challenge.
The Flipflopi team are all volunteers, with only the boat builders being paid. The team raised around $11,000 in donations but they have spent more. Morison hopes that their success so far will enable them to secure sponsorship to eventually build a bigger boat.
The Flipflopi is due to sail to Zanzibar around January next year, depending on favourable winds. That’s when Morison believes the real adventure will begin.
“I’m thrilled to be able to get down to Zanzibar and hopefully spread some contagion to Tanzania,” he says. “The reality is that what we’ve done is very simple. It’s just daring to dream. It’s getting people to let go. You just need to have an idea and be creative.”