Flipflopi dhow wins hearts and inspires plastic heroes as it sails along Kenyan coast

As the Flipflopi glided towards Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach in Mombasa this week, scores of people gathered on the sand, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the flamboyant dhow made from recycled plastic that has become an African icon for a new plastic revolution.

Government officials, curious residents and children in scout uniforms turned out to welcome the dhow, which set sail from the island of Lamu on 24 January 2019 to travel 500 km along the Indian Ocean coast to Zanzibar and spread the message that plastic waste makes no sense.

“Everybody is inspired by our project and the message is being delivered,” said Ali Skanda, the master craftsman who built the boat alongside a team of volunteers including project leader and Kenyan entrepreneur Dipesh Pabari and tour operator Ben Morison.

The Flipflopi has been stopping off at towns and cities along its route and is expected to arrive in Stone Town in Zanzibar on 7 February 2019. As elsewhere, it anchored offshore in Mombasa and lucky residents were ferried out for the trip of a lifetime on a boat that stands as a technicolour testament to the innovative spirit of its Kenyan creators.

“Thousands of people are visiting us. All the time, the boat is full of people … We believe plastic today is going to get out of our continent,” Skanda said, his face breaking into a broad smile as the Flipflopi rose and rolled on the turquoise waves.

imagePhoto by Flint Finnegan

The nine-metre dhow was made from around 10 tonnes of plastic waste, including some 30,000 flip flops that were repurposed to make panels for the hull and deck, turning the traditional dhow into a patchwork plastic myth-buster that has won worldwide fame.

It took nearly three years to bring the Flipflopi dream to life. Plastic was collected from the beaches of Lamu, and the streets of Nairobi, Malindi and Mombasa. It was sorted and then sent to local recycling plants where it was melted down and refashioned into planks for Skanda and his team of volunteers to use. 

The boat’s triangular sail has been emblazoned with the words ‘Plastic Revolution’, and features the logo of UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign, which supports the expedition as part of its drive to inspire governments, businesses and citizens to eliminate single-use plastics.

After a beach clean-up to mark the boat’s arrival in Watamu, children in bright school uniforms knelt in the sand to sort bottle tops into colour groups and create a giant, sparkling starfish, like those found in the rock pools nearby. Others made turtles and dolphins from discarded lighters and flip flops while someone used bottle tops to write Say No to Single-Use Plastics in the soft sand.

Staff from Watamu EcoWorld Recycling, which organizes beach cleans and advises communities on how to reduce waste, were on hand to teach locals how to recycle their own plastic as the Flipflopi arrived.

image Photo by Flint Finnegan

On Jomo Kenyatta Public beach in Mombasa, 21-year-old scout Jackton Bukobi, resplendent in a peaked white hat and green-and-red scarf, was doing his bit for the plastic revolution by picking up rubbish with a friend.

“We have come to realize that our beach is being dirtied by plastics and it becomes an issue because it still comes back to our lives … We have to come together and clean the beach as a community activity too,” he said.

Gloria Ondieki, a 21-year-old student who was fascinated by the Flipflopi, took part in a workshop run by Katharina Elleke, a German recycling expert who taught people in Kilifi, Watamu and Mombasa how to give old plastic a second life.

“Today I learned something interesting,” Ondieki said. “You can make ropes and mats out of plastic bottles using this machine that will cut them into string,” she said, holding out a small metal contraption. The machines used by Elleke can be produced from simple materials and the plans are available for free online.

The Flipflopi expedition is the latest chapter in Kenya’s push to become a global pioneer in tackling 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 US$40,000.

In Mombasa, the Flipflopi was greeted by county government officials, who are also working with UN Environment to finalize a waste management strategy and eventually close the Kibarani dumpsite that feeds into the city’s harbour.

“People have never seen a boat that is made out of 100 per cent plastic,” said Dr Godffrey Nyongesa Nato, a county executive committee member in charge of environment, waste management and energy. “That in itself has triggered a lot of interest and attention.”

Nyongesa Nato, who also helped clean the beach, said Kenyans were concerned about how plastic pollution could affect the tourism industry. He said collective action was needed and that the Mombasa county government was committed to combat this modern scourge.

“In Kenya we are pioneers on two fronts. One is the ban that was put in place in 2017 on plastic bags and carrier bags. And two is this effort we are witnessing today: the making of a boat using plastics and enabling it to sail for 500 km,” he said.

James Wakibia, an environmental activist credited with spearheading the drive for a plastic bag ban, came to support the expedition and speak about the importance of individual activism. 

imagePhoto by Flint Finnegan

“The Flipflopi is an example of how plastic waste can be recycled and I always say plastic that can be recycled should be recycled. It should not be left polluting the environment. The Flipflopi is this awesome example that it can happen,” he said, standing on the beach in Mombasa as people collected rubbish around him.

“Plastic indeed has a second life and this idea has to be embraced by everybody. We should empower more recycling companies, empower more individuals who are getting into this business, and give them incentives to do the business of protecting the environment,” he said.

For Skanda, the Flipflopi stands as a testimony to his lifelong passion for the sea, his distress at the amount of plastic washing up on Lamu’s idyllic shores, and a long family tradition of ingenuity.

“I’m from a family of craftsmen and I was left with these genes of innovation and creation. I wanted to prove to myself that this thing could be done,” he said.

“What we only require is the support of everyone, the whole world. We should come together because I believe we are from one source, so let’s protect our environment.”