As a metaphor for the back-to-basics simplicity needed to stem the toxic tide of plastic pollution engulfing the world’s seas, the image of a dhow sailing boat sliding silently through the tranquil waters of the Indian Ocean is peerless. Especially if that dhow is made from recycled plastic and thousands of discarded flip flops.
On January 24, the rainbow-hued Flipflopi dhow—the first ever made from recycled plastic—will set out from the Kenyan island of Lamu and sail around 500 km to Stone Town in Zanzibar to spread a “plastic revolution” to the coastal communities of Kenya and Tanzania.
Kenyan project leader and entrepreneur Dipesh Pabari says the nine-metre boat is the perfect medium for the message because the near-spiritual experience of sailing on a dhow is the antithesis of the toxic clutter in our everyday lives.
“Just being out on the water, you get this calm, tranquil feeling of absolute emptiness but at the same time you are so spiritually connected to everything around you,” says Pabari, who along with Kenyan tour operator Ben Morison and master craftsmen and boatbuilder Ali Skanda leads the team of volunteers behind Flipflopi’s creation.
“We’re trapped in this consumerist society right now so it’s all about reinventing ourselves. The more we reinvent ourselves, the more we find that we need to turn back to our past... The answers were always there,“ he says.
The Flipflopi, built by Skanda and his team from 10 tonnes of recycled plastic, will stop at towns and cities along the route—including Watamu, Kilifi, Mombasa, Diani and Pemba island—to raise awareness of the destructive nature of single-use plastics and teach local communities how to recycle their own plastics.
The main aim is to build on the story of this plastic revolution and to continue to highlight to the world that single-use plastic items are dreadful,” says Pabari. “It’s an opportunity to engage and influence emerging consumer populations in the Indian Ocean region before single-use plastics and a throwaway culture become fully embedded, and to avoid what has happened in developed countries where they are now trying to reverse engineer consumption habits.”
The expedition is backed by UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign, which has been working since 2017 to urge governments, businesses and citizens to eliminate single-use plastics.
A key feature of the Flipflopi project is its African ownership. The boat was built on Lamu, the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa, from planks made locally from recycled plastic, which started out as rubbish along beaches and roads in Lamu, Nairobi, Malindi and Mombasa. The hull and decking were covered with panels made from around 30,000 recycled flip flops and these too were produced locally.
“It is so important that this is an African story because Africa is one of the few continents left that hasn’t necessarily gone the whole way towards a consumption-led society yet,” Pabari says. “The Mama on the side of the road, who recycles everything and uses everything until it’s completely unusable, she’s the real hero in this story and that’s what this boat is all about.”
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 $40,000.
“The ban had a huge impact on the psychology of the society. We weren’t at a tipping point. We had tipped,” Pabari says.
His own awareness of the dangers of plastic date from his time working for an animal welfare organization and dealing with the problems caused by cows and goats roaming rubbish dumps and chewing on plastic waste.
“That was Kenya before the ban. I proposed to create a cartoon strip and posters illustrating the harm caused by plastic to domestic livestock. That’s probably where my interest began and after that it became a bit of an obsession,” says the third-generation Kenyan, who used to make sculptures out of discarded flip flops and plastic bottles.
The Flipflopi team does not expect any major sailing challenges as the boat makes its way along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts.
“This is a route that has been sailed for thousands of years by dhows,” says Pabari. “It is fairly safe but of course, we are on open water. There is always an inherent risk with this sort of thing. And we are sailing in the world’s first recycled plastic dhow.”
Boat builder Skanda and the engineer will be on board and there will be a backup dhow so that around 20 team members can join the voyage. The boats will be equipped with GPS navigation tools and satphones.
As with all the best expeditions, this trip is more about the journey than the destination.
“At all the stops, we will be hosting events with local partners, meeting schoolchildren, government officials and people from local communities. We’ll be holding recycling workshops, teaching people simple things, like how to make rope out of plastic bottles using very rudimentary technology,” Pabari says.
Already, government officials have shown a lot of interest and there have been many offers of help and support from people living along the coast, where it is not uncommon to find bottles and other plastic litter that were swept from Asia to Africa on Indian Ocean currents.
Pabari believes the Flipflopi expedition shows how African ingenuity can bypass developed world technologies or trends in the same way that M-Pesa, Kenya’s innovative mobile money service, reimagined banking.
The Flipflopi team hopes to inspire people to miss out the developed world’s trash addiction, a policy Pabari has nicknamed M-Taka from the Swahili word for rubbish “taka-taka”.
“This is an opportunity for a definitive leapfrog moment,” he says. “We can do it.”