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Sailing the world for change

With the BOLD MOVES campaign we celebrate people that dare to question the status quo and break new ground. Flipflopi fit perfectly into this campaign by building the world's first sailing dhow made entirely from plastic waste in order to demonstrate against single-use plastic and bring awareness to this important topic. Our BOLD MOVES campaigner Moky talked with Rebecca Faber from Flipflopi about their visions, actions and bold moves.

With Flipflopi, you have started a plastic reuse revolution in East Africa with quite an unusual, innovative, and creative idea. Please tell us about your colourful story. 

Flipflopi is the world’s first (currently the only) sailing dhow made entirely from plastic waste. A dhow is a traditional sailing boat that has been used for centuries to connect people and trade across the Indian Ocean. We collected plastic waste from towns and beaches on the coast of Kenya and turned it into this boat over two years. She’s called Flipflopi because she’s covered in a beautiful multi-coloured artwork of 30,000 flip-flops found ashore. The rest of the boat is made from about nine tons of plastic lumber – from toothbrushes and everything we found – which surprisingly looks like wood. With Flipflopi we have sailed around Africa to showcase alternative solutions for plastic and, more importantly, to demonstrate against single-use plastic. 

With a boat made of 30,000 flip-flops, you encourage positive change by making people smile. What is the reaction to your optimistic approach? 

When you think about what’s happening with climate change and the environmental movements, there are so many negative stories right now that are overwhelming. People often feel discouraged and helpless because they don’t see a way to solve these problems, which are too big. For us, optimism is very important, as people naturally respond better to a positive story. We sail Flipflopi around the ocean, and every time we bring it to the shore, we see that smile, that positivity on peoples’ faces. She’s a beautiful multicoloured sailing boat with a giant sail that attracts people like a magnet, not only children but also the media, politicians, and business leaders that need to enact change. What we’ve seen with Flipflopi across our expeditions is that she has the power to bring together all of these people, which means we have been able to influence change across many levels of society, from grassroots movements to policy change.


 Not everyone can build a big boat, but everyone can do something. 



You inspire local people to change their behaviour by finding ways to reuse plastic. What did they come up with so far? Which is, for you, the most creative, clever idea so far?

There are already so many people doing amazing things around East Africa. What Flipflopi does is “pour the fuel over existing sparks». These beautiful little sparks of positivity and activism are taking place all over the place. There are fishing communities affected by depleted fish stocks who run household waste management programmes; entrepreneurs who have established businesses out of recycling plastic bottles or plastic bags; and artists taking on important educational campaigns. For example we have a partnership with an ‘artivist’ movement in Kampala called “Plastic Talks”. It is run by an artist who creates huge installations from trash that jolt the general public into thinking about plastic pollution. Even Flipflopi itself was inspired by flip-flop artists in Kenya. So where these movements exist, we have found that Flipflopi has helped propel some of them to new levels, helping to give them a greater voice through the media attention, or just inspire them to accelerate their own initiatives. And we produce many educational open-source toolkits that are designed to help spread the plastic revolution all around the world. At Flipflopi we strongly believe that every single little movement, every little action that people take, is important. Not everyone can build a big boat, but everyone can do something.


With the BOLD MOVES campaign, we want to inspire people by celebrating movements like Flipflopi, which bravely took action to tackle unsolved social or environmental problems and create a positive impact. Which has been your boldest move so far?

It’s been such a bold  journey from the start. I would say our boldest move was building the boat, a world-first innovation, and sailing her around Africa’s largest lake – that was a big feat!. But what we are doing now in Lamu is taking impact to the next level – we have moved from a campaigning vehicle to an organisation that is driven by social and environmental impact. We are creating a new industry from waste plastics together with the communities here in Lamu, Kenya. We are establishing a first-of-its-kind plastic recycling and boat building centre for the Lamu Archipelago. We are taking everything we’ve learned with the technology, engineering and community engagement, the power of what the boat can create, and bringing that practice of waste plastic innovation to more people. And you can’t imagine the amount of plastic that comes ashore from the ocean here. What we’re doing is ‘closing the loop’ on waste plastics – preventing them from reaching the ocean through developing products that serve the community instead. 


How are you creating a “closed loop”, and, therefore, empowering a circular economy?

Here in Lamu, where we built our Flipflopi and where the home of the dhow is, we are creating a ‘closed-loop’ waste management centre with the local community through a first-of-its-kind plastic recycling and material recovery centre. The community collects plastic that comes ashore from the ocean into their remote villages and towns; this is then brought to our centre where we process the plastic into ‘green wood’ that we then use to create new products, like traditional furniture, and sailing or taxi boats, which are the main means of transport. The community is receiving income from the collections, and we then sell the products to create enough income to keep the centre sustainably operating, and employing our staff. We’ve linked this to a training centre for plastic dhow boat building called “Heritage Boat Building » where we are training local people to retain the indigenous knowledge of dhow-building and mix it with new techniques of building with plastic. It doesn’t make sense for us to have just one Flipflopi dhow. We want to help create an industry for waste plastic to build new sailing boats. We want to spread the know-how, train people and create something that has value, is sustainable, and is scalable. Closing the Loop is about trying to make the management of plastic more circular to increase the recovery rate and reduce the leakage of plastics into the ocean. It’s especially important that we show the world it is possible to bring even these remote and mostly excluded communities into the circular economy – now we are proving it is possible, we can replicate it all over the world.


You combine spreading the culture of building local boats with adopting circular economy principles and preserving the ocean. That’s very ambitious and probably not so easy to achieve

In this part of the world, in Kenya, no one day is the same, and it’s often tough to get things done. So, it’s been a very challenging journey, but our team kept going. Building a boat was extremely difficult because there are so many different types of plastic washing up on the shores, and our engineers needed to find the right combination to create the right strength for the plastic lumber; to start with bubbles and cracks came out, and we had to keep trying and improving processes to get it to where we are today; but now we are there, we have the learnings to share all over the world!. Moreover, doing anything in Lamu, like transporting things in a very low-tech environment on small boats, isn’t easy… here everything happens slowly, slowly. “Pole-pole”, as we say. But now we have spent so much time engaging communities here, we have really been able to speed up our activities.
Then of course, expeditions are very challenging: we have done three expeditions so far, which have been very impactful, but we had to deal with tough winds and the challenge of doing something that had never been done before especially around Lake Victoria, the world’s largest freshwater lake, which is quite dangerous for its weather and ecosystem. But we made it! Our ethos really stems from our team: we are all driven by doing bold, creative things that will make a difference to our planet, and our communities.


Being bold means having in your heart the desire to make a change, Just start. 



Can you measure the impact you have made so far? 

Since our centre opened, we have seen both social and environmental impact across the Lamu archipelago. Working with a network of communities, we have established regular monthly collections which led to 90,700 kgs of recyclable plastic in just 7 months, providing a direct cash injection  of 1.6 million KSH, and prevented over 600,000 PET bottles from ending up in landfills,or the ocean. We’ve had our first students through the Heritage BoatBuilding Training Centre, equipping them with skills to transfer, and importantly, creating a variety of products from plastic lumber including traditional furniture and of course, sailing boats! So we are starting to see the really positive impacts of creating a waste plastic industry, and starting to spread the knowledge of Flipflopi boat-building.

We also know how impactful our sailing expeditions can be to create a platform for communication, public and policy maker engagement. We’ve seen a lot of media awareness sailing this beautiful dhow and measured that our media campaign on the first expedition reached about 890 million people.. Two months after visiting Flipflopi on our first expedition, the President of Kenya made one of the biggest legislation changes nationwide: the ban on single-use plastics in all national parks and beaches. We’ve been able to mobilise 20,000 people through events and workshops, and can create awareness with so many people in such a small amount of time. For us, policy change is critical. A big part of what we are doing is campaigning for the banning of “unnecessary” single-use plastics, and we’re working to involve the East African Parliament to get that ban approved. We must keep going because the only way to win this war is to ban. In the meantime we are committed to giving plastic waste in our environment a new value for people. 


Have you already planned your next bold move to preserve the ocean? We are curious…

We’re now committed to really pushing the innovation in plastic boat building and creating a much larger version of Flipflopi. With this research and development taking place in Lamu, we are building new boats, some of them are local ones, but we are already starting to work on a much bigger dhow. triple the size of Flipflopi that could sail across the oceans. We’ve seen the impact of what sailing a boat like this can do. So, why stop here? We have to go bigger. We have to keep this plastic revolution alive. We have to take it up. And hopefully, in the next couple of years, we’ll be sailing much bigger boats around the world. 


It’s not easy to change things that seem unchangeable. With this interview, we want to inspire and encourage people to be bold. Do you have a message for them?

You don’t have to build a boat to be bold. Being bold starts with just an idea. It can be as small as you like. It’s about taking a first and courageous small step towards action. It could be just starting to change your living habits and cut out unnecessary single-use plastic. Just stop today, and make that decision. Or, if you are more of a campaigner, find a creative way to influence your local community. Post an event, run a social media campaign or start lobbying your politicians and local businesses to stop using unnecessary single plastic. It can be anything. Being bold means having in your heart the desire to make a change, Just start.


Check out more about Flipflopi here.