Transforming Trash into Treasures: Kenyan Artisans Crafting Inspiring Animal Sculptures from Recycled Flip-Flops

Starting from 2006, a dedicated group of women and girls from Kilifi County in Kenya have been diligently gathering discarded flip-flops washed up along the Indian Ocean shoreline on a weekly basis.

These collected flip-flops are then transported to a workshop located in Nairobi, the capital city, where skilled artists and wood sculptors transform them into a stunning array of animal sculptures for sale.

“Our trucks transport the flip-flops from the coast, and once they arrive at our workshop in Nairobi, they undergo a thorough washing and drying process before our talented artists begin their work,” explained Joe Mwakiremba, the head of sales at Ocean Sole.

Ocean Sole is a social enterprise that was established in 1999 with the noble aim of transforming the pollution caused by discarded flip-flops into awe-inspiring works of art.

The founder of Ocean Sole, Julie Church, had a moment of inspiration when she witnessed children creating toys out of discarded flip-flop material. This led her to collaborate with a group of women from Kilifi County, enabling them to collect washed-up flip-flops along the ocean and earn a dignified income of 30 cents US per kilogram. In this way, the ocean is kept clean, while the local communities can sustain themselves.

The process of crafting animal sculptures varies depending on the size of the animal. Smaller sculptures are made solely from flip-flops, while larger ones are filled with polyethylene, a foam-like material commonly used for cushioning products during shipping. The exterior of these sculptures is then adorned with recycled flip-flops.

Mwakiremba further elaborated that not a single piece of the recycled material goes to waste. The leftover rubber scraps, known as “off-cuts,” are shredded and repurposed to create mattresses, dog beds, and poofs.

The finished sculptures are sold both locally and internationally. “We supply zoos, aquariums, museums, and gift shops worldwide, primarily in the USA and European markets. Although we do cater to walk-in customers locally, approximately 90 percent of our production is for export,” he stated.

Ocean Sole proudly recycles 638 tonnes of flip-flops and saves 600 trees each year.

Like any enterprise, Ocean Sole faces its own set of challenges, with counterfeiting being a significant issue. “Some individuals attempt to imitate our work, and when these counterfeit products reach the market and complaints arise, we must take action to protect our reputation,” explained Mwakiremba.

However, he emphasized that Ocean Sole’s mission extends beyond mere profit-making; their primary focus is on preserving the cleanliness of the ocean and empowering local communities.

“The proceeds from the sale of sculptures are invested in educating children in high-impact communities, fostering long-term awareness of the detrimental effects of plastic pollution on the environment,” Mwakiremba shared.

This initiative has profoundly impacted the coastal region’s local communities and transformed the lives of artisans who were previously engaged in traditional wood carving.

David Kaloki has been a part of Ocean Sole since 2013. “Creating wooden carvings was arduous and time-consuming. It also harmed the environment. However, crafting sculptures using recycled flip-flops is much easier and environmentally friendly. Moreover, having a job allows me to provide for my family, which was not the case when I was a wood carver,” he explained.

Florence Auma shares a similar story. She joined the company as a cleaner in 2006 but quickly learned the craft and entered the male-dominated world of carving. She has also become a recycling ambassador, spreading the message within her community.

“Nowadays I mobilise people in my neighbourhood to keep their old flip-flops in a gunny bag until we have collected enough to sell. That way, we keep our environment clean and the ocean and waterways habitable for marine animals,” she said.

“In the meantime, we still need plastic; our phones, computers, and cars still contain plastic, and there are medicines that can only be packed in plastic bags. Perhaps we should look for more sustainable ones in the long term,” Maina said.

He added that some people have prototypes of low-density plastic bags made from the sap of the pear cactus that are biodegradable, which could be a viable option.

Story Credit: Sheila Mwalili for bird story agency

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