• Thursday, October 30, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    TRADE-AFRICA: Flip-flops Transformed Into Toys to Save Turtles

    By Najum Mushtaq
    NAIROBI, Apr 13 (IPS) Art and fashion, environmental conservation,
    poverty alleviation and fair trade come together at UniqEco’s Marula
    Studios in an upscale suburb of Nairobi. A visit to its workshop and
    display centre is a delight to the eyes as well as an occasion to learn
    about the problem of marine pollution and its eco-friendly,
    community-based and business-savvy solutions.

    A flood of colours strikes you before you start registering the shapes and
    sizes of the products at display in the studio. Handbags and trinkets,
    sculptures and toys, a set of juggling balls in a tray and another set of
    balls stringed together as a very large necklace, turtle key-rings and big
    inflatable whales…

    Every piece in this shop is made from beach waste, mainly plastic
    flip-flops, collected by members of coastal communities in Lamu in
    Kenya’s poverty-stricken northeast.

    Since its inception in 2005 this recycling company has reused nearly
    60,000 kg, or 175,000 flip-flops, as raw material for a range of
    awareness-raising products and works of art. About 200 waste collectors,
    most of them women, comb the beaches inundated by flotsam thrown out by
    the ocean.

    UniqEco buys this waste and employs a team of two dozens artisans to turn
    it into marketable consumer goods.

    Kenyan environmentalist Julie Church founded this company in partnership
    with local community worker Tahreni Bwanaali. For six years, she ran a
    marine conservation and development programme for the World Wildlife Fund
    (WWF) and the Kenya Wildlife Service in the Kiunga Marine National
    Reserve.

    ‘‘One of the eco-friendly projects I developed together with
    the community was Flip-flop Art,’’ Church tells IPS,
    ‘‘This idea came about in 1997 when I saw boys on the beach
    making toys from flotsam.

    ‘‘At the same time, the turtles on the same beaches were
    finding it harder and harder to nest due to flotsam. So I merged the two
    – toys and turtles through flotsam.’’

    She encouraged the community to craft marine animals, such as turtles,
    dugongs, whales, dolphins and crabs, to make them learn more about their
    environment. She also helped them sell these products.

    Soon, the range of items made from recycled material increased as nothing
    was meant to go to waste. Promotional key-rings and the beads punched out
    of the flip-flops to make keyholes helped jumpstart the project.

    The project received an order from WWF Switzerland for 15,000 turtle
    key-rings, which meant production had to be increased and more women got
    involved. As key-rings are made by punching holes in flip-flop pieces,
    they forged products from beads too.

    Beaded curtains and jewelery were then sold at the craft fairs in Nairobi.
    ‘‘In this way,’’ Church explains,
    ‘‘money was generated to be reinvested back into the community
    through their skill base, and at the same time the beaches were being
    cleaned of rubbish.’’

    The idea soon developed into a business venture. In 2005, after leaving
    the WWF project, Church partnered up with Bwanaali, a development worker
    from the local Muslim community.

    ‘‘She and I had the same passion: to find a market and develop
    the skills base of the community and to contribute to a cleaner ocean and
    general environment through art and trade.’’ In August 2005
    they established UniquEco.

    Initially, says Church, they imagined they would just
    ‘‘market’’ the products made by the beach
    communities. But, given the potential of the recycling business, they
    realised after six months that they had to go into production as well.

    Hence, the Marula Studios workshop in Nairobi was set up in 2006 and now
    employs more than 20 workers. The more skilled workers earn up to 250
    dollars per month, or more, depending on the volume of work; the least
    skilled about 125 dollars.

    The market base has also expanded. Though tourists in Lamu are still a
    significant part of its clientele, Uniqeco now gets more than 70 percent
    of its sales abroad. And though they get most of their queries online,
    trading online has proved to be difficult.

    ‘‘Not much is yet done ‘online’ per se, due to the
    difficulties in shipping and small money transfers to Kenya. So we have a
    few wholesales in the U.S., Australia, South Africa, Switzerland, France
    and Finland and that’s how most of the trade is done,’’
    adds Church.

    ‘‘Consumers across the world are beginning to re-evaluate what
    they buy, how the products are made and what they represent.’’

    The sources of recyclable material are also diversifying. This year,
    Uniqeco has started purchasing flip-flops that clog the dead-end of the
    Nairobi river in the Kibera slums.

    ‘‘Cleaner urban waterways are as important as waste-free
    beaches. The women who do business with us are not only earning some money
    but are also removing some of the rubbish from the river,&com; Church
    elaborates. She believes waste-collection and recycling is the key to
    cleaner cities, as well as to conservation of marine life, her primary
    passion.

    Other than the tons of flip-flops, tyres and plastic waste removed from
    Lamu’s beaches, Church says it is hard to quantify the impact of her
    projects.

    ‘‘Currently, in the Kiunga Marine Reserve Area and in Lamu the
    Flipflop Art Legacy is very evident. It is the local trade. Beads, small
    coconut mobiles, curtains and so on are sold to visitors. It is now the
    business for Muslim women who had no trade before.

    ‘‘We have also succeeded in making a small business concept
    work and show that trade, not aid, is the answer. There is much still to
    do, but the seeds have been sown,’’ she concludes.

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