The humble flip-flop gets arty

[Image] An Ocean Sole lion, with its impressive mane.

[Image] Classy and colourful flip-flop jewellery.

[Image] The zebra keeps a beady eye out.
(Images: Ocean Sole)

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Lucille Davie

You will never look at the humble flip-flop in the same way again. These comfortable rubber sandals are being used by a bunch of creative people in Kenya to make fabulous toys and other items, and at the same time eliminating harmful waste from the ocean.

The company is called Ocean Sole and it collects discarded flip-flops that wash up on the shore. These are then recycled into items ranging from large colourful hippos, warthogs, elephants and giraffes, to smaller animal toys, picture frames, key rings, balls, mobiles, baskets, pens, earrings and necklaces.

“Ours is a story of logic and magic; the logic of recycling our waste using the magic of imagination, creativity and finally, plenty of passion!” states the website.

Recycling up to 400 000 kilograms of rubber waste each year, Ocean Sole’s products are now sold across the world. It employs 40 people in a workshop in Nairobi, while creating an awareness of the destructiveness of our human footprint. Another 60 people are involved in the production, in city slums and remote coastal areas, providing much-needed employment.

“We collect discarded flip-flops that were previously blighting waterways and coastlines in Kenya. The magic happens through craftsmanship, as talented artisans from local communities earn an income transforming the collected waste into wonderful flip-flop creations.” The result is a collection of colourful, beautifully crafted sculptures, household items, fashion accessories, gifts, stationery and bespoke pieces.

Marine conservation

It all started back in 1997. Julie Church, a marine conservationist who was born and raised in Kenya, was leading a conservation and development project for the Kiunga Marine National Reserve in northern Kenya. She was horrified by the waste washing up on to the beaches, creating huge environmental problems for the marine ecosystem.

In 1998, she noticed that the local children made toys from flip-flops that they found on the beach. She encouraged their mothers to collect, wash, and cut the flip-flops into colourful products. “The flip-flop became the connection between the human community and their marine species,” explains the group’s website.

She started production on a small scale. In 2000, an order for 15 000 turtle key rings from the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland kicked up production to a different level, and the group moved from using sticks and thorns to bind the pieces of rubber together, to using glue and beads.

Six years later, in 2006, Church formed a company called UniquEco Designs, based on the principle of trade instead of relying on aid. “It launched a fresh and fun solution to beach pollution as well as local poverty.” The company moved to Marula Studios, a hub showcasing the work of other creative Kenyans in Nairobi, and later changed its name to Ocean Sole.

Creations and awards

In the same year, the company created a full size Minke whale out of wire mesh and flip-flops for Environmental Day in Mombasa. Two years later it made a 5.4m giraffe which was shipped to Rome and displayed during fashion week in the Italian capital. In the same year, UniquEco Designs was one of 12 finalists in the BBC World Challenge, gaining recognition “as a small business that demonstrates enterprise and innovation”.

In 2010, the Swedish Cultural Museum commissioned a flip-flop palm tree as part of a Destination exhibition, further highlighting Kenya’s innovative use of recycled material. In the same year, the company won the National Award for Kenya at the Energy Globe Awards in Rwanda, for its work in sustainable development.

Its products were featured on BBC2’s Indian Ocean series with Simon Reeve in 2012, and later in the year, its new jewellery range was showcased at the Ethical Fashion Week in Paris. So far this year, Ocean Sole products have been displayed at trade fairs in the United States, including at the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market, the New York International Gift Fair, and the Museum Stores Association Conference and Expo in Los Angeles.

The London Zoo commissioned a curtain for its butterfly park, while a panda icon from flip-flops was made for the World Wildlife Fund. The Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England has an extra large flip-flop elephant in its world culture collection.

Ocean Sole Foundation

And to make sure it gives back, Ocean Sole has established the Ocean Sole Foundation. “As Ocean Sole expands its product range, working with wonderful new partners around the world, we started the Ocean Sole Foundation to make sure a percentage of profit is put both towards marine conservation and the encouragement of innovation, creativity and sustainable trade solutions.”

In all, 5% of profits from the sale of products and 25% from the giant sculptures goes to the foundation.

Ocean Sole strives to recycle wherever it can, too. The waste bits from the flip-flops are used to create flooring for children’s playgrounds. Any other products that it uses, like foam, netting, rubber or beads, it obtains from recycling companies. Recycled plastic bottles are used to fill the giant sculptures, and the artists use simple tools, thereby saving on electricity. There is a recycling hub for the local community, where Ocean Sole organises the collection and recycling of glass, plastic, clothes and tin cans. It also does outreach, teaching children about recycling and its benefits.

A customer in Tennessee in the US is thrilled with her flip-flop lion. She writes on Ocean Sole’s Facebook page:

“I just want to let you know I received my lion today and he is so stately and courageous. The work and the skill you all went too to create that piece of art, really blows me away. I am so very thankful to be able to share your work with others and humbled by all the work that went into making my lion. Thank you.”

And those involved in making the items have become skilled craftspeople. Jackson Mbatha has learned to be a flip-flop carver. “I appreciate my training. My second son is learning how to work with these materials and he is interested in helping the environment and recycling like me. I believe that education is the most important thing and Ocean Sole has trained me and has helped to provide education to my children.”

Eric Mwandola is on the rhino team at Ocean Sole, and has gained more than just a job. He says: “I was not able to afford shoes and had to borrow some to come to Nairobi to find work. I have been working here for six years. I can now afford to send my two children to secondary school and feed and clothe them well. I have set up a small farm upcountry with two cows and I sell the milk to my neighbours to make extra money and it is an investment for my children. The company supports me when I am sick and they pay my doctor’s bills. I say thank you.”