Above: Traditional dhow asail on Lamu seafront. Courtesy Dipesh Pabari

Published in The East African, Nation media 25 February-3 March 2017

A model og the Plastic dhow that will sail from Lamu in Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa  – the first journey of its kind – Picture courtesy: Dipesh Pabari

A chance meeting of two high school friends puts in motion something the world has never seen – a life-size plastic dhow to sail Lamu to Cape Town with a message – stop dumping plastic in the ocean.

“There’s enough plastic trash in the ocean to make a flotilla,” states Ben Morrison who had an awakening two years ago walking a 10-meter stretch across the beach to the ocean. It was covered in plastic trash. Sailing past were ancient wooden dhows with their lateen sails billowing in the wind that have frequented the east African coast since antiquity.

“And l thought to myself, l make my living from selling holidays to this beautiful country and it’s getting covered in plastic. I could not just sit back.”

At the holiday resort he also saw a beautiful figurine made of rubber trash from the sea from the now famous brand ‘Ocean Sole’. Founded by another Kenyan, Julie Church to address the problem of plastic trash dumped in oceans, an elephant made of recycled flip-flops from the sea was gifted to the Pope on his visit to Kenya in 2015.

It was Morrison’s inspiration. Make a life-size dhow from the plastic trash on the beach and sail it along the shores of eastern Africa – Lamu to Cape Town – with a message – that we’re killing the ocean with our trash.

“It’s never been done before,” states Dipesh Pabari partnering with Morrison. Both men were pupils in Turi in the highlands of Molo and a chance meeting brought them together. Pabari, a Kenyan-Asian born and bred in Kisumu has a long history of environmental projects, working with flotsam from the sea – life the life-size Minke whale at Haller Park in Mombasa and the sea-turtle at Nakumatt, Diani South Coast.

Pioneering Times

Lamu’s picturesque seafront is a busy place with the excited islanders watching the building of this unique dhow. Everything is fabricated locally including the metal moulds by the ‘jua kali’ artisans on the island. The frame is ready – the keel, bow and stern – with Benson Gitari the flip-flop artist working on the hull to make it watertight. Within the next 12 months it should set sail with Ali Skanda as captain and Ben Morrison as skipper.

And for the first time a dhow with a lateen-rigged sail will sail past Beira in Mozambique. If it reaches Cape Town in South Africa it will make history. “We will set sail using the Kaskazi winds but beyond Beira we don’t know the winds,” tells an excited Morrison. The Kaskazi are the north-easterly monsoon winds from December to mid-March which the traders used to sail south along the coast.

“There’s no raw material used,” continues Morrison showing drafts of the traditional dhow that is no longer made. The duo spent many months researching and scouting for the right people to work with. And they found Sam Ngaruiya owner of Regeneration Africa the recycling factory in Malindi and Ali Skanda, the last generation of dhow builders in Lamu.

The next step was figuring out the details. “Molecular composition varies in different plastic,” explains Morrison. Having figured the right composition for the floating dhow that’s never been done in plastic trash, the next step was making the hollow moulds that were the exact replicas of the dhow parts.

“Melted plastic looks like candle wax and you push it into the metal moulds. This is technology coming out of Kenya – like Mpesa,” says a visibly exited Pabari.

Skanda was doubly excited. “It’s easier carving the plastic because there are no grains as in wood.”

The excited duo show pictures of progress. The entire dhow will use over 25 tonnes of plastic melted down and moulded into the different parts of the boat and 200,000 discarded flip-flops versus endangered hard woods like teak and mahogany.

The dhow baptised Flipflopi carries another message. “Flip flops connect the world,” continues Pabari. “Everybody from Africa to Asia to Europe wears flip flops, regardless of culture, economy, language or age. It’s the ultimate connection.”

Sail of Change

6-model-of-the-flipflop-covered-dhow-800x600“The dhow is symbolic – we’re transmitting a message to our neighbours and beyond. When you throw something in the ocean, you wash your hands off it. The sea takes it – it’s out sight and out of mind.”

The predecessor to the Flipflopi was The Plastiki, a catamaran partially built from 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles and other recycled PET plastic and waste products. The crew led by female skipper Jo Royle sailed from San Francisco across the Pacific Ocean to Sydney, Australia in 2010.

Over the past ten years, many countries and states have made concerted efforts to address one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: plastic pollution. Plastic bag use has been banned in many countries including Rwanda. Recently Tanzania announced a total ban on plastic bags starting in 2017. Many countries such as the UK, Denmark and Germany and others are charging a tax to consumers or retailers. New Delhi City has decided to ban all disposable plastic bags and Bali announced it will do the same from 2018.

Celebrating Plastic

It sounds like an oxymoron. 12.2 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year – the equivalent of one full rubbish lorry’s worth every minute. For a timeline, a plastic bottle can take between 500-1,000 years to biodegrade, disintegrating into ever smaller pieces over several decades. Marine animals unwittingly ingest the plastic. The plastic chemicals then get passed up the food chain. Scientists warn that since we – humans – are on top of the food web, we have the most to lose.

Worse, by 2050, it is predicted that so much plastic will be in the world’s oceans that it will weigh more than all the fish combined.

“Plastic is amazing,” says Morrison, “but we have reached the tipping point.

“We have to seriously reuse, recycle, reduce plastic and stop using single-use plastic.”

Lamu Beach clean up. In one day 5 tonnes of plastic debris was removed from the beach. Picture courtesy Dipesh Pabari
Lamu Beach clean up. In one day 5 tonnes of plastic debris was removed from the beach. Picture courtesy Dipesh Pabari

It’s high tide. Standing at the beach on Manda island across Lamu island the waves carry the next deposit of plastic trash from the ocean. It’s designer-label perfume bottles, water bottles rubber slippers and plastic bags dumped from a tanker from continents across the ocean.