Sailing the Seas on Reused Plastic

A traditional Swahili dhow known as the FlipFlopi shows that environmental innovation can coexist with tradition.

Off the coast of Kenya, Lamu Island is home to a rich cultural heritage, spiced with a long history of exchange among travelers from different continents. Lamu is also home to a modern disaster resulting from one of the world’s five ocean gyres of plastic pollution. In this epicenter of pollution, traditions survive in a whirlpool of currents depositing waves of plastic waste.

The FlipFlopi is a traditional Swahili dhow made entirely of plastic waste. It made its maiden voyage along the East African coast in 2019. Photo courtesy of UNEP.

It is here that a boat called the FlipFlopi sails the crystal waters of the Indian Ocean. The FlipFlopi is a traditional Swahili dhow, a sailing vessel long associated with the Indian Ocean. But this particular boat is different than other dhows. The FlipFlopi is the first Swahili dhow made completely of plastic waste.

I first visited Lamu in 2016. The wild nature, warm sea, and alluring coastal culture caught my heart, but what called me to return many times was my now dear friend Ali Skanda — the master dhow builder who constructed the FlipFlopi, and a man I have come to admire for his effortless courage in creating a world of new possibilities.

Skanda is a ninth generation traditional Swahili dhow builder. He has inherited more than just skills. His ancestors have left him with the confidence to be able to imagine something that has never existed — and build it, bringing it to life. “When I see a piece of tree, I can imagine a chair, or bed …. and I think, I could do this and that. Some people see just firewood. Even with leaves and barks, I can imagine something.”

As waves brought mounds of plastic debris — sandals, water bottles, and other materials — to the beaches of Lamu, Skanda’s dhow building training kicked in. “Because of the problems of pollution taking place today, I feel it necessary to come up with solutions and solve this problem,” he says. Where others saw trash, he saw building materials. And then, he envisioned a dhow — and a way to build on a traditional skill to address Lamu’s present plastic problem. “I had a vision,” he says, that extends beyond what we inherit from our parents. “We need to move ahead, capture other parts from somewhere and add our skills. As the world is growing, we need to grow too.”

In September 2016, as part of this vision, Skanda organized a community beach clean-up and collected tons of discarded plastic. His team took the waste to a local facility to melt and repurpose it into synthesized plastic lumber, which he then used to construct the boat.

The dazzling rainbow dhow made its maiden voyage along the East African coast in 2019. “We started with the aim of awareness first,” says Skanda. The FlipFlopi team has welcomed many on board, with a particular interest in engaging youth. “One of our main goals is to drive this message to the younger generation, so they understand what the world is,” says Skanda. “We have caused problems for them, but they should stop [this problem] as leaders of tomorrow.”

Since 2019, Skanda’s efforts have been recognized by the UN Environment Programme, the World Economic Forum, and international media. While many entrepreneurs propose technological fixes to our ecological crises, Skanda’s dhow shows that the wisdom of yesterday can be part of our sustainable tomorrow, and that innovation can persist in tradition.

The recent successful expedition on Lake Victoria across three countries demonstrated that there is strong will to address the elimination of unnecessary single use plastics across the region as one unified voice. It is estimated that the FlipFlopi has directly engaged over 10,000 people, and 200 million through media campaigning. From fishermen to County Governors to the Queen of Buganda, the call to action was one: it is no longer business as usual! Time for change!

One day, the FlipFlopi aspires to sail the world, bringing beauty and hope to each of us. “The goodness of our life is measured by how we leave our legacy to be remembered after us,” says Skanda. “This is just the starting point, I have a lot vision… Nothing is impossible.”

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