While doing marine conservation projects at the Kenyan coast several years ago, one woman observed children making toys out of flip-flops that were washing up on shore. So she started a business to make colorful, fashionable products from flip-flops - while creating jobs and cleaning up the waterways.
The Nairobi-based FlipFlop Recycling Company
is thought to be the only business of its kind and scale in the world. The company makes about 100 different products from recycled flip-flops. Some of the jewelry has even been down the catwalk at the recent Paris fashion week.
Founder Julie Church says that the goal of her company is to create products that people want to buy, then, make them interested in the back-story.
And much of that story appears to be in the flip-flops' journey to Kenya. Church says because of ocean currents, rubbish washes up on Kenyan shores from as far away as Indonesia.
Poor man's ocean
“The Indian Ocean is the poor man’s ocean. It’s where the most poverty in the world is in. And it’s in quite a confined area," Church explained. "And we’re taking even the poor man’s waste and giving it a value.”
Women at the coast collect the flip-flops as they wash up onto the shores and then sell them to the company. Workers wash these flip-flops, many of which have been repaired several times and have likely had several owners. Artisans then glue together the various colors, carve the products, sand and rewash them and finally send them to the shop.
American artist Kelly Eberhardt came to visit the retail store after hearing about it from a friend.
“So, from an artist to an artist standpoint, I think it’s really made me respect artists so much more all over the world and my work as well because the final product does mean a lot more than what you think it does in the beginning,” she said.
From rubbish to treasure
Dan Wambui is an employee who takes great pride in his unique form of artwork.
“I feel like a celebrity," he said. "Because it will take someone who comes all the way from Europe or Asia or America to come and buy something that I’ve made with my hands. That means that my work is going out of the continent and all over the world. Surely, it makes an impact and I’m proud of it."
To those who don’t believe that ridding the oceans of flip-flops can have much of a larger conservation impact, Church says that she’s taking it one step at a time.
“I would say that in a perfect world we should have no rubbish," added Church. "So whatever we’re doing is better than doing nothing because it’s only going to get more and more and more.”
The company employs around 40 people at its Nairobi facility. Last year, the company recycled more than 10,000 kilos of used flip-flops.