Thanks to marine scientist Julie Church, discarded footwear from the beaches of Kenya is being transformed into colourful gifts.

Two three-ft giraffes in rainbow hues stand tall at the entrance of Ocean Sole in a quiet neighbourhood in Nairobi. As I admire them, from the corner of my eye, I spot a heap of torn, filthy and faded flip-flops. Sitting amid that pile is young Lucy, sorting out the ‘good’ ones from the ‘not usable’. That montage, in a way, encapsulates the story of this wonderful entrepreneurial venture called Ocean Sole, the Flip Flop Recycling Company.

Here, discarded flip-flops and sandals collected from Kenya’s beaches and waterways are converted into an array of artefacts including animal figures, curtain beads, pencil holders and much more. As I take a tour of the small factory, I learn an important lesson — just talking about saving the environment is not enough.

Kenyan-born marine scientist Julie Church acted upon that thought, in her small way. A marine scientist who worked for WWF and the Kenya Wildlife Service near Somalia, Church was leading a conservation project for Kenya’s Kiunga Marine National Reserve in 1997 when she saw some children playing with toys they’d made from the washed-up debris on Kiwayu’s shores. “It dawned on me that this was a great way to clean beaches and create fun artefacts,” she says, “Turtles hatching on the beach had to fight their way through the debris to get to the ocean.” It just so happens that the majority of the rubbish on Kenyan beaches is flip-flops!

“When I saw the coastal kids make those toys, I knew we had to share this idea with the world creating better opportunities for them while cleaning up the beaches at the same time. After leaving the Kiunga project, my friend Tahreni Bwanaali and I started UniquEco Designs and began recycling flip-flops to generate trade for aid. I am proud to say that, since our inception, we have successfully recycled over 600,000 kilos of flip-flops!” That’s a huge amount of plastic and rubber that has been removed off our beaches and out of harm’s way.

The coastal community was roped in to collect, sculpt, carve and create products for UniquEco Designs, which was established in 2005. The first product created was a child’s hanging mobile. Key chains followed. Then came small animals and soon a wide range of gift items began to occupy shelf space — curtains, pencil holders, door stoppers, pen tops and bracelets.

Soon, UniquEco Designs was re-christened Ocean Sole Ltd. and today it has expanded from its coastal origins to boast of a large scale production hub in Nairobi. It aims to recycle about 4,00,000 flip-flops a year!

At the workshop, watching Jackson Mbatha and his fellow workers carve various animal shapes with expert ease was fascinating. As the charming Lucy leads the way and explains the process behind the passion, a new story waits to be told. A team is employed to gather the raw material from street corners, beaches… anywhere and everywhere. Once the flip-flops are gathered, they are washed, re-washed and dunked in a large tub of disinfectant, sorted out colour-wise and the sole separated.

Styrofoam (again recycled from discarded packing material) is used to carve the shape and the soles are stuck on it. That’s when the artist’s creative input comes to the fore. The speed and felicity with which they work is a sight to behold. Slowly, a shape emerges from the shapeless sole. The final product is then sanded to smooth the rough edges. Once again a thorough wash using disinfectant, and voila! You have a giraffe in pink, blue and yellow or a rhino in green and grey, or a whale in blue.

How are the artists chosen? Says Rachel Drew, the sales/marketing manager: “We find people who are skilled at sculpting and carving, and train them for three weeks.” Today, the company has over 100 individuals working at the workshops in Nairobi, in the city slums and remote coastal areas, providing much-needed employment. Besides flip-flops, Ocean Sole also collects bottles that become pretty plant and soap holders.

While the giraffe and warthog models are extremely popular, Rachel says, “The just-unveiled flip-flop member, the gorilla, is an instant hit. We’re even dipping our toes into footwear designs and the samples look incredible.”

Ocean Sole products find their way into markets across Africa, the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. How about India? “Not really,” says Rachel. “We have had some interest from Indian-based online platforms and shops, but so far we sell only through http://www.bombaypink.com/. We are certainly open to doing business in India.”

Would such a model work in India where there is no dearth of flip-flops and other rubber items? Well, you never know.

The Foundation

The Ocean Sole Foundation, an extension of the company, was set up to work with communities, scientists, conservationists, artists, governments, industries and other non-profit organisations to raise awareness about marine conservation. The company puts five per cent of its profits and 25 per cent of profit from all the ‘giant’ sculptures into the foundation. Those interested may write to http://www.ocean-sole.com for more information.