Interview with Dipesh Pabari, Co-Founder of The FlipFlopi Project
WT: The FlipFlopi Project has recently been spotlighted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The World Sailing Sustainability Award 2022 also listed The FlipFlopi Project as one of the five finalists. The FlipFlopi team has also received awards for two of the several films you have created: Pieces of Us and Plastic:A SecondLife
Dipesh, what have these recognitions meant for you?
Pabari: I do not think it is a personal journey, it is an organizational journey and everyone on the FlipFlopi team deserves recognition. The team is all incredibly dedicated and passionate. This energy just keeps us going despite the mammoth task.
However, recognition is not important. The work is important because there really is no time to WASTE
WT: You have been described as a Kenyan entrepreneur. You are also accomplished in several disciplines including social anthropology, education, and media communications. Our viewers will be interested in the motivation behind this incredibly unique project.
Pabari: The birth of the FlipFlopi came from a childhood dream of a school friend, Ben Morison, who worked in tourism as do I in the other part of my life. Ben had an awakening when he realized our glittering white sandy beaches are not really glittering with white sand but glittering with lots of plastic litter.
He wanted to do something that would be big, different, unique, inspiring, and rooted in our East African heritage. His idea was to build a dhow which is a traditional sailing vessel that has been in existence for thousands of years on the Indian Ocean.
Ben wanted to build that entirely from recycled plastic.
He was exploring the idea across the East African Coast and looking for somebody crazy enough to want to build this boat. Eventually, he met with Ali Skanda the other co-founder who is based in Lamu, Kenya. Ali always says ‘Everything is possible’ in Kiswahili.
Then Ben also approached me with the idea. I have been obsessed with ways to mitigate plastic pollution over the past 15 years, and this was a wonderful, wild, and crazy idea. I jumped on board with it, and that was the birth of the FlipFlopi.
For this boat, we collected more than 30,000 flip-flops from the beaches of Kenya, and we used local artisans to patch them together to the skin of the boat. This colourful eyecatcher is how we came up with the name FlipFlopi!
WT: And this has all been volunteer work.
Pabari: It was volunteer for the first 5 years of existence but one of the things we quickly recognized was that if we wanted to give this the energy that it requires and deserves, we needed to build a team who could be more dedicated to the project and work on it full time.
Over the last 14 months, we have received grant money to grow the team and the cause.
WT: The FlipFlopi Project is about to kick-start a revolution!
Pabari: We've already kickstarted it. It has been an organic journey that has grown with us learning what the needs are and what we need to do.
It is safe to say the boat that we built was the world’s first recycled plastic sailing dhow. That kickstarted this plastic revolution. It put Kenya on the international map in so many ways.
It was meant to be a positive and inspiring symbol demonstrating we have a lot of incredible creativity and resilience. We can do a lot with very little. But with that comes a lot of duty.
In our case, we come from this incredible island which has this magical history of boat-making and interaction with the rest of the world as well as an incredible history of hand-crafted traditional furniture.
We have decided to build our model around creating products that have value within our heritage. This problematic material of plastics is being transformed into something that can further reclaim and preserve that heritage as well as deal with the problem. It also gives meaning and purpose to our local communities.
WT: In 2017, the Kenyan Government imposed the world’s most stringent plan on the single-use plastics (SUPs) with a fine of up to $40,000 and imprisonment of up to 4 years to anyone caught selling, producing, or using plastic bags.
The FlipFlopi Project, rather than taking a punitive stance, is demonstrating resourcefulness with all forms of plastics. Tell us more.
Pabari: We do have a national ban on all single-use plastics in protected areas which includes national parks, beaches, forests, and heritage sites but it is very poorly enforced.
As an organization, we stand for a world without SUPs, but we also equally understand that this is something that we must manage and that imagining a world without plastics is almost impossible
We have established a recovery facility for plastics in Lamu on the Northern coast of Kenya.
Here we make plastic lumber from recyclable plastics. We also collect and purchase plastics from communities that do not have waste management facilities.
WT: How do you go about transforming plastic into lumber and creating a boat?
Pabari: It is not so complicated, and it is done around the world. We collect plastics and sort them into different types. We do not have waste management systems as you do in Canada so we depend on people to do a lot of sorting because only certain types can be used for particular purposes.
The plastics are crushed and then extruded into the different shapes that we want. If we are making lumber, we have metal moulds that have different shapes. We have created a modular system to make the ribs of the boat. Then we put it together like Lego.
We can even show anyone in the world how to make your very own recycled plastic dhow with a Boat Building toolkit!
WT: You are accomplishing so much. What else are you doing?
Pabari: To really be in this, one must take on every aspect of it. As an organization, we have an integrated approach where we pay as much attention to innovation which in our case could be everything from establishing waste management systems to building boats out of recycled plastic to traditional furniture fashioned from reclaimed plastic.
Beyond that, we are pushing for regional legislation to ban SUPs across the East African coastline which is 7 different countries because this is not a problem to be sorted out on a national basis.
WT: What progress are you making on that front?
Pabari: It is a long-haul game. Recently we managed to bring together-- for the first time-- over 20 different Members of Parliament from 7 different countries in the East African Community. This was a stepping stone to introducing our legislation and building their capacity to take back the message of building regional legislation.
Their response was unanimous – all MPs agreed that a regional approach is necessary.
Pabari: There’s a lot of media around the issue of plastics at this time and Kenya is a very busy landscape as far as environmental issues go . Of course, with the Global Plastic Treaty that was signed at the United Nations last year, there is now a lot more push, particularly in this part of the world to ensure that we have the right policies and legislation in place so that we can actually commit to finding agreement to what we have already pledged to as a country.
WT: Education is one of The FlipFlopi pillars. Tell us more.
Pabari: We run a school program for young people where they go through a vocational training program using circular economy principles.
We also put a lot of effort into education whether it is online or off-line. Teachers and parents in your viewing audience can take advantage of our resources and teaching materials.
WT: And Dipesh I have just learned there is a book hot off the press!
Pabari: American children’s book author, Linda Lodding and I have co-authored a children’s book, FlipFlopi How a boat made fromflip-flops is helping save the oceans. The illustrations by Kenyan illustrator Michael Mwangi are absolutely magical.
That is one of the things that gives me so much pleasure and joy is to bring this story to life for young readers.
WT: What’s next?
Pabari: We have ambitious plans in many diverse areas that build on and expand on what we already have achieved.
We still have a vision to build a boat twice as big as the current one which will be 20 metres long and weigh over 60 tons entirely from recycled plastic.
Our intent is to journey around the world. My hope is that it will be a living testimony to a small island in the middle of East Africa that has come up with solutions for a global problem.
There is a lot of R & D involved with this next project—which we have started. We do not doubt the possibilities and viabilities. We have dug deep into our own pockets to build the first boat and now we need to build a movement of like-minded people that will join and support us on this journey.
One of the joys of our FlipFlopi Project has been to experience how this colourful vibrant low-tech boat has been able to inspire, enable, and engage in so many different ways and I am so humbled to have been part of this journey.
WT: Please leave us all with one last message.
Pabari: Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Although an incredible material that has solved so many problems, plastic requires us to make a paradigm shift. We can learn from the longer-term problems created by over-consumerism.