It is not uncommon to see hundreds of flip flops lining the shores of the beach on the remote island of Kiwayu, on the eastern side of the Lamu Archipelago. They most likely get washed here from the other side of the world by the strong Indian Ocean currents. The island, which is part of the Kiunga Marine National Reserve, is notorious for this.

The multi-coloured pile-up arriving in all shapes and sizes was becoming an eyesore to visitors to the island and for a marine conservationist like Kenyan-born Julie Church, this was unacceptable.

Julie, who has been brought up in Kenya, first came across this phenomenon in 1997 while leading the conservation and development project for the Kiunga Marine National Reserve which lies just below Somalia in Northern Kenya.

The FlipFlop Idea

She decided to do something about the situation. She did not have to look far for inspiration. One day as she watched a group of kids playing with toys they had made from the washed debris, it struck her that this may very well be the solution to deal with the ‘uchafu’. Clean the beaches and use the collected waste to make fun artefacts.

That is how FlipFlop Recycling Company was born. It later became known as Ocean Sole Ltd. Ocean Sole today operates from its Marula Studios office in the suburbs of Karen, with a workforce of over 100 artisans and casual workers. The team transforms the discarded flip flops into gorgeous works of art sold locally and abroad.

Dirty flip flops collected from various beaches is brought to Ocean Sole where its sorted and cleaned.

“We have over 30 zoos and aquariums stocking our products in their gift shops,” says Des Shiels, Ocean Sole CEO. “Tourists love these ethical items as safari souvenirs and also for the wonderful marine conservation message they convey,” he adds.

This noble venture has not come without its share of challenges. Des points out funding to be top on their list. “NGOs have stepped-in in a big way to bridge the gap left by the government. But there is still a long way to go to keep our world-class beaches clean,” he laments.

Des is upbeat though that as more consumers begin to think ethically. “This will spur growth in the industry as demand for ‘feel-good’ products that help our environment and support vulnerable members of society grows,” he says.

An artisan shapes flip flop into a giraffe

Ocean Sole is a for-profit outfit. “We want to move away from dependence on aid. We want to become a self-sufficient business with our own trade channels for self-sustainability,” he points out. USAID has funded Ocean sole in the past to support some of their social and non-core activities.

Profits made from the company go to a newly established foundation, the Ocean Sole Foundation. The foundation supports the training of coastal communities on how to take responsibility for their environment.

Counting Milestones

Nine years later, it would be safe to say, Julie’s dream of a debris-free coastline edges closer to realisation. The company, in such a short time, has managed to attract global recognition for its contribution to conservation. In 2008, it emerged among 12 finalists selected to receive the BBC World Challenge award.

In 2010, they won the coveted Energy Globe Award in Rwanda. “Our flip flop palm tree even made it to the Swedish Cultural Museum in 2010,” Des adds.

So next time you are around the Karen area, pop-in at the Ocean Sole office. I bet you, you will find something to take back with you to remember this unique Kenyan conservation story. Then do the most important thing of all, spread the word. Let us keep our beaches clean.