NAIROBI, Kenya – The colorful handmade giraffes, elephants and warthogs made in a Nairobi workshop were once only dirty pieces of rubber cruising the Indian Ocean’s currents.
Kenya’s Ocean Sole sandal recycling company is cleaning the East African country’s beaches of used, washed-up flip-flops and other sandals.
About 45 workers in Nairobi make 100 different products from the discarded flip-flops. In 2008, the company shipped an 18-foot giraffe to Rome for display during a fashion week.
Company founder Julie Church says the goal of her company is to create products that people want to buy, then make them interested in the back-story.
Workers wash the flip-flops, many of which show signs of multiple repairs. Artisans then glue together the various colours, carve the products, sand and rewash them.
Church first noticed Kenyan children turning flip-flops into toy boats around 1999, when she worked as a marine scientist for WWF and the Kenya Wildlife Service on Kenya’s coast near the border with Somalia.
Turtles hatching on the beach had to fight their way through the debris on beaches to get to the ocean, Church said, and a plan to clean up the debris and create artistic and useful items gained momentum. WWF ordered 15,000 key rings, and her eco-friendly project took off.
It has not made Church rich, however. The company turns over about $150,000 a year, she said. Last year it booked a small loss.
But new investment money is flowing in, and the company is in the midst of rebranding itself from its former name — the FlipFlop Recycling Company — to Ocean Sole.
The company aims to sell 70 per cent of its products outside Kenya. It has distributors in the United States, Europe and new inquiries from Japan. Its biggest purchasers are zoos and aquariums.
One of Church’s employees is Dan Wambui, who said he enjoys interacting with visitors who come to the Nairobi workshop.
“They come from far … when they see what we are doing we see them really happy and they are appreciating. We feel internationally recognized and we feel happy about it,” Wambui said.
On the Internet:
Ocean Sole: http://www.ocean-sole.com