Back in 1997, Julie Church, a marine conservationist was working in a sea turtle preservation project on the island of Kiwayu. She was saddened by the sight of plastic objects of various forms and sizes on the beautiful beach that were stopping the turtles from reaching their nesting sites and was having a devastating effect on the environment. But there was one more observation that triggered a thought in her and led to the establishment of Ocean Sole, The Flipflop Recycling Company.
Julie noted that children from the neighbourhood used the debris, comprising discarded flip-flops and other junk to create their own customised toys. She explored the possibility of engaging the local women to gather the flip-flops, clean and convert them into artefacts that could be sold for a profit.
The initiative initially known as ‘UniquEco’ gathered steam and soon Ocean Sole was launched. Today the company employs about 70 people and operates out of its Nairobi based workshop. The target set by Julie and her team is to recycle 400,000 flip-flops per year. It has developed a well-functioning supply chain which includes 10 suppliers who collect the debris from the coastline and the waterways in and around the main towns, the raw material for the artists of Ocean Sole.
Ocean Sole’s target audience includes the zoos, aquariums and museums around the world and a large proportion of the artefacts involves the shapes of animals. While it operates like any other profit oriented company, it aims to contribute meaningfully in mitigating the problem of marine pollution. In the words of Julie Church “It gets people to think about the ocean and links them to waterways — and we’re doing it through business.”
In her own unique way, Julie continues to spread the same message she tried sharing while working as a marine conservationist. She states “My goal is to create change in the way people live and change in the way people understand the world and its connections.”
Ocean Sole has also started its own foundation, RISE to action and 5% of the company’s profit is passed on to the Foundation. RISE to action operates along the following principles:
R – Recycle, reduce, reuse
I – Innovate
E – Educate
I first read about the initiative on CNN under the section African Start Up. What struck me was the simplicity of the idea and its potential impact in making a difference to the ever growing problem of marine pollution and the deadly consequences on its inhabitants. Initiatives such as this one to convert harmful waste into employment generation opportunities is not only inspiring but a great lesson for anyone who believes in the concept of Innovation and its ability in making lives better.