As dawn broke on Monday, a boat set sail from Dunga ‘ harbour’ in Kisumu for a 21-day voyage around Lake Victoria.
Aboard the beautiful rainbow-hued vessel were 13 people on a mission to raise awareness on the threats facing the world’s second-largest freshwater lake.
Once Africa’s sparkling blue gem, the water body is now choking under the heavy effects of pollution, especially plastics and other non-biodegradable materials.
Christened Flipflopi, the 10-metre long boat that weighs seven tonnes was launched in 2018 during the World Clean-Up Day celebrations in Lamu.
It’s constructed using recycled plastics, including multi-coloured flip-flops from which it derives its name, an intentional invention as a symbol of awareness in efforts to fight plastics in Kenyan waters.
A brainchild of three environmental-conscious friends – Ali Skanda (a dhow builder from a renowned boat construction family in Lamu), Ben Morrison and Dipesh Pabari – the Flipflopi has for the last four years been a symbol of a campaign to create awareness against single-use plastics and their pollution of Kenyan waters.
The idea was conceived in 2016, following reflections among the three friends on the state of the beaches that were heavily littered with plastics at the north coast.
“Our key objective is to advocate for regional consensus towards single-use plastics. If we do not work together as a region, then we will never be able to defeat the plastic pollution scourge,” says Pabari.
Pollutes in Kenya
“Pollution does not know any borders. If someone pollutes in Kenya it will end up in Uganda. So we have to come together as a region to protect our lake. The Flipflopi is here to inspire that change.”
The Nyanza expedition seeks to promote regional collaboration to address plastic pollution in communities along the lake in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The water body is facing myriad environmental challenges that could impact the lives of millions of people who depend on it.
Mr Pabari says they wanted to come up with something that would be a positive symbol, with its roots in Africa.
“So we built a traditional dhow from recycled plastics, which is the first in the world. We are lost in consumption of products without looking at the value of the packaging. Ours is to show the message that this is not waste. We need to be advocating for a circular economy,” he offers.
The Flipflopi has had a huge impact, right from its maiden sail in the Indian Ocean. It sailed from Lamu to Zanzibar in 2019, where they were received with firm commitments from the government of Tanzania.
“We saw over 40 hotels ban single-use of plastics. We have seen real change and we know it has inspired thousands of people,” says Pabari.
During the Flipflopi Nam-Lolwe festival of innovation and artivism at the Kisumu Yacht Club last week, environmental activists and other participants agreed on the need to come up with new policies and laws to safeguard the lake from pollution.
Governors Prof Anyang Nyong’o (Kisumu) and Cyprian Awiti (Homa Bay) committed to rally the 14-member Lake Regional Economic Bloc counties to ban plastics. Mr Nyong’o urged regional counties to take action against big companies accused of polluting the water body.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) country director, Dr Juliet Biao, Deputy British High Commissioner to Kenya Demze Puty and Nation Media Group chief executive Stephen Gitagama also attended.
According to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), the lake is partly polluted because of effluent and chemical discharge.
On Monday afternoon, the boat sailed to Homa Bay Town to raise awareness about the conservation of marine life by promoting the recycling of plastics. The devolved unit has failed to provide the environmental agency with test results of the effluent it discharges in the lake from its sewerage treatment plant.
The Nema county director, Josiah Nyandoo, says Homa Bay Water and Sewerage Company (Homawasco) has failed to conduct chemical analysis for three years. This is against guidelines set by the agency that require activities that affect water quality to be analysed.
“One of the largest slums in Homa Bay County, Shauri Yako, is located next to the lake. All waste from toilets get deposited in the water body, which affects the lake ecosystem,” he offers.
Another challenge is the discharge of chemicals from motor vehicles through the car wash businesses along the beaches. Often, lubricants and dirty engine oil end up in the water.
Agricultural chemicals from farms are also discharged into the lake whenever it rains upstream. “Farmers use pesticides and herbicides during planting and other farm practices. All the chemicals are washed to the ground and rivers before being discharged in the lake,” says Nyandoo.
Environmental activists are now calling for deep conversations and regional consensus on the plastic waste threat to the lake. “Research has shown that we had close to 360 types of fish in the 1960s but currently we only have about 43. It tells a lot about the health of our aquatic life,” says Dave Ojay, the founder of the Nam festival.
The Flipflopi team is rallying communities around the lake to build waste-plastic innovations and adopt circular solutions that will build greener businesses.
Save the lake
“It is time to save the lake. This is conscious advocacy biased towards environmental awareness on the plastic menace. Together with local communities, we hope to bring awareness and innovative solutions to beat pollution and support a green recovery in East Africa,” says Skanda, Flipflopi’s chief boat builder and captain.
“We have been watching our waters being swallowed up by plastics and it is time to act. It needs collaboration. It is not short-term but in the long-term, we expect to see changes.”
The boat has a scientist on board who collects samples from the lake for experiments. The tests include the level of plastic contamination and the chemical composition of the water.
Studies have shown that one in five fish in the lake has ingested plastic.
“Some of the tests for the samples we have collected may take long before the outcome is known. Some could take up to two years,” says Skanda.
Over the next few weeks, Flipflopi will sail to Jinja in Uganda and end the trip in Mwanza, Tanzania. From Homa Bay, the boat will move to Rusinga Island.
The Nam festival is part of a global solidarity programme dubbed ‘my lake my future’, which speaks for all endangered lakes. The next target is Lake Tana – the largest in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile.
“It is a wakeup call and we are ringing the bell. It is time for the plastics revolution in order to save our lake and the future,” offers Ojay.