By Linda Platts
Flip-flops are some of the most basic footwear in the world, a fact that is easily documented by the tons of discarded sandals washed up onto the east coast of Africa from as far away as Japan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Virtually indestructible, they float through the ocean posing a threat to marine animals and end up as a blight on beautiful beaches. Tangled with driftwood and other debris, they can prevent female turtles from coming ashore to nest and block hatchlings from safely reaching the sea.
Julie Church, a native of Nairobi, one of the world’s experts on coral fish and a passionate marine conservationist, became concerned about the unsightly flip-flops strewn across Kenya’s beaches while working for the World Wildlife Fund. She knew that the debris was not only a threat to the marine ecosystem, but could also drive away tourists who were vital to the economy. Local people were making buoys and stuffing cushions with the discarded sandals, while children picked up the brightly colored pieces to build toys. Thinking on a larger scale, Church could see other possibilities. UniquEco was born.
Today, UniquEco is a growing business, employing people from disadvantaged areas to make jewelry, toys, and artwork from old flip-flops. Church wanted to create a commercial enterprise rather than a nonprofit. From past experience, she knew that while flip-flops are forever, donors are not. A small army of people are working for UniquEco in a variety of roles, including collecting the flip-flops, washing them, cutting them into pieces, and gluing them together into solid blocks that are sanded to a smooth surface. Each block is a brilliant array of colors. Finally, artisans cut, carve, and shape the blocks into tropical fish, water buffalo, toys, bracelets, necklaces, placemats, beaded curtains—most anything one can imagine can be created from this lightweight rubber.
UniquEco’s work has attracted international attention, and several pieces of art have been commissioned. A 15-foot-tall giraffe named Twiga was a main attraction at the Rome Fashion Week, and a life-sized minke whale named Mfalme is on display in Mombasa. Church and her partner Tahreni Bwanaali continue to grow their business by adding value to the unlimited supply of washed-up flip-flops. Many local people in remote areas have steady incomes, the beaches are cleaner, and the marine habitat is being protected
For more information about UniquEco: www.uniqueco-designs.com