Witnessing the impact of flip-flops pollution on oceanic wildlife, Ocean Sole’s founder came up with an idea of turning the washed-up footwear into art.
by Julia Migné
The quintessential symbol of summer, of beaches, and of holidays, flip-flops may seem like a harmless footwear. But there lies a dark side to this popular item. Julie Church, a marine biologist, stumbled upon a major issue while working in Kenya in 2000: tons of flip flops were washing up onto beaches every day. This, she found, was an environmental disaster that was greatly impacting both the marine ecosystem and local communities.
Noticing the toys made by children living in the area with the washed-up flip-flops, Julie encouraged the local Kiwayu communities to collect, wash, and carve the footwear into colourful animal sculptures. This concept then formed Ocean Sole.
“In 2000, Julie got a huge order from WWF to make 15,000 turtle key rings,” explains Joe Mwakiremba, International Sales Manager at Ocean Sole. “She then moved to Nairobi to start a workshop and from there, everything snowballed.”
It took Julie a few more years to actually establish her company as a social enterprise. In 2005, she officially launched Ocean Sole to sell products that raise awareness of the environmental issues surrounding rubber flip-flops.
The company has since partnered multiple times with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which has a headquarter based in Nairobi, to raise awareness of oceanic pollution. “We have partnered with the UNEP in the past for various campaigns,” says Joe.
“The last one was the Ocean Trash to Treasure campaign, but we also have life size animal sculptures exhibited in their headquarters, such as a two meters tall giant octopus, a giant whale reaching out of the water, and a huge one meter long jellyfish dandling from a tree.”
Ocean Sole also participates in beach cleanups and runs school activity programmes, inviting students from and around Nairobi to come to their workshop to design their own flip-flop artefacts.
The social enterprise works mainly with Kiwayu communities, who are, according to Joe, “predominantly renowned to know how to carve more than other communities”. Usually working with woods, the Kiwayu artists easily adapted their techniques to flip-flop carving. With Ocean Sole, they are offered good salaries and access to welfare programmes enabling them to get money to pay their children’s school fees.
In order to create their sculptures, artists are provided with flip-flops that have been cleaned, washed, and sorted per colours. For the small and medium-sized animals, the flip-flops are then joint into a block which the artist carves into an animal. The larger pieces of sculptures are slightly different and made out of recycled styrofoam.
“The reason we use the recycled styrofoam is because 90% of our sales are international and styrofoam is actually lighter than flip-flops,” explains the International Sales Manager. “The end goal is to reduce the shipping cost.”
Having an original product is one thing but finding a market for it is another story altogether. After their big order from WWF, the company decided to target a different audience: zoos and aquariums.
“We wanted to partner with zoos and aquariums because we felt that they could tell our story,” adds Joe. “So in 2014, we reached out to hundreds of zoos through associations like the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.”
Coupling this outreach strategy to very active social media channels, Ocean Sole now manages to export their products across the globe. “Our major clients are from the US, Europe, Dubai, Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand, so basically we are all over the place.”
At the moment, the company focuses on its Bahari suit, meaning ‘ocean’ in Swahili. This suit features a range of endangered marine species such as sea turtles, octopus, and hammerhead sharks, among others.
However, most of their all-time best sellers are among their other available suit: Safari. “Our large giraffes are our best sellers. They sell really well in zoos and also locally here in our gift shop,” explains Joe.
Looking to have an impact and to change behaviour around the world, the social enterprise recently added a Wall Art selection to its bow. “Our Wall Art selection is basically animals’ heads,” adds Joe. “We are trying to tell people: ‘Don’t come to Africa to hunt trophy heads, instead buy one made of flip-flops’.
After few years of growing and developing its products, Ocean Sole is now looking to expand its impact across the globe. “We are looking into doing more functional products,” explains Katie Carnelley, Products Marketing Manager at Ocean Sole.
“Getting machinery to shred our flip-flops would allow us to use that shred as insulation for low-cost housing or even use it for mattresses for refugees or orphans.”
However, the next big step for the company would be to actually export its concept in other countries also highly impacted by flip-flop pollution such as Brazil or India.
“What we mean to do is basically start raising funds and get sponsorship to be able to launch Ocean Sole in a Box,” exclaims Katie. “So that then we could export what we are doing all over the world.”
Spreading the word and sharing their concept, Ocean Sole sure hopes to flip the flop and make a splash in the environmental world.
Julia Migné is a multimedia journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in environmental issues and odd hobbies. She has written for Africa Geographic and BBC Wildlife among others. An endless traveller, she swears that she would visit one country for each letter of the alphabet.