The Flipflopi Dhow: Returning Home — Short Documentary
The Flipflopi boat’s final stop for the Lake Victoria expedition in Mwanza, Lake Victoria. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

Expedition of the recycled plastic boat served as a ‘magnet’ for awareness and action against plastic pollution in Lake Victoria

  • InfoNile’s documentary features the Flipflopi, the world’s first 100% recycled plastic boat, which sailed more than five hundred kilometers around Lake Victoria in March to bring together communities in the fight against plastic pollution.
  • This expedition stopped in the three East African countries surrounding the lake, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, which have all attempted on differing levels to ban plastic bags. 
  • Plastic pollution threatens Lake Victoria’s degrading ecosystem, which has already been experiencing a decline in fish stocks since the 1970s.
  • Bahati Mayoma, a Tanzanian microplastics researcher, joined the expedition to collect data for the first surface to deepwater analysis of microplastics in Lake Victoria in a single season.
  • The eye-catching Flipflopi boat is an exemplar of East Africa’s grassroots ‘artivist’ movements which have sprouted to address problems that governments have failed to solve.

By Megan S. Lee

Additional reporting by Madison Erdall

Instead of wood, colorful flip-flops plaster the exterior and ribs made of recycled plastic compose the interior. It resembles a toy boat for children, except that it’s life-sized and the catalyst of an East African movement to eliminate single-use plastic. 

The Flipflopi dhow, featured in this documentary, is the world’s first 100% recycled plastic boat, modeled after the traditional Kenyan dhows used for fishing and trade. The materials used to construct the boat are plastic rubbish and old sandals collected from Kenya’s coastline in 2017. 

The Flipflopi and its dinghy anchored in Mwanza, Tanzania for the last campaign event in Lake Victoria. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

The Flipflopi project was founded by Ben Morison and co-founded by activist Dipesh Pabari and master boat-builder Ali Skanda. In 2019, the Flipflopi made its first roughly 500-kilometer expedition from Lamu, Kenya to Zanzibar, Tanzania campaigning against single-use plastic in the two countries’ coastal regions. For its second expedition, the plastic dhow took the message inland and sailed nearly 1,000 kilometers around Lake Victoria over four weeks in March 2021. 

It anchored in the three East African countries surrounding the lake, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, while successfully traversing what has been reported to be one of the world’s ‘most dangerous’ stretches of water. After the Lake Victoria expedition, the Flipflopi was transported overland from Mwanza to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for its final campaign events. Then, in 9 days it sailed about 500 kilometers north in the Indian Ocean to reach its place of origin, Lamu, Kenya.

The colorful boat acted as a magnet, drawing stakeholders from all facets of civil society to join in on the plastic dilemma: politicians, scientists, school children, international leaders, cultural leaders such as the Queen of Buganda in Uganda, community initiatives, industries, celebrity ‘artivists’ such as Navio and Sandra Suubi from Uganda, youth activists such as Maliha Sumar from Tanzania, politicians, and many others. In more than 10 local campaign events organized at stops in the three East African countries along the Flipflopi’s route, citizens discussed and presented solutions for the region’s problematic usage of single-use plastics. 

Youth members of the Jinja Scouts celebrate the end of a waste collection campaign through the town of Jinja, Uganda. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

Journeying across East Africa’s most well-known waters, the Flipflopi acts as both a literal and metaphorical vessel. She carries the message that teamwork has the potential to become a formidable force in the anti-plastic revolution. Her physical, slow movement across water makes her a particularly poignant medium for spreading awareness in today’s digitized, fast-paced world.

Plastic pollution: the science

Mamlo Abdallah Yusuph at Nipe Fagio’s beach cleanup in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

Since 1950, plastic pollution has increased exponentially from 1.5 million tons to roughly 322 million tons in 2015. 

Plastic pollution is a burgeoning topic in the research world, since its effects on human health currently range from unknown to dire.

A report by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany estimates that up to 88 to 95 percent of the plastic from 1,350 large rivers analyzed around the world comes from just 10 of the most polluted rivers; the Nile River is one of them. Any detrimental effects to Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River, has immediate implications for countries downstream.

With four million people in the three Lake Victoria countries depending on the lake for their livelihoods, monitoring the health of the lake is critical. 

“The fishing business is a pale shadow of its former self,” says 50-year-old Benard Ndege, a fisherman who caught only two fish after six hours on the water in Kisumu, Kenya. “In the past, we could catch big Nile perch when we set out. But people started using the wrong fishing gear and that’s how the stocks went down.”

Since the 1970s, fish stocks have been declining due to many factors including pollution, a degrading ecosystem, and abject poverty which creates conditions for overfishing and the use of improper fishing gear. Plastic pollution threatens an already crippled ecosystem.

Plastic breaks down into microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters wide. These pieces continue breaking down into smaller pieces, enabling them to breach biological membranes and enter our bodies. Microplastic contamination in African freshwater bodies is an understudied topic for a variety of reasons, including lack of funding. 

Tanzanian microplastics researcher and lecturer Bahati Mayoma from the University of Dar es Salaam joined the Flipflopi expedition for the opportune moment to gather comprehensive data on Africa’s largest lake. In 2015, he was involved in the first study confirming the presence of microplastics in southern Lake Victoria by examining the gastrointestinal tracts of locally fished Nile perch and Nile tilapia. Plastic was found in 20 percent of fish from each species.

Fried Nile tilapia being sold at Ggaba Beach Market in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

According to Bahati, this study contributed to the Tanzanian government’s decision to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2019.

Fish exposed to a mixture of polyethylene plastic and pollutants accumulate the toxic pollutants in their livers which are then consumed by humans, according to a study published in 2013. A recent study conducted in 2020 found microplastics to be ubiquitous in the surface waters of northern Lake Victoria, especially near areas of intensive human activity.

During the Flipflopi’s expedition, researcher Mayoma sampled water for microplastics in Lake Victoria over four weeks in the three surrounding countries, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Results from Mayoma and his team’s research efforts would mark the first surface to deepwater analysis of microplastics in Lake Victoria in a single season. Analyzing water samples from one season eliminates season-specific factors that might normally confound results. The study could serve as a model for analyzing microplastics in other African freshwater lakes.

“We need science so that we can make an informed decision based on the fact, but we also need other actors,” Bahati Mayoma says in the documentary.

East Africa: a world leader in plastic bag bans?

The Nile River at its source in Jinja, Uganda. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

Although plastic bans have been proposed in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, enforcement on the ground varies by country. Rwanda currently leads the region and the world in curbing plastic pollution. In 2008, the government prohibited the use, importation, manufacturing, and sale of polyethylene bags. Stricter measures extended the ban to other single-use plastic products such as straws and bottles in 2019, giving businesses two years to shift to alternative environmentally friendly materials. The deadline is set for 23rd September 2021, with the world watching to see whether Rwandan business owners can make the shift. 

Kenya introduced a similar ban on single-use plastic bags in 2017. Since the ban’s implementation, 80% of the population has stopped using plastic carrier bags according to Kenya’s government. Kenya’s ban on plastic bags has been considered a success despite the presence of other types of plastic bags which haven’t been completely phased out.

End Plastic Pollution activists campaigning against plastic at Ggaba Beach Market in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

Uganda’s attempts to ban single-use plastic bags have failed. The government first announced a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2007, but over the years, enforcement has been scant to nonexistent due to protests by traders and manufacturers. Various government agencies have attempted to re-assert and enforce similar bans in 2009, 2015, and 2018, with the latest ban proposal made in 2019. But plastic bags in Uganda continue to be produced, sold, and even smuggled across borders to countries with stricter policies like Kenya. 

The omnipresence of business influence in Uganda’s political sphere is probably a key factor explaining the delay in enforcement. Additionally, Uganda’s oil-based development strategy, and pandering of various interest groups make the ban’s implementation almost unfeasible, according to research by the University of Manchester.

In Tanzania, the government announced a ban on manufacturing, selling, import and export of plastic carrier bags starting on June 1, 2019. The effect was immediate — black plastic carrier bags are no longer seen floating in the streets.

Tanzanian dancers of Nantea Dance Company perform by plastic sculptures in Dar es Salaam. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

Despite these bans, other plastics remain uncontrolled. Corporations continue to produce tons of plastic daily, namely plastic bottles, as Maliha Sumar references in the documentary. A waste audit from one of the beach clean ups led by Nipe Fagio in Tanzania in April 2021, which was shown in the documentary, the majority of plastic waste was produced by MeTL. 

A boat story

Bahati Mayoma and Mick Warwick preparing water sampling equipment. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

The Flipflopi is part of an emerging East African ‘artivist’ movement that performs art to cry out for action in the backdrop of government ineffectiveness and its failure to bail its people out of the plastic problem. 

A boat can be seen as a stage where crewmembers alternate between the roles of performance above deck and bailing water out below deck to keep the boat from capsizing as water continuously seeps in.

Katharina Elleke using buckets below deck to bail out water on the Flipflopi’s journey back to Lamu, Kenya. Photo by Megan S. Lee/InfoNile.

The Flipflopi as a floating, operating work of art hosts the East African and global community on her humble stage.

This short documentary tells the story of the Flipflopi dhow, the chummy, mission-driven crew members on her stage, and their duty to bring the ‘Revolution Beat Plastic Pollution’ home.

Now, we have to bail ourselves out, and flaunt while doing so.

The Flipflopi Dhow: Returning Home is a short documentary film by filmmaker and journalist Megan S. Lee for InfoNile.