Lamu boat builder turns plastics into colourful dhow

A test boat made of flip-flops in Lamu. [Photo: Courtesy]
There is a certain easiness to life that Lamu people have around them.

First, it seems like they are in control of time, and ticking clocks do not do enough to make them rush around performing a thousand tasks like their contemporaries in the big cities.

There is a calmness to their gait and speech. Life for them seems effortless, and Ali Skanda is not an exception to this rule.

He would pass as the poster boy for life in Lamu complete with a boat and moat making skills.

The 48-year-old Skanda comes from a family of carpenters and dhow builders in Lamu. Now, he wants to be known for much more than building dhows and ornate doors.

“Things have changed. The only foreign object on the beach I worried about as a child was sea weed. Now, we have tonnes of plastic washing up every day. They are chocking the ocean,” he says.

From this came an idea that Skanda and a group of friends hope will challenge people to stop discarding their plastics into the ocean with little care.

“We are building a ship entirely from used plastic and will sail it from Lamu to Cape Town,” he says smiling, then breaks out in a laugh.

His greying goatee bobbing up and down as if questioning its owner’s sanity, Skanda narrates the aims and reasons why he became part of what is now known as the Flipflopi expedition.

Lamu to Cape Town

The expedition will use plastic waste and flip-flops collected from beaches and towns on the Kenyan coast to build a 60-foot traditional Swahili sailing boat.

This boat will in December sail from Lamu to Cape Town, 5,250 kilometres away.

The boat will be a world’s first -- from the unique building techniques to the pioneering expedition, which will see the boat travel further south than any other previous dhow expedition into the treacherous Southern Ocean and Cape Horn.

The boat is being built in Lamu, the home of traditional Swahili dhow building, overseen by Skanda and his team of expert craftsmen. Skanda’s father carved the doors entering the Kenyan houses of Parliament.

The project is led by a collaboration between Skanda and plastic recycling expert Sam Ngaruiya of Regeneration Africa based in Malindi.

Over the course of the past year, the team have worked tirelessly to explore different techniques and combinations of recycled plastics to achieve the correct strength and properties of the final pieces, which can be viewed in Lamu.

The Flipflopi Dhow and Expedition’s aims are to promote “Reduce, Re-use and Re-cycle” to kick start a #Plasticrevolution.

Project founder and travel industry entrepreneur Ben Morison started the Flipflopi Project after coming face to face with the shocking quantity of plastic and flip-flops on so many of East Africa’s beaches. 

To trigger long term change, Morison realised that the message would need to reach consumers, not just legislators and activists. And he saw the opportunity to do this by building the flagship Flipflopi Dhow - an innovative and visually exciting expression of Kenyan expertise.

From these first plastic moulded elements, the boat build will take approximately 14 months. The expedition will then sail from Lamu to Cape Town with an anticipated arrival date into Cape Town in February 2019.

Worthy cause

Now, instead of planing wood, Skanda and his helpers are gluing together pieces of plastic. All for a worthy cause. Skanda’s boat will make history as the first built entirely of recycled ocean plastic. And neither he nor the world can wait to make this statement.

Plastic pollution is a growing global problem, with patches of sea larger than some countries covered in plastic soup that strangles or poisons wildlife. By 2050, the UN says, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish unless drastic action is taken.

In August 2017, Kenya introduced one of the world’s toughest bans on plastic bags, mandating four years in prison or a fine of Sh5 million for even using one. Kenya is now looking into measures of controlling plastic bottles.

Lamu peoplebig citiesAli Skandalamu boat buildercolourful dhow