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Ocean Sole - Flip Flop Art

A life-size sculpture of a lion – made entirely of recycled plastic – went on show on the 15th of March at the Kenya Wildlife Service Headquarters in Nairobi. The striking green lion is to draw attention to the dramatic decrease in lion populations while also highlighting the problem of plastic in our oceans. Its display signifies the start of the 12-month Greening Simba Campaign, a collaboration between Kenya Commercial Bank, the Irish Embassy, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Ocean Sole. Such stunning pieces of lion wall art will for the next year be available for 500USD, of which 25% goes to lion conservation programmes in Kenya.

Ocean Sole, the movers and shakers of the scheme, have been working towards just such a scheme for over a decade. It all started when Julie Church picked up a discarded flipflop on Kiwayu Island, north of Lamu. Strolling along the beach, Julie watched the local children creating toys from these colourful pieces of plastic, and realised that not only were these shoes an environmental disaster, but that something could be done about it. When Julie encouraged the kids' mothers to collect, wash and carve the flip-flops, she took the first step along the path to the social enterprise that has become Ocean Sole.

They started small. Some rubbish collectors in Kiwayu and a few artisans in a workshop in Nairobi made up the team. Together, they raised awareness of ocean plastic pollution

and started their first line in fun and functional items. Colourful animal sculptures, doorstops, boxes and jewellery were amongst their first products. Believing in trade not aid, they encouraged locals to organise beach cleans for cash and artists to create their own designs. In 2000 they received their first commercial order of 15,000 turtles from the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland; by 2013 their products were selling in London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, New York, Singapore and Sydney. This was the year they rebranded as Ocean Sole and launched the social enterprise. 'People often ask if we will run out of our flip-flop material', says Erin Smith, Chief Sole Mate. “But the problem is that over three billion people in some of the most under-served communities in the world wear flip-flops, and those flip-flops end up in urban dumps and then in our oceans. We're on a mission to let the world know about this looming environmental problem and are scaling our business to employ more people and sell more products so people can demonstrate their commitment to saving our oceans.”Under new management, Ocean Sole has seen tremendous growth in the last two years, both in the products and in the enterprise. They now have 90 Sole Mate Partners who they work with in their conservation, recycling and entrepreneurship projects, including names as big as BNP Bank, UNEP, UNESCO, UNDP and UNIC.

This is an organisation that believes in putting its money where its mouth is. In addition to paying all employees a decent wage, the enterprise gives its staff a hot lunch daily

and offers them a welfare programme they can pay into to put their children through school and university – in which Ocean Sole matches their contribution 100%. They also pafor all the collected plastic brought to their doors whether it's a wheelbarrow containing 5kg or a truck with 100kg, and have established a payment plan for suppliers so they receive a steady income.

Ocean Sole now focuses more on creating huge masterpieces. These designer sculptures can now be seen in corporate lobbies, hotels, museums, aquariums and airports around the world. Their smaller pieces, once the mainstay of the organisation, are more often sold in bulk to companies who support their ethos and give them out as gifts and promotions. And while their philosophy remains the cleaning of our oceans before they become toxic to both humans and marine life, they have come to realise that simply collecting flip-flops from the beaches isn't enough: all the waste on our land and in our waterways will end up

in the sea, so they encourage their suppliers to collect flipflops and other plastic debris from everywhere,trying to stem the problem before the plastic reaches the ocean.

And they're not stopping here. In 2018, they'll open an artisan centre in Kilifi with multiple artists collaborating on more innovative designs and artwork. The new line, shortly to be launched, comprises functional products: a table, chair, lamp, bed and sun lounger. They're also moving into eco-friendly affordable housing. Working with a team in the industrial area of Nairobi, they're compressing flip-flops and other waste into 4ft x 8ft boards that could become a replacement for medium-density fibreboard and chipboard. Fireproof, sturdy and affordable, this new building material just might give wood a run for its money and give our beleaguered forests time to regenerate.

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