UniquEco: The Flip Flop Project
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The UniquEco brand emerged in 2005 as Kenyans Julie Church and Tahreni Bwaanali sought to extend the success of a social and environmental initiative known as The FlipFlop Project. The seeds of The FlipFlop Project were planted in 1997 when woman and young people on the islands of the Lamu Archipelago off the northeast coast of Kenya began collecting the flip flops washing up onto Lamu's beaches and turning them into toys, buoys and cushion stuffing.
The Lamu Archipelago includes four beautiful islands lying at the confluence of two major ocean currents. The northernmost island of Kiwayu is part of the 250 square kilometer Kiunga Marine National Reserve, where protected mangrove stands, seagrass beds and coral reefs support a variety of marine wildlife, including three species of sea turtle that nest on Kiwayu's beaches. The ancient civilization of Lamu is Kenya's oldest inhabited city, and its stone buildings, carved wooden doors, donkey carts and friendly, colorfully dressed Swahili locals offer tourists a relaxed vacation alternative to Zanzibar.
In all this apparent paradise, problems still exist. The confluence of ocean currents at the tip of the Lamu Archipelago drags thousands of flip flops washed away from beaches around the world onto the sea turtle nesting grounds. With driftwood and flip flops littering the beaches, female sea turtles struggle to reach nesting sites and hatchlings, already threatened by a variety of predators that lie between the nest site and the water's edge, often fail to reach the safety of the ocean when faced with piles of debris.
As marine wildlife struggle with the encroachment of human waste, local residents of Lamu face problems of their own. With 95% of the population dependent on the proceeds of tourism, local income dwindles as unsightly beaches and political unrest in East Africa drive away tourists.
The FlipFlop Project and UniquEco present a sustainable solution to all three problems. Through the venue of recycled flip flop crafts, the project creates fair trade jobs for locals while facilitating the clean-up of the beaches vital to sea turtle breeding and local tourism. As the commercial arm of the project, UniquEco's mission is, "to work with craftsmen and women from disadvantaged areas to produce and market products made from recycled rubbers, plastics and metals thus improving their well-being, while ensuring that the biological, social and cultural richness of the local people and environment is maintained or bettered”.
UniquEco pays Lamu women and teenagers a fair living wage to collect flip flops from the beach. The flip flops are then delivered to Nairobi, where UniquEco's 20 full time employees convert the flip flops into sculptures, jewelry, key rings and other small gifts to sell in local tourist markets and to export around the world. In 2008, UniquEco recycled over 30,000 flip flops and brought a much-needed income to more than 100 women in the Lamu area. The company has used its growth to extend projects into Kibera, a Nairobi slum, and into the Samburu populations of northern Kenya.
UniquEco continues to artfully build global awareness of conservation efforts through media exposure and dramatic commissioned art pieces. Twiga, a 15-foot tall flip flop giraffe sculpture, joined five 10-foot patchwork panels created from beach debris at Rome's Fashion Week, sponsored by Lancia, L'Oreal and and Alta Roma, as part of the International Trade Center's Africa Inspires project. The panels are potentially scheduled to be displayed in the U.N. Assembly in Washington D.C.
In cooperation with NEPAD Coastal and Marine Secretariat and the World Society on Protection of Animals, UniquEco commissioned Kenyan scrap metal sculpture Kioko Mutiki to create a full size Minke whale named Mfalme from flip flops and wire mesh. Displayed at Haller Park in Mombasa, Mfalme is visited by more than 1000 Kenyan children a week, bringing the enormity of the need for marine conservation and protection into scale for young eyes. The company expresses hopes that in the near future, Mfalme will take a journey around the world to bring global attention to whaling reform and marine habitat preservation.
UniquEco was a 2008 finalist in the BBC World Challenge competition, which engages the public to choose the recipient of a cash grant awarding innovation and enterprise at the grassroots level.
UniquEco continues to develop as a socially-responsible enterpreneurship committed to making a positive physical impact on the health of Kenya's people, wildlife and ecosystems. The company aspires to having a million people owning their own little part of the UniquEco story.
UniquEco founder Julie Johnstone Church was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and is one of the world's experts on coral fish. She has dedicated her career to the ocean and its issues over the past 15 years.
Founder Tahreni Bwanaali was born and raised in a village on the coast of Kenya. She is a role model to the people of the Lamu area, having travelled, studied and worked around the world.