The Flipflopi, a dhow made from recycled plastic, has set sail on its second voyage, taking to riverine communities in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya to highlight the importance of reversing the damage of plastic pollution to communities that depend on Lake Victoria.
Embarking from Kisumu, Kenya on 7 March, the Flipflopi crew [see video below] will spend three weeks on the water, engaging with communities, activists and local entrepreneurs, and highlighting the challenge of microplastics and their impact on fish stocks and water quality.
Covering more than 68,8000 square kilometres, Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world and the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. Population growth around the lake has skyrocketed, but few additional sources of revenue have been discovered onshore for the estimated 53 million people in the basin area.
Lake Victoria has long struggled with declining fish stocks, attributable to overfishing as well as the emergence of invasive plant species, such as the water hyacinth, as well as the impacts of climate change.
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But increasingly, its pollution and the preponderance of microplastics are choking the lake and shutting off this economic engine for the three countries. A recent study in the presence of microplastics in the African Great Lakes estimated that one in five of the fish in Lake Victoria had ingested plastic.
“Plastic pollution in Lake Victoria adds another burden to the lake ecosystem, which is already stressed,” said Robert Egessa, a scientist attached to the Flipflopi team. “The interactions between plastics and organic and inorganic pollutants will be felt along the fish value chain, if a timely solution is not provided.”
Recovery plan to fight plastics pollution
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is supporting the voyage of the Flipflopi through its Clean Seas Campaign, which works with governments, businesses and citizens to curtail what experts call an epidemic of plastic pollution. The world produces 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, of which 8 million tonnes ends up in the ocean, poisoning fish, littering beaches and, sometimes, entering the human food chain.
The effects of COVID-19 on Lake Victoria communities have been profound. The emergent tourism industry was all but suspended due to lockdowns in Uganda and Kenya and cross-border trade was interrupted due to concerns about the spread of the virus.
Reinvigorating these communities is one of the main drivers of the Flipflopi voyage, which comes shortly after UNEP concluded its 5th UN Environment Assembly, the world’s highest decision-making body for the environment.
Flipflopi expedition cofounder Dipesh Pabari says they are witnessing a desire by policymakers and country leaders to effect change. “We built Flipflopi to show alternate uses of waste plastic and to inspire innovation. Now we see she can be used to convene the key stakeholders who actually hold the keys to changing policy around single-use plastic. We hope the county governors will help build the movement around the lakeside counties of Lake Victoria.”
Over the three-week sail around Lake Victoria, with stops planned in Kenya and Uganda before arriving in Tanzania, the Flipflopi crew will join boat races, participate in beach clean-up activities and work closely with local fishing villages to understand the problems associated with plastic pollution.
In addition, scientists, including Egessa, intend to collect data and water samples to understand the extent of the plastic pollution problem in the lake.
Creating a circular economy
“It is important to comprehend Lake Victoria as a whole to fight against its pollution,” said Victor Beguerie, Flipflopi research team member responsible for monitoring and evaluation.
Beguerie added: “It makes no sense to impose local bans in Kenya on plastic bags, or straws in Tanzania, or earbuds in Uganda, because waste has no boundaries. For Lake Victoria to continue providing healthy food and employment to millions in East Africa, preservation measures need to be taken at a regional level.”
The Flipflopi put in for its first voyage in 2018, setting off from bucolic Lamu island in Kenya and sailing over 500km to Zanzibar, Tanzania. Using traditional dhow building techniques and with the participation of traditional dhow builders, the boat is a manifestation of the possibilities inherent in the circular economy and the use of recycled plastic, say crew.
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In the years since that first voyage, Flipflopi, which is made in part from old flip flops, has spurred circular economy innovation in the fishing and tourist communities in Lamu. The Kwale Plastics Plus Collectors is a locally run initiative to clean up land, rivers, beaches and the Indian Ocean by upgrading waste management and segregating waste as a source of revenue. Another local initiative in Lamu is run by the Takataka Foundation to create a closed-loop sustainable waste management facility.
“Seventeen years ago, in 2004, Darwin’s Nightmare, an Austro-Franco-Belgian documentary, drew attention to the disaster of the ecosystem of Lake Victoria,” said Cyrille-Lazare Siewe, UNEP Kenya country programme coordinator.
“Today a new page is being written, built on innovation and circularity, to protect the ecosystem of the lake and make it a breeding ground for the sustainable environment and the preservation of biodiversity.”