Walking into the shop at Marula Studios, the colourful beaded curtains welcome you into the showroom. As you brush past the curtain, the texture and noiseless nature of the beads as they graze against your skin and each other, makes you realise that they are made of rubber.
“The beads are made from flip flops,” explains Rosy Walsh, Marketing Consultant for the Flip Flop Recycling Company.
Once inside the showroom, a vast display of jewellery, toys, trinket and masterpieces serves as the centrepieces. Each item bears the logo, a small flip flop, to indicate that they are a product of the company.
The pieces are all made from flip flops popularly referred to as ‘slippers’. Flip-flops are present in almost every household in Kenya. But once they are worn out, they are discarded without as much as a second thought on what happens to them when they are thrown away.
A brainchild of Julie Church and her business partner Tehreni Bwana Ali, the FFRC has been recycling an average of 100,000 kilogrammes, and aims to recycle up to 400,000 kgs of flip-flops in the next 16 months.
It was while working in Kiwayu Island just off the coast of Mombasa that marine biologist, Julie, noticed that the beaches were filled with rubbish especially old flip-flops and bottles. While trying to clean up the mess, she came across children making toys from chunks of flip flops collected from the beach.
The sight gave rise to the idea of setting up a workshop where the women in the village would recycle the flip flops to create toys and mobiles for the children. With over 100 employees across the country, 40 of whom work at the Marula Studios, the initiative, which began as a clean-up venture, soon turned into a fully-fledged company.
Marula Studios is part of UniqEco, a company formed by Julie and Tehreni who was a development worker before teaming up with Julie.
At the studio, the process of recycling begins with the cleaning and disinfecting of the flip flops, “some of them come from the slums where they are thrown into waterways and washed up river,” explains Rosy. After cleaning and drying, they are then sorted according to colour and stored as they await use.
As we tour the workshop, there are several groups at work, each at different stages of production. In one room, a group of women and a few men are hard at work cutting beads into different sizes, making jewellery, place mats, coasters and note book covers. For the jewellery, a blend of beads and flip-flops is used to create a finished product.
Across the boardwalk of the timber structure is another room housing more artisans deep in concentration. This group is working on making different animals. The blue, red and green coloured elephant sculpture is taking shape slowly. After two days of trimming and buffing, it will be ready for sale.
For a stranger, the finished sculpture looks like the works of a painter with a unique taste for colours, almost mismatched. Yet the mould is made of flip-flops. The artisans at the studio cut, curve and buff the rubber to create works of art. “Buffing is to smooth the material out,” explains Rosy.
The FFRC has done pieces that have been displayed at parks and even outside the country. Mfalme the whale, commissioned by FFRC was created by Kioko Mutuki, and is displayed at the Bamburi Nature Trail in Mombasa. Twiga, a 30-foot giraffe was shipped to Rome and displayed during the fashion week in 200 during the ethical fashion week.
In 2010, the Swedish cultural museum commissioned the Flip Flop palm tree at an exhibition highlighting Kenya’s innovative use of recycled material.
The latest exhibition for the group was at the 2012 ethical fashion week in Paris where jewellery and other Flip flop designs were showcased as plans to attend this year’s Museum Stores Association Conference and Expo in Los Angeles are underway.