How artist is turning ocean waste into handsome income

Mr Juma Kilonzi holding a sculpture of crocodile he creates from used sandals and slippers at the Watamu
Mr Juma Kilonzi holding a sculpture of crocodile he creates from used sandals and slippers at the Watamu Eco-world in Kilifi county. PHOTO | SAMUEL BAYA | NMG 

When sandals get worn out, the natural thing to do is throw them away. But for a group of youth in Watamu, Kilifi County, the old sandals are the raw material for their source of livelihood. The youth work under the Eco-world Watamu recycling centre, a community-based initiative formed in 2010 to recycle waste products collected along the Indian Ocean.

Juma Kilonzi, a former beach operator on the shores of Watamu beaches, is one of the youth turning wastes into valuable ornaments and in the process making a good income.

The Enterprise had barely sat for an interview with the centre’s project coordinator, Julie Myra, when Mr Kilonzi suddenly appeared with his artworks that included a well-decorated and colourful crocodile sculpture made from plastic wastes.

Ms Myra says the project is transforming the livelihoods of the youth as well the face of the beaches in Watamu that initial choked with wastes.

For over ten years now, Mr Kilonzi has mastered the art of marking these sculptures depicting mostly animals using the wastes he usually collects during beach clean-up exercises.


“I started this work 12 years ago, when I was operating as a tour guide along the beach in Watamu. I would then see among the wastes flowing into the ocean, some used sandals and other plastic products,” he says.

“The sad thing I discovered is that these plastic wastes were choking the marine animals and at one time, three turtles were strangled by the wastes.”

The sight of the lifeless turtles drove him to look into ways of making sure the waste is cleared from the ocean, recycled and put into good use.

“My first thought was that instead of these wastes strangling and killing the marine ecosystem, why would I not use it to generate income? From that day, I began collecting used sandals and slippers and started moulding these sculptures,” says Mr Kilonzi.

When he started, he first collected a full sack of used sandals and other plastic wastes, stocked them at his home for six months and only started the project after he was sure that he had enough raw materials to work with.

“ Since then I have been moulding these animals like crocodiles, turtles among a host of marine wildlife. I also make sculptures of giraffes, elephants and fish from the wastes,” he adds.

Mr Kilonzi, 55, is also teaching the locals the trade and sensitising them on how the wastes they abandon at their doorsteps to be washed to the ocean can be turned into money.

“I teach the locals how they can benefit from recycling wastes instead of abandoning it and leaving it to be washed away into the ocean,” Mr Kilonzi notes.

“If more people can take up all this venture, then the wastes in the ocean will be a thing of the past,” he says.

Aside from the crocodile sculpture he was carrying Mr Kilonzi had key holders moulded into different marine wildlife species. He also makes bracelets and necklaces.

On a good day he takes home about Sh10,000.

“I sell this crocodile sculpture at Sh5,000, and the bracelets and the necklaces cost Sh400 per piece. I have been teaching women to specialise in these bracelets and the necklaces because that will bring in a tidy sum for them especially during high season when we have a lot of visitors,” he says.

“I sell my products to boutiques frequented by local and foreign tourists.” He added: “I used to sell curios at the beach but with the dwindling number of visitors, I abandoned that business to concentrate on this one,” says Mr Kilonzi.

“The proceeds from the sale of these products have kept me going and I am paying school fees for my children using income from this business.”

Like many enterprises, Mr Kalonzo’s has had a number of challenges.

“The biggest challenge is the lack of proper market for my products. I am yet to strike a deal with major curio shops in Watamu and Malindi where my products can fetch a good price,” he says.

Sometimes getting raw materials is not easy. “During the season between May and November there is a lot of wastes draining into the ocean. But after that the sea becomes clean and we lack raw materials,” he says.

Ms Myra says that Kilonzi is among the artists the organisation works with to recycle wastes.

“He is one of the team members who have been turning wastes into income,” she says.

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), marine litter presents a huge problem in the oceans globally, warning that the quantity of plastics in the oceans will outweigh fish by 2050.

“Marine litter originates from many sources and causes a wide spectrum of environmental, economic, safety, health and cultural impacts. For example, marine litter can cause harm to sea life if ingested or even death if a marine mammal becomes entangled in litter,” IMO says in its report.

UN Environment estimates that 15 percent of marine litter floats on the sea's surface, 15 percent remains in the water column and 70 percent rests on the seabed. In addition to the environmental and health problems posed by marine litter, the IMO further says floating garbage and plastics pose a costly and dangerous problem for shipping, as they can be a navigational hazard and become entangled in propellers and rudders.

“Another problem requiring urgent remedial action is the massive accumulation of plastics, not only in coastal areas but also in the deep sea. This litter is harmful to marine life: sea creatures can become trapped inside containers or strangled by nets or ropes, and micro plastics can also enter the food chain as they are indigestible when swallowed,” added the report by IMO.