Inspiring environmental policy change in Kenya : An interview with the FlipFlopi Project

The FlipFlopi Project began in 2016 when Kenyan tour operators Ben Morrison and Dipesh Pabari, along with boat craftsman Ali Skanda, built a Dhow using 9 tonnes of plastic waste collected from local beaches. The purpose of this invention was to raise awareness about the detriments of single use plastic (SUP) waste on the marine ecosystem and the wellbeing of civilians in coastal Kenya. In 2019, the project launched a 14 day expedition, with the support of UNEP’s Clean Sea’s Initiative, in which the Dhow sailed across the East African coast and hosted various events in local communities in Kenya and Tanzania to raise awareness of SUP’s. As a result, the project became a platform for environmental activism and triggered Africa’s “blue planet moment”  , catalyzing policy discourse on the circular economy movement across Africa. Currently, the project runs a few innovation hubs and circular economy start-ups, and engages with international policy platforms (most notably UNEP) to advocate for progressive environmental policy in East Africa. 

The implementation of Environmental Policy in Kenya began in August 2017, when a ban on the usage, manufacturing and importation of plastic polythene bags was enforced. The results of this ban were mixed; as the Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimates  80% success in policy enforcement, however, a rise of illegal importation activities from neighboring countries ensued. To further the policy agenda, the government engaged in a framework of cooperation between parties in the private and public sector to introduce recycling, upcycling and collection of polythene terephthalate (PET) bottles. As a result, Kenya recycles approximately 2000 tonnes of PET annually, and there has been further engagement by the private sector in promoting proper PET waste management systems. A ban on PET bottles was implemented in conservation areas in late 2017, and by 2019, a policy directive to implement a ban of all SUP items was issued. The ban was legislated in June 2020. 

Shyam Radia from the FlipFlopi project provides some insight on the role that the project has played in creating discourse on climate change awareness and environmental policy in Kenya. Shyam is responsible for developing governance projects and partnerships for the project, and currently works as a lawyer at an Africa-focused impact investment fund based in London.

In what ways did  the project stimulate a new era of  discourse on climate change policy in Kenya? 

Shyam Radia (SR): When the project began in 2016, the government was already pioneering a policy agenda towards banning SUP’s, however our role was simply to contribute to the discourse and push for change on a local level. Our project presented a solution to SUP waste through promoting a circular economy – the idea that we can give a new life to plastic. We don’t believe in criminalizing all plastic – in fact we believe that plastic must be reused and remodeled for different purposes, and the first step in achieving a consensus on the detriments of SUP’s is to provoke this way of thinking.

 Our Dhow itself was captivating and sparked a fair amount of discussion on this topic, and we believe it was controversial in the sense that it made people reevaluate their views on what waste is and how it can be repurposed. The expedition extended our involvement in climate activism and took it to a deeper level, as  people working in the private sector, educational institutions and politics all contributed to our discussion and this resulted in tangible changes in local areas! 

The ban on SUP’s is expected to provoke behavioral change on a firm and community level – how does the project itself contribute to the shift towards a circular economy? 

SR: The creation of the Dhow itself is a representation of how entrepreneurship, innovation and adaptation to environmental policy can stimulate a circular economy – which is something that local industries will need to endorse in light of the current SUP ban. 

Currently, we manage two innovation hubs in the coastal town of Lamu and Diani beach in Mombasa, which operate as waste collection and management initiatives. The project in Lamu in particular has taken the issue of waste management into their own hands, and has created a “closed loop sustainable waste management facility from scratch”. They also actively educate the locals about the benefits of waste segregation and the detriments of littering! Such programs are essential in instilling active learning and participation, and is the only way to catalyze behavioral change in such remote areas. 

The “bottom-up” approach  to policy implementation has been debated in recent literature, and the argument upholds that actors on a local scale are likely to play a greater role on policy-makers, rather than vice versa. Do you believe your project serves as an example of this?

SR: Certainly! Our project provoked discourse on a national and global audience – we have been featured on many international news outlets and our Dhow has hosted President Uhuru Kenyatta, where he had a chance to discuss our vision for a more sustainable future in Kenya. Our project also grabbed  the attention of notable political figure Judy Wakhungu – formal Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources – who is part of our advisory board and actively promotes our project. 

The media attention (as well as the discourse that followed suit) influenced attitudes towards policy change and provided a platform for climate activism to take its place in Kenyan politics. We also believe that change comes from within – the people of Kenya live off the land and therefore suffer from the consequences of SUP waste daily. The policy changes leading up to the 2020 SUP ban were catalyzed not only by grassroots projects, but also by the willingness of Kenyan people to respond positively to our message and campaign for change. 

Do you believe that  this policy approach is most effective when tackling such crucial issues? 

SR: I would say so – the recent environmental policy changes serve as a great example of the effectiveness of this approach. Another popular example for reference is that of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill 2013, which re-addressed concerns regarding sustainable management and the protection of wildlife resources in protected areas. The Bill was driven by civil society groups and ensures public participation in the implementation of management policies, thus recognizing and involving the communities which depend on such resources for their livelihoods. The effectiveness of this approach, as well as the successful responses and results that ensue, speaks volumes of the importance of the people’s will, as well as the advantages of public participation in the policymaking process.   

By Amirah Karmali 

Amirah Karmali is a third year BA Political Economy student at King’s College London and currently works part-time as a Research Intern for the FlipFlopi Project.  

References : 

Klugt, van der Melissa. 2018. “Kenyans building dhows from recycled plastic hope to turn tide against pollution.” The Sunday Times . 07 09. Accessed 10 11, 2020.

National Council of Law Reporting Kenya. 2012. “Wildlife Conservation and Management Act .” Kenya Law . Accessed 10 11, 2020.

Republic of Kenya – Ministry of Environment and Forestry . 2020. “IMPLEMENTATION PLAN FOR THE BAN OF SINGLE USE PLASTICS IN PROTECTED AREAS.” Ministry of Environment and Forestry . 02. Accessed 10 11, 2020.

Sabatier, Paul A. 1986. “Top-down and Bottom-up Approaches to Implementation Research: A Critical Analysis and Suggested Synthesis.” Journal of Public Policy 28.

The Flip Flopi Project. 2019. The Flip Flopi Expedition. Accessed 10 11, 2020.

World Wide Fund for Nature. 2014. Kenya finally gets a new wildlife law . 02 17. Accessed 10 11, 2020.

Image : The FlipFlopi Project, 2 Dhows Side by Side 

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