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Drowning in waste: Kenya is battling the scourge of plastic pollution3 min read

A plastic dhow is sailing the Kenya coast to highlight its waste crisis

Kathleen Ndongmo

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The dhow made by recycled plastic floats during its official voyage launch at Lamu Island - AFP

A traditional dhow sailing boat made entirely of trash and flip-flops has set off on an expedition along the Kenyan coast to raise awareness about the harmful effects of plastic waste.

Dhows, with their billowing triangular sails, are an icon on the Kenyan coast, having traversed these Indian Ocean waters for some 2,000 years.

On Sunday, the one-of-a-kind dhow, dubbed the Flipflopi, set off from the coastal town of Watamu for the fourth leg of a 500-kilometre expedition that began on Lamu island on Thursday and is set to finish in Zanzibar on February 6.

The boat is made of 10 tonnes of shredded plastic waste, moulded and compacted to form the hull, keel and ribs with only the mast made out of wood. It is covered in a brightly-coloured patchwork of 30,000 flip-flops, which like the rest of the raw material was collected from Kenyan beaches and towns.

Dipesh Pabari, a Kenyan tour operator and environmentalist who led the project, said the boat was merely a vessel to carry a message about recycling plastic, and how harmful it is, to coastal communities.

“It was never about just building boats, it was a symbol about giving plastic a second life. It is about saying if this material is so amazing that you can make a seaworthy boat, it is really stupid to think about it as single use.”

Like much of the world, where plastic bottles, caps, food wrappers, bags, straws and lids are made to be used once and then tossed away, Kenya is battling the scourge of plastic pollution, which chokes turtles, cattle, and birds and blights the landscape.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced globally since the early 1950s, about 60 percent of which ended up in a landfill, or the natural environment.

To accompany the arrival of the Flipflopi, residents and schoolchildren from Watamu village took to the streets with large bags to pick up waste, while several local associations work hard to keep the idyllic white beaches clean. 

With over 12 million people in Africa working in fisheries, and many more relying on fish for their diet, marine debris is a severe threat on the continent.

James Wakibia, who is credited with starting the grassroots movement that saw Kenya ban plastic bags in 2017, was also in Watamu to support the Flipflopi, which he sees as part of the next step in educating people about the menace of plastic.

“Before there was plastic everywhere… it was like a Kenyan flower… right now you can see plastic bottles, but not plastic bags,” he says.

The nine-metre Flipflopi was built by hand by traditional dhow craftsmen from Lamu, with low-tech techniques which were honed over three years, but which can now be easily copied, said Pabari.

Everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, with money coming from their own pockets, crowdfunding and small donations, before UNEP got involved and funded the expedition.

Pabari hopes to next build a 20-metre plastic dhow and sail it all the way to Cape Town, South Africa.

“The Flipflopi is living proof that we can live differently. It is a reminder of the urgent need for us to rethink the way we manufacture, use and manage single-use plastic,” Joyce Msuya, UN Environment’s Acting Executive Director, said in a press statement.

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Drogba begins ‘million trees’ deforestation project in Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast plans to reforest eight million hectares (20 million acres) by 2045.

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Drogba begins 'million trees' deforestation project in Ivory Coast

Ivorian football legend Didier Drogba helped launch a drive on Friday, to plant a million trees to halt deforestation in Ivory Coast.

The “One Day, One Million Trees” campaign “is a first step, the start of the recovery,” Forestry and Water Resources Minister Alain Richard Donwahi said in Abidjan, the country’s main city.

“Our goal is to recover at least 30 per cent (of lost forest cover) by 2030,” he said.

Most of Ivory Coast’s 20,000 square kilometres (7,700 square miles) of forests are considered badly degraded.

Drogba said the “numbers are alarming,” referring to projections that the tropical West African nation would lose all its forest cover in half a century if corrective steps were not taken.

“I am proud to contribute to Ivory Coast’s reforestation through helping awareness,” the former Chelsea star said, describing the tree planting as a “noble initiative.”

Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer and a major coffee exporter, plans to reforest eight million hectares (20 million acres) by 2045.

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Former Spanish garrison becomes tourist magnet

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Former Spanish garrison becomes tourist magnet
Kite-surfers manuever their kites at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

In the heart of Western Sahara, a former garrison town has become an unlikely tourist magnet after kitesurfers discovered the windswept desert coast was perfect for their sport.

In Dakhla, an Atlantic seaport town punctuated with military buildings in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, swarms of kitesurfers now sail in the lagoon daily.

“Here there is nothing other than sun, wind and waves. We turned the adversity of the elements to our advantage: that’s the very principle of kitesurfing,” said Rachid Roussafi. 

After an international career in windsurfing and kitesurfing, Roussafi founded the first tourist camp at the lagoon at the start of the 2000s. 

“At the time, a single flight a week landed in Dakhla,” the 49-year-old Moroccan said.

Today, there are 25 a week, including direct flights to Europe.

“Dakhla has become a world destination for kitesurfing,” said Mohamed Cherif, a regional politician.

Tourist numbers have jumped from 25,000 in 2010 to 100,000 today, he said, adding they hoped to reach 200,000 annual visitors. 

Tourists watch kitesurfers at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara
Tourists watch kitesurfers at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

The former Spanish garrison is booming today with the visitor influx adding to fishing and trade revenue.

Kitesurfing requires pricey gear — including a board, harness and kite — and the niche tourism spot attracts well-off visitors of all nationalities. 

Peyo Camillade came from France “to extend the summer season”, with a week’s holiday costing about 1,500 euros ($1,660). 

Only the names of certain sites, like PK 25 (kilometre point 25), ruined forts in the dunes and the imposing and still in-use military buildings in Dakhla, remind tourists of the region’s history of conflict.

In the 1970s, Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, and fought a war with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front from 1975 to 1991, when a ceasefire deal was agreed.

A United Nations mission was deployed to monitor the truce and prepare a referendum on Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco, but it never materialized.

Without waiting for the political compromise that the UN has been negotiating for decades, hotels have sprouted from the sand along the coast, and rows of streetlights on vacant lots announce future subdivisions. 

‘Good communication’ –

“The secret to success is to develop kitesurfing with good communication focused on the organisation of non-political events,” said Driss Senoussi, head of the Dakhla Attitude hotel group. 

Accordingly, the exploits of kitesurfing champions like Brazilian Mikaili Sol and the Cape Verdian Airton Cozzolino were widely shared online during the World Kiteboarding Championships in Dakhla last month.

The competition seemed to hold little interest for Dakhla’s inhabitants however.

Only a few young people with nothing to do and strolling families found themselves on the beach for the finals.

Just as rare are the foreign tourists who venture into the town of 100,000 residents to shop.

A kitesurfer manoeuvring her kite at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara.
A kitesurfer manoeuvring her kite at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Like her friends, Alexandra Paterek prefers to stay at her hotel, some 30 kilometres (19 miles) from downtown. 

“Here is the best place in the world for learning kitesurfing,” said the 31-year-old Polish stewardess. 

On her understanding of the broader regional context, she said: “It’s an old Spanish colony and they have good seafood, for sure.”

Like many tourists, she was under the impression that the area belonged to Morocco, as the destination tends to be marketed in the travel industry as “Dakhla, Morocco”.

That angers the Polisario, which wants independence for the disputed region and tried last year in vain to sue businesses it said were “accomplices to the occupying military power.”

The independence movement is now focused on challenging commercial deals between Morocco and the European Union that involve Western Sahara, according to the group’s French lawyer Gilles Devers.

Moroccan authorities are looking actively for investors for their development projects on the west coast, the most ambitious being the Dakhla Atlantique megaport with a budget of about $1 billion to promote fishing. 

Environmental concerns –

On the lagoon, surrounded by white sand and with its holiday bungalows, “there is a struggle between developing aquaculture and tourism,” said a senior regional representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

“One has less impact on the environment, but the other generates more revenue and jobs,” said the representative, adding that “pressure from real-estate investors is very high.”

With the influx of tourists, the protection of the environment has become a major concern.

“Everything is developing so quickly… we need to recycle plastic waste and resolve the issue of wastewater,” said Rachid Roussafi. 

Read: Plastic in crosshairs at UN environment forum

Daniel Bellocq, a retired French doctor, worries for the future of this lagoon, that was “once so wild” that he has kitesurfed in for 20 years.

“There is green algae that weren’t there before, it’s becoming a septic tank,” he said.

Regional councillor Cherif, though, insists the bay is clean, saying: “All the hotels are equipped with wastewater management systems.”

For him, the real threat is from plastic waste, whether it is dropped by tourists or brought by sea currents. 

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From den of vice to joggers’ haven, Karura forest thrives

Within 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations

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“We would collect dead, dumped bodies. Some were decomposing… others were fresh,” said John Chege of his early days policing Nairobi’s Karura Forest, back when thieves and murderers outnumbered joggers and dog walkers in the woods.

Karura then was the stuff of urban legend, a fearsome place invoked to scare misbehaving children. Chege and his scouts, stumbling on corpses by day, kept white-knuckled vigils by night as they scanned the darkness for intruders.

“It was hell,” Chege told reporters of his hair-raising first months as Karura’s inaugural chief scout, back in 2009 when efforts began to reclaim the forest. “But today we celebrate because there is nothing of the sort.”

In the space of 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations, a verdant refuge in a city that has long carried the unfortunate moniker “Nairobbery”.

John Chege, chief scout, speaking during an interview in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
John Chege, chief scout, speaking during an interview in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Karura is also a symbol against land-grabbing, having been saved from developers to become the world’s second-largest forest that is fully within city limits, conservationists say.

Kenya’s forests are cleared at a rate of 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres) a year, the environment ministry said in 2018. But Karura has survived, even as green spaces are being swallowed by concrete in one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities.

From zero visitors in 2009, today Karura attracts up to 30,000 nature lovers a month, with 10-year commemorative events planned in October to mark its striking transformation and storied history.

For many years, hardly anyone came, said Karanja Njoroge, who chaired Friends of Karura Forest, a community group that co-manages the reserve, from 2011 to 2018.

Bad reputation –

Shaking its reputation was a challenge, even after an electric fence was raised around the perimeter.

“Karura Forest in 2009 was a place where no one would even want to be threatened to be taken. It meant either you were going to be killed, or that you were going to be punished,” Njoroge said.

Chege and his scouts, who were trained by the British army, could not convince nervous joggers they would be safe, and so ran alongside them in khaki fatigues.

“Perhaps a visitor wanted to run 10 kilometres? My guy was to run 10 kilometres,” he said.

Slowly, visitor numbers grew as the criminals were flushed out. A clubhouse, long abandoned because patrons kept getting mugged, reopened its doors. Women felt safe enough to run on their own, Chege said.

Local communities were vital in bolstering security. 

Chege, a former illegal logger, was recruited from Huruma, a slum on Karura’s northern fringe. The community used the forest for firewood, and as a rubbish tip and open toilet.

Today, they are its custodians, planting saplings, clearing weeds and policing its borders.

Karura narrowly escaped destruction in the late 1990s when, crawling with bandits and ravaged by logging, developers gifted parcels of the forest to politically connected elites.

Read: Gabon ready to receive funds to fight deforestation

The upland forest is a developers dream: 1,000 hectares of prime land, straddled by Nairobi’s most exclusive suburbs.

Wangari Maathai, the late founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize rallied church leaders, lawyers and students to Karura’s defence.

In January 1999, armed thugs attacked Maathai as she tried to plant seedlings in an act of protest, landing her in hospital.

A notice board is photographed in Karura forest, Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
A notice board is photographed in Karura forest, Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

The violence made international headlines and outraged a public tired of corrupt elites grabbing state land.

The protesters won the day: development was halted.

Green icon –

The forest still bears the scars of this violent past. Bald tracts of forest cleared for mansions abut thriving black wattle — a tree whose growth was spurred by fires from the days protesters burned tractors in defiance, Chege said.

But its tranquillity is not assured.

Other forests, such as Oloolua in Nairobi’s south, have suffered from rampant encroachment. Even the city’s iconic national wildlife park is being sliced through with a railway whose construction began last year in defiance of a court order.

Though Chege worries more about dogs off leashes these days than dealing with dead bodies, a road being widened on Karura’s eastern border has raised concerns.

Land grabs are not a distant threat. In July, a court ruled against a private company trying to claim 4.3 hectares of Karura.

“If everybody who wants to build keeps chipping away, there will be very little left,” Njoroge said.

Karura persists as a conservation triumph. Native trees are taking back the forest from species introduced by the British to fuel their railway to Uganda, notably eucalyptus trees.

A man jogs in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Before conservation efforts began, non-native trees, many of them invasive, made up 60 per cent of the forest. Eucalyptus, in particular, inhibit the growth of other plants and monopolise the water supply with their voracious thirst.

The forest contains rivers, waterfalls and caves used by anti-colonial rebels. Joggers encounter bushbucks, hornbills and Syke’s monkeys.

Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Mathai, said her mother would be proud of what Karura has become, “and maybe even surprised at just how much people love it”.

“She had hoped her children’s children — my generation and our children — would enjoy this forest, and that’s what has come to pass,” Mathai told reporters.

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