Kenyan villagers turn waste into design

November 2008 -

While Twiga, a patchwork giraffe made of recycled toothbrushes and rubber tyres, makes her European tour hitting International Trade Center meetings and visiting the WTO headquarters, her designers back home in Kenya are busy collecting more non-biodegradable waste products and transforming them into beaded wine coolers, juggling balls and flipflop penguins.


UniquEco is a non-profit organization started in northern Kenya by two local women, Julie Church and Tahreni Bwanaali. Since 2006, one year after starting, UniquEco has collected over 75.000 tonnes of discarded flipflops that has washed along the shore in the Kiwayu Island area. Today their employees consists of 24 - 30 Nairobi-based skilled men and women and over 150 women collectors in the north coast. Monthly incomes range from Kshs 8,900 – 16,000 (or € 90 - € 163) for labor workers and Kshs 30,000 (or € 305) for managerial positions. Those living along the coast are paid per piece, which varies from € 0.15 - € 8. Before UniquEco the men with previous jobs worked as fishermen, tailors or carpenters. Many of the women were unemployed or relied on beading and general housework for survival. Church says the biggest contribution UniquEco offers its locals is the financial reward in their own homes. "It allows the women to build more durable homes for their families, using concrete rather than mud, buy vegetables for their under-nourished children and have a greater say in village life, where previously they were ignored or worse."

What differentiates UniquEco from other organizations that facilitate local employment and encourage artistic and entrepreneurial skills, is they also help change mindsets on a more global scale. "No other company is collecting and recycling beach trash for re-sale on the international markets", says Church. "The sale of the trash raises questions in the minds of consumers as to the effect of rubbish on the oceans and the options that can be followed to clean it up." There is also a major change in how the locals interact with their environment, because UniquEco employees are the beach cleaners of waste coming from all around the world. Though employees are encouraged to personally recycle, their jobs as 'collectors of waste' allows them to question littering from a consumer level. As one of the local employees says, "I never believed all this waste could be a means to a livelihood. This has really expanded my conception of Art."