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Interview with Davina Ngei, Communications Volunteer, The FlipFlopi Project

Who is Davina Ngei?

Haha…that’s a loaded question.

I’m a Kenyan and an East African, concerned with the state of my country and my region.

Over the last few years, I’ve grown an interest in pollution — the what, why, and how of it. Most of my attention has been drawn to plastic pollution in particular. I think it’s because it’s highly visible, you can’t go a day without passing by a heap of plastic waste.

To me, it’s been a massive learning curve, shifting my thought process from “we need to clean this up”, to “we need to clean this up and then stop producing it”.

You successfully sailed the world’s first ever boat made from recycled plastic across three East African Countries; Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, last year. It must have been a great experience. Tell me, what were your overall expectations and achievements at the end of the expedition?

It was definitely a great experience.

I first came across Flipflopi a couple of years ago, when I first started exploring the world of plastic pollution and the different organizations involved within this space.

While the Flipflopi sailed from Lamu to Zanzibar in 2019, highlighting the state of our oceans, the Lake Victoria expedition in 2021 meant to bring similar awareness and attention to how plastic pollution is affecting the most important freshwater body in our region — Lake Victoria. I spent one month as part of the team that led this expedition across three countries.

Meeting communities around the lake, seeing how they had self-organized and come up with different ways to tackle plastic pollution, and sharing a bit of what I know, was a remarkable experience.

I know that while change does not happen overnight, there is hope, because so many people are fighting to save the lake from pollution.

How was this expedition important to you?

Being able to take part in community events and activities was a good reminder that I’m part of a bigger movement. Being able to speak to community leaders, artists, and youth activists, reminded me that there is still so much to learn.

And sailing on this beautiful lake of ours, seeing just how much life it supports, was humbling to say the least.

Most people are not so conscious about the impact of plastic pollution in our water bodies. Given your experience having sailed through and seen the impact firsthand, how would you describe it?

During a clean up in Tanzania, I was talking to one of the volunteers who regularly takes part in clean ups around Dar es Salaam and swapping experiences on the plastic pollution problem.

He said something that stood out to me, “when the symptoms are the same, the disease is one.”

Across three countries and multiple communities, the stories were the same — health issues, reduced fish catch, decreased livelihoods, and destroyed ecosystems. The culprit, the disease, is one — pollution!

Two things in particular stand out to me — just how quickly an area gets polluted once you’ve cleaned it, and just how much pollution is lying beneath the surface.

The plastic pollution problem is more pervasive than we know. We can only make assumptions about the impact plastics have had on the lake, and in turn the people that are part of this ecosystem. But there’s much more that we don’t understand, which is a bit frightening.

Now is the time to make sure this problem doesn’t become worse than it already is.

How about in terms of creating awareness and sensitization about marine plastic pollution?

I think many people living along the lake already understand that plastic pollution is having a negative impact on the environment. Perhaps what is less understood is the extent of the damage that can be attributed to pollution.

Part of what we did during the expedition was awareness and sensitization on the known impacts of plastic pollution, but this can only go so far.

As concerned as communities are about the impact of pollution on their health and livelihoods, they are still faced with the reality of non-existent waste management systems and a lack of accessible alternatives.

The FlipFlopi recently published a sustainable plastic waste business toolkit, can you tell me about it?

Over the last few years, Flipflopi has supported and established different community-based organizations focused on tackling waste management and raising awareness on plastic pollution.

Along the way, there have been many lessons learned (often the hard way) — how to deal with licensing, how to gain community support, where to raise funding, how to work with different types of plastic etc.

This toolkit is a summary of the most important lessons. The hope is to make the path easier for other community-based organizations looking to collect, repurpose and/or recycle plastic waste in their communities.

If you haven’t read it, you can download it here.

Circular Economy Toolkit

Plastic recycling has been at the center of controversy. Producers of consumer products that rely on plastic, particularly for bottles and other packaging, stress recycling. Recycling companies, whose industry is in upheaval because of China’s ban on imported plastic waste, advocate building additional domestic facilities and urge consumers carefully follow recycling rules, environmentalists say the best solution is to stop producing so much plastic. What is your opinion on this?

We cannot recycle our way out of this plastic pollution mess, not with the technologies available, not with the cost of recycling, and not with the quality and quantity of plastics produced and discarded on a daily basis.

I do think recycling has a place in helping us get rid of existing plastic pollution, but if we are aiming for a long-term solution, we need to stop producing so much single-use plastic.

While we as consumers have a role to play in fighting plastic pollution, our actions can only go so far.

Producers have to step up because at the end of the day, plastic is not demanded, it is supplied.

Every single day so much single use plastic is being produced and most ends up in the environment, causing massive pollution. What roles should; governments, industries, consumers, take to reverse the situation?

Governments play the most important part. They can ban the importation of plastic waste from other countries. They can ban the production of unrecyclable, unnecessary, single-use plastics, just as they did with plastic bags. They can regulate the industry and hold producers responsible for the products they produce. Most importantly, they can establish functioning waste management systems, which do not rely on the exploitation of waste pickers, as our current systems do.

Industries simply need to stop. I know this statement might seem overly simplistic — there are a lot of factors (mostly monetary) to consider — but at the end of the day someone has to pay the price. It is either industries who will need to invest in the shift towards better alternatives or us as Kenyans who pay the price of living in polluted communities. I believe the onus should be on industries.

Lastly, consumers can stop littering, avoid single-use plastic where they can, recycle when possible and most importantly, hold governments and industry accountable for the mess being created.

Having been involved in the fight against plastic pollution, is there hope that this fight will someday be won?

With all the innovation, ingenuity, and fight I see every day from people around the world who can see a different, a better, future, I have no choice but to believe this fight will someday be won.


Edited by Benard Ogembo