Flipping The Flop

Ocean Sole Africa helps Kenyan artists create sculptures from their beaches’ biggest menace — flip-flops

Given our Northeast Florida location, it is safe to bet that many of those reading this can look down at their feet right this minute and see … flip-flops. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous footwear of coastal locales is causing huge problems on the beaches of many locations east of us. Not our flip-flops, per se, but those that are produced by the millions in gigantic factories overseas and become the only shoes of masses of African and Asian people. Beachfront cities along the Indian Ocean in particular are vulnerable to a massive amount of debris that clutters their beaches daily, consisting of cheaply made, non-biodegradable rubber flip-flops that are swept off of beaches and boats and brought ashore elsewhere by way of tidal forces and monsoons. It is likely something we here do not yet know much about, but it is an ecological and social issue on a global scale that is the impetus behind an art and social enterprise led by once-Atlantic Beach resident Erin Smith and now based in Ponte Vedra — Ocean Sole Africa. 

Before diving into the business of Ocean Sole Africa and its full impact, one should view the works of art at its heart. These astonishing creations, from life-size elephants, rhinos, and manatees, to wall-mounted moose and lion heads, to ten-inch fish and giraffes, are made entirely of flip-flops debris that has been collected from Kenyan beaches. The pieces are carved by the hands of Kenyan artisans from blocks of flip-flops glued together as a mass and then approached similarly to traditional sculptural materials like wood and stone. “We want people to first view them as art; the brand is art,” says Smith, who, as a shareholder, board director and leader of the troops, has the official title of chief sole mate.

The artistic feat itself becomes even more impressive when one learns that these Kenyan artisans have never seen the majority of the objects they are sculpting, and becomes still more powerful when seen as the creative result of a process with ripples of positive effects. These impacts stack up [pardon the pun] at each stage of the art’s creation. First, Smith shares that children in Kenya were already collecting flip-flops and making little toys from them when Ocean Sole’s founder, Julie Church, launched the brand. So, this brand is the evolution of something that was organically occurring in response to a constant pollution problem. And, of course, more hands and better organization of the efforts aids in the overall beach clean-up greatly. Ocean Sole’s marine conservation work not only cleans up beaches, but helps sustain sea turtles, reefs and mangroves.

Many of the Kenyan residents who are now working as Ocean Sole artists were already working as sculptors but carving marketable pieces from wood. Thus, using ocean debris as a medium is saving trees, six to seven hundred a year, and expanding jobs. More Kenyans are employed through Ocean Sole’s model because there is now a need for people to collect, clean, and prepare a bulk amount of flip-flops for carving, as well as a need for more artists. These artists are empowered to have complete creative freedom in interpreting the subjects they are given (in response to customer orders), and all employees have the benefit of pursuing education for themselves and paying for their children’s schooling through the company. “We do a lot on the social impact side so that the artists can be creative,” says Smith. “Our profits are all reinvested into our social enterprise or our foundation, so we have opportunities to have guest artists, training, workshops, or provide travel to our flip flop artists to learn more and imagine the art of the possible.”

That is the tagline of Ocean Sole – “the art of the possible” – because the artists approach their medium with the willingness to carve virtually anything. Plus, making art out of trash certainly invites a spirit of whimsical possibility. “Literally, we can make anything from flip flops and styrofoam,” says Smith. “Thus, we like to partner and collaborate with individuals and enterprises to dream big and make something that will make a statement for them.” But the deeper layer of this tagline lies in the brand’s work toward leaving conditions in places like Kenya holistically better than before. 

The final step in the creative process is the purchase of the art piece, which, when on display, not only stands with magnetic aesthetic beauty, but stands for championing ecological and social responsibility through its very unique story. “It’s a whimsical advocacy statement,” says Smith. “People purchase our bigger art as a statement to their commitment to conservation, but our art is fun, eye-catching, modern and unique, and brings a smile to your face – just come to the showroom and not smile, I dare you!”

The Ocean Sole showroom has been located in Ponte Vedra Beach since October, 2019, after being based solely in Kenya. Increased shipping demands and Smith’s desire to launch Ocean Sole’s foundation in a like-minded area led to her return to Northeast Florida. A serial CEO whose work has taken her worldwide, Smith visited Kenya in 2016 and saw the early version of Ocean Sole as something she could invest passionately in. “What sparked my interest in bringing awareness to this is that this problem is getting bigger,” she says. “There’s no way to recycle flip flops so we can up-cycle them until there’s a solution.” She met her husband, Erik van Vliet, now Ocean Sole co-owner and director, there in Kenya, and they re-envisioned the brand using a business model that is based on the social impact enterprise principals, or “trade not aid,” as Smith calls it. “Our profits go to enhancing the livelihood of our employees and increasing our conservation impact.”      

Read MoreBy Meredith T. Matthews

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