NAIROBI, Kenya — The colorful handmade giraffes, elephants, and warthogs made in a Nairobi workshop were once only dirty pieces of rubber cruising the Indian Ocean’s currents.
Kenya’s Ocean Sole sandal recycling company is cleaning the East African country’s beaches of used, washed-up flip-flops and other sandals.
About 45 workers in Nairobi make 100 products from the discarded sandals. In 2008, the firm shipped an 18-foot giraffe to Rome for display during a fashion week.
Founder Julie Church says the goal is to create products that people want to buy, then make them interested in the back-story.
Workers wash the flip-flops, many of which show signs of multiple repairs. Artisans then glue together the various colors, carve the products, sand, and rewash them.
Ms. Church first noticed Kenyan children turning flip-flops into toy boats about 1999, when she worked as a marine scientist for WWF — World Wildlife fund — and the Kenya Wildlife Service on Kenya’s coast near the border with Somalia.
Turtles hatching on the beach had to fight their way through the debris on beaches to get to the ocean, Ms. Church said, and a plan to clean up the debris and create artistic and useful items gained momentum.
Her eco-friendly project took off when WWF ordered 15,000 key rings.
The company turns over about $150,000 a year, she said, booking a small loss last year. But investment money is flowing in, and the firm is in the midst of rebranding itself from the FlipFlop Recycling Company to Ocean Sole.
The company aims to sell 70 percent of its products outside Kenya. It has distributors in the United States, Europe, and inquiries from Japan.
Its biggest purchasers are zoos and aquariums.
Employee Dan Wambui said he enjoys the visitors to the Nairobi workshop.
“They come from far ... when they see what we are doing we see them really happy and they are appreciating. We feel internationally recognized and we feel happy about it,” Mr. Wambui said.