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Homegrown Hero – Jambiani fisher Makame and his bottleboat

Homegrown Hero – Jambiani fisher Makame and his bottleboat published on No Comments on Homegrown Hero – Jambiani fisher Makame and his bottleboat
Eco hero - Jambiani fisherman Makame Ali
Eco hero – Jambiani fisherman Makame Ali

When this Zanzibar fisherman started building a boat from plastic bottles, his neighbours thought he was mad.

But now, Babu Makame is the one laughing, as the boat he built from plastic bottles lets him go fishing whatever the weather, leaving his neighbours watching wistfully from the shore whenever the sea is too rough for their traditional boats.

The fishing village of Jambiani is a picture-perfect paradise on the quiet East coast of Zanzibar. A palm-fringed, white sand beach overlooks an azure lagoon to the fringing coral reef, which teems with marine life.

The reef and lagoon provide the sole livelihood for most families, who fish in the lagoon and on the reef from traditional wooden dugout canoes.

However, when the trade winds of the western Indian Ocean blow too strongly, the waves breaking on the reef can make it too rough for the small boats to sail out of the protected lagoon to the reef itself, where the biggest and most profitable fish are found. Zanzibar’s traditional canoes are heavy to paddle, and at risk of capsizing in heavy seas.

As local fisher Makame Ali grew older, he worried he would no longer be strong enough to paddle his heavy canoe. Concerned about supporting his large family, he looked around him for a way to make a lighter boat, and came up with the idea of using plastic bottles.

Makame's first bottleboat (photo copyright Peter Bennett 2012)
Makame’s first bottleboat Copyright Peter Bennett 2012

His bemused neighbours thought he was losing his mind along with his strength. They told him it would never work, and when his first bottleboat came off its mooring in a storm and was lost, they expected him to give up. But Makame was undeterred, and simply went back to the workshop to build a better model.

While the first boat was built exclusively from plastic bottles, he has refined the design into a sophisticated sit-on-top kayak. The backbone is an old windsurf board, with plastic bottles for buoyancy, and electric conduit to make it stronger and more hydrodynamic. The blades of his paddles are carved from a plastic yellow jerrycan and lashed to a pole, and another adapted jerrycan behind the seat serves as a keep box.

bottleboat on the beach 2
Makame’s new homemade recycled fishing boat

Makame now earns his living from Bottleboat III.

Makame can paddle his homemade, recycled canoe quickly through the surf where others dare not go, for fear of their small canoes taking on water faster than they can bail it out.

The open design of Bottleboat III means water continually flows through the keep box, keeping his catch alive and healthy, so he can keep fishing all day while other boats must bring their fish back to shore. His boat is so lightweight, buoyant, and easy to paddle, that he is still proudly supporting his family, while his contemporaries have had to retire.

Not only is Bottleboat III lighter, more efficient and more resilient than traditional boats, with wood prices rising, Makame’s recycled kayak is cheaper to build.

Although many in the community are still wary of the unconventional watercraft, local Jambiani environmental ambassador Okala and his colleagues are proud.

Bottleboat III ready to go fishing

‘Some local people see he thinks differently, and think that means he’s not clever. But they don’t realise that he is cleverer than any of them. Some people are afraid of his boat and reluctant to try something new. But he doesn’t care what they think. On stormy days, he is the one outside the reef, fishing, while they are stuck on shore. We think he is very smart, and hope he can set an example of sustainability.’

Makame now plans to expand his business by building more bottleboats so that he can take tourists on snorkelling tours making it a completely emission-free boat excursion.

‘I know where to find the big octopus,’

he said.

‘I think tourists would like to come and see that – in a boat made from bottles!’

bottleboat in the ocean

Can eco-kraken robots clean our oceans?

Can eco-kraken robots clean our oceans? published on No Comments on Can eco-kraken robots clean our oceans?


When flight MH370 disappeared without trace on 8th March 2014, apparently somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean, the world’s media following the search and scrutinising the satellite images were astounded at the sheer volume of debris and detritus of our lives strewn across the ocean, that were mistaken for bits of broken plane.

For those of us involved in marine environmental issues, there was less surprise than sad resignation. This is what we’ve been trying to explain for years.

Plastic and other waste in the oceans is a huge problem that, prior to the exposure in the wake of the plane’s disappearance, had failed to attract widespread attention.

Living on an Indian Ocean island – Zanzibar – ocean plastic is impossible to ignore. Because it isn’t littering some scarcely conceivable and distant expanse of open ocean, it’s right here on the beach at our feet. It washes in from the ocean on every tide, and regrettably, still more is dumped in streets, bushes and beaches, and washes from our streets and drains into the ocean, every time it rains.

Plastic waste, even from landlocked cities, is washed into rivers and to the ocean. From tiny plastic granules in facial scrubs to whole containers that fall off ships, we’re contaminating our precious ocean with reckless abandon.

Once in the ocean, pieces of plastic become coated with other waterborne pollutants such as glues, oil and pesticides, and many are eaten by fish, birds and turtles, which may die, releasing the plastic to be eaten again, or be eaten themselves by predators (such as tuna) in whose bodies the pollutants accumulate. Over time, plastic degrades, breaks into smaller smaller particles, and releases more chemicals and aggregates more pollutants that further impact oceanic life and get into the food chain. Our food chain. solve this problem will require significant action, and an accordingly ambitious idea was conceived by 19-year-old Boyan Slat in 2012. He proposes to install what I can best describe as a benevolent eco-kraken robot in the centre of each oceanic gyre. The device would consist of an array of floating booms several kilometres long, guiding waterborne plastic debris to a central processing platform, that filters it out and consumes it. These eco-krakens ocean clean-up arrays could, he claims, clean up the ocean of plastic debris within a decade.

Will this really work? This critical article by 5 Gyres-founder Stiv Wilson says no, it won’t.

My initial reaction might have been disappointment. Setting aside simply how cool eco-kraken robots would be, to solve colossal global problems like this one requires people with the imagination to come up with big, creative and innovative ideas, and it’s a shame for them to be so roundly knocked down. It would be so nice to think we – or better still, some more elusive ‘they’ – could make the problem go away as easily as that.

However – by the time I’d finished reading the critique, I was still feeling optimistic. From the penultimate paragraph (emphasis mine):

Here’s something that will blow your mind—to clean the ocean of floating plastic, you don’t need to go out and get it, it will come to you. … upon each orbit of a gyre, the gyre will spit out about half its contents. These contents will then either enter another current or gyre or wash up on land. As this repeats, it means that eventually*, all the plastic in the ocean will be spit – out which is why you find plastic fragments on every beach in the world. Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup.

*provided we aren’t continually replacing it with new plastic, mind you!

Maybe that means no eco-kraken robots. But …we already know how to fix this. Many of us are already doing it. It’s not free, but it’s easy, and doesn’t need to cost much at all. If we keep up our collective efforts to clean beaches and stop our rubbish from ending up there in the first place, the ocean waste will eventually come back to us.

But it gets better even than that. The pioneer behind the eco-kraken robot idea didn’t let this get him down – he stood his ground and did his research. He has responded to this criticism with a 530 page feasibility report, summarised here, which amounts to a comprehensive and pretty convincing rebuttal of the objections…

… so just maybe, ccean clean-up arrays may yet be a viable tool in the arsenal to clean up our oceans – and  eco-kraken might live after all.

kraken gif

Easy urban composting solution: No garden? No problem!

Easy urban composting solution: No garden? No problem! published on 1 Comment on Easy urban composting solution: No garden? No problem!

The Zanzibar Municipal Council (Manispaa) has capacity at the moment to collect only 30% of the waste produced in Stone Town.

But 80% of the waste produced in Stone Town is organic!

All our kitchen waste and cardboard boxes could be turned into compost! Instead, it is blocking up the waste system, and the organic material is what makes waste smell when it rots in uncollected piles in abandoned corners, attracts pests which spread disease – and contaminates the groundwater, which hundreds of people drink.

There are moves afoot to establish some kind of municipal scale urban composting system with different aid agencies and local counterparts exploring the potential. It will be fantastic when it is in place, and Sustainable East Africa, our partners Manispaa Jamii Vikokotoni, and many others are hard at work to find a solution.  But this will of course take some time to establish.

However, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t start doing something about it now.

Most of you who live in town probably believe you can’t compost because you haven’t got a garden – but I can reassure you from experience that it doesn’t matter at all. As long as you have a tiny corner of outside space, then you have room to make a compost bin. I will show you how I did it.

I built a cheap and simple bin on my balcony – and it works extremely well. As long as you don’t let it get too waterlogged, and cover kitchen waste with leaves, a layer of soil, brown paper bags or brown cardboard, it won’t smell, and it won’t attract flies.

Top tip: keep a small bucket in the kitchen lined with a paper bag to collect the peelings in, and you can put it, bag and all, straight in the composter, so there’s no mess!

The great thing about composting is that as the material breaks down, its volume gets smaller and smaller, so even quite a small bin will take a seemingly infinite volume of waste. I’ve had mine for over a year and we still haven’t filled it!

Your organic waste will be separated from the rest of your rubbish – so the kitchen bin won’t smell (meaning you don’t have to empty it as often). And if you recycle the plastic and metal and glass as well then you will find you only need the tiniest bin for the rubbish that is left. Honestly – almost all of the waste you produce can – and should be – recycled or composted.

Still unsure? Here’s my compost bin which has been consuming all our organic waste for the past year. And I shared the idea with Suzanne Degeling from Kawa Tours, who tried it out successfully, and she has kindly written a step-by step guide with illustrations so you can easily follow to build one yourself.

What are you waiting for? Download a .pdf guide to building your simple composting bin here!

Rooftop composting is easy
Rooftop composting is easy


Just add kitchen and garden waste and let nature do the work
Just add kitchen and garden waste and let nature do the work
All you need is a bucket or bowl, some wire, and some cardboard
All you need is a bucket or bowl, some wire, and some cardboard

As Suzanne did, I suggest you make two. When the first is full, start filling the second, by which time the first one should be ready! If you have a garden – it’s even easier to make a compost bin. Use exactly the same approach, minus the bucket at the bottom. Worms and other useful creatures will move up from the soil beneath and help your compost break down even faster.

Haven’t even got the outside space for that?

If you’re feeling inspired, but have no outside space at all and don’t think this would work for you, how about this easy wormery idea! There’s no need for a square box as big as this: just drill small holes in a bucket and its lid for ventilation, and keep it on a tray. This could even be kept in the kitchen under the sink, as the article suggests. To find the worms to start it off, you will need to visit someone’s garden or a farm and dig a little. But once you’ve got happy worms they will breed rapidly and you can share them with other people.

The trick with any kind of composting is to make sure there’s a good mix of brown stuff, like dry leaves or cardboard, and green stuff, like vegetable peelings and other kitchen waste.  It should be damp, but not wet, that flies can’t get to the waste, and that there is plenty of space for air to circulate. If you try it – let us know, and we can share your pictures too!

I am sorry that these materials are only in English at the moment, I will upload Kiswahili translations as soon as they are ready! If anyone is interested to help out with translations of these kind of materials, I would love to hear from you. In the mean time, for anyone with a garden, there is a fantastic Kiswahili guide to making compost that you can read or download here.


14 easy and free sustainable solutions you can start today!

14 easy and free sustainable solutions you can start today! published on No Comments on 14 easy and free sustainable solutions you can start today!
Save 1.5 litres water per flush!
Save 1.5 litres water per flush!

Becoming more sustainable can sometimes seem like a lot of work – but there are so many things we can all do very easily, that cost nothing, and may even save money!

I have therefore compiled a list of 14 very easy and free Zanzibar-appropriate ideas that any of us can introduce at home or at work immediately, without any need for special training or special equipment or anything complicated at all. There are ideas to save energy, to save water, to reduce waste, and more.

I’m sure you have more ideas of your own, so please share them in the comments below.

Let’s all do something to make a difference today!

Free guide to Waste in Zanzibar now available on Ecologue in English and Kiswhaili!

Free guide to Waste in Zanzibar now available on Ecologue in English and Kiswhaili! published on No Comments on Free guide to Waste in Zanzibar now available on Ecologue in English and Kiswhaili!
Free download of education guide - cover
Education and awareness guide to waste in Zanzibar

It gives me enormous delight to be able to share with you a fantastic education and awareness guide to waste in Zanzibar available to download free from Ecologue in English and Kiswahili.

This guide was produced by ACRA and compiled by Ulli Kloiber, Conservation and Education Manager at Chumbe Island Coral Park.

There are sections on different kinds of waste, and different things you can do with them – including a fantastic, really simple, easy-to-follow guide to composting (Kiswahili).

There are also sections contributed by various Zanzibar  projects, organisations and businesses involved in recycling and education about waste (including Sustainable East Africa).

Free download of guide - Takataka katika Zanzibar - Kiswahili
Also in Kiswahili!

Congratulations to ACRA and Ulli for a phenomenal publication and essential resource for anyone doing environmental outreach in Zanzibar and thank you so much for giving me permission to make it available online here on Ecologue.

You may be wondering why am I raving so much about this book in particular? Well the thing is – an education resource is only any good if it is used. You can compile all the pertinent information in the world into the most comprehensive resource – but if nobody ever uses it, then you may as well not bother. And I love this book because I have seen first hand that people want to read it. The information is presented in an easy-to follow, simple, straightforward and relevant way, and is all about Zanzibar.

And when I gave a copy to members of the PLCI Environment Club (SEA partners) during a clean-up day recently in Vikokotoni – every time I looked, a different student was reading it.











So what are you waiting for? Get it now!

Eco-forum now on Ecologue to share sustainable solutions

Eco-forum now on Ecologue to share sustainable solutions published on No Comments on Eco-forum now on Ecologue to share sustainable solutions

Edit: URL updated and social-media registration options now operating – apologies to anyone who encountered bugs yesterday. If there are any problems, please let me know!

I have now created a discussion forum on Ecologue, where we can share ideas and best practice in sustainability.

I have started topics on composting and sustainable seafood. But if you have a sustainable project that you are proud of and would like to share – whether it’s a rainwater catchment system, recycling bin set up, solar power system – or anything – then please let us see. I will showcase the best ideas on the blog to give you exposure.

And if you have any questions about how other people are solving a particular problem that you are stuck on, then start a conversation about it and see who can help.

There’s an extra bonus for any hotels who are working towards RTTZ (Responsible Tourism Tanzania) certification: participating an online environmental forum is one of the criteria used for evaluating eligibility for sapling-level certification, so join the conversation and tick that box.

There are few sustainability challenges experienced in Zanzibar that have not been solved already by someone, somewhere, so I hope this forum will help us avoid reinventing the wheel and enable everyone concerned about sustainability to find the solutions they need (and that work) that bit more easily.

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen!

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen! published on 1 Comment on Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen!

This is one of the wisest messages I have ever seen.

TED talks are in general exceptional but the following talk by TED fellow Ernesto Sirolli is an absolute must-see.

Readers on limited bandwidth can download the talk as an audio file here, and it is also available at that link with subtitles in many languages (though unfortunately not yet Kiswahili).

For those on very slow internet, has a comprehensive written synopsis of the video.

I strongly recommend everyone interested in development and its successes and failures dedicate the time to watch, read, listen, or otherwise imbibe this phenomenal talk.

Although I had been sent the link before, slow internet meant I didn’t end up watching it till a couple of weeks ago. But I’m so glad I finally did!

The whole message is very powerful but there were some bits in particular that really struck a chord and made me think.  So – go and watch it now! And I’ll be back soon with my thoughts!

Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas)

Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas) published on 5 Comments on Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas)

Shortly after I arrived in Zanzibar three years ago, I coordinated a training workshop for members of a fantastic local NGO, JAMABECO. They were seriously motivated and had implemented a successful environmental awareness and clean-up programme in their village of Jambiani on the east coast of Unguja, Zanzibar. Our objective in the workshop was to plan beach clean-ups in ten new communities around southern Unguja. I was very excited and felt it was going well.

I asked the participants to tell me what equipment they would need to hold the clean-ups, expecting answers like ‘gloves’, ‘bags’, ‘rakes’.

The very first answer knocked me sideways:

‘We need T-shirts.’


How? What? Had they misunderstood the question? The number one thing you need to clean a beach is a T-shirt? Why on earth?

But the nodding heads around the room told me they were absolutely serious.

The problem, I came shortly to realise, was this.

Although they had carried out numerous beach clean-ups and other activities in the past – they had always had sponsorship from overseas donors to carry out the events. And donors need evidence to show how money was spent, and evidence of things done. They need visibility. Also pictures of happy African kids. Also the budget has to be spent by the end of the quarter. So let’s have a big flashy event! Lots of photos with the aid agency logo visible! What could be better than lots of people and cute happy kids in T-shirts splashed with your logo? And a clean beach! Fantastic! Everybody have a cookie!

But what happens next? Here we had a workshop full of people brimming with concern about environmental degradation, dedicated to taking action, giving up all their free time to the cause… but feeling completely unable to implement any activities to do something about it until someone would come along to pay for it.  They want nothing more than to organise clean-ups monthly, or even weekly, but they can’t afford T-shirts, so it can’t be done.

The thing is – a T-shirt is a shortcut. Poverty in Zanzibar means that people in rural villages typically subsist on less than a dollar a day. Keeping your family adequately clothed is a huge challenge, and one new t-shirt represents a few days’ income (if you even have a job). Giving out T-shirts amounts to a substantial incentive to participate. And this means no further encouragement of less tangible benefits is required, everyone will be there with bells on. Huge turnout! Job well done!

The reality is that in rural communities, people often tolerate litter and dirt because they have never been taught that there are costs. In addition (though it is slowly changing) there is essentially no waste collection service and nowhere to take it. Exactly what are people supposed to do with their rubbish except leave it on the beach?

A friend of mine who has a hotel in the same village told me a similar story. Adjacent to his beach hotel is a small patch of indigenous woodland. The community had been using it as a waste dump and causing both he and his guests some distress. To reach out to his neighbours he offered them a little money to clean the waste and take it away, and they did so with alacrity. The next day, however, he woke aghast to find the place full of rubbish again and the villagers knocking at the door, asking for money to clean it again.

It comes down to finding the right incentives. When people are poor, creating jobs seems an obvious solution. But when you examine it from an economic perspective, if you pay people (or give them T-shirts) to clean the beach, you are telling them that the resource they have which is worth something, that is valuable, is a dirty beach. Hold your big clean-up, give out T-shirts, or pay neighbours – whatever. There is no incentive whatsoever to actually keep it clean. Far better, surely, to ensure it gets dirty again quickly so people will come sooner with more T-shirts and more jobs.

And when you go away, the people like JAMABECO who do care, very much, about the state of the environment, are left feeling they can do nothing about it.

So how can we do better?

Back in my workshop, we spent the next days focussing on alternative motivation techniques. We had breakout sessions – Imagine you’re speaking to a mother, a teacher, a hotel owner – why should they care? What are the benefits of a clean beach? Forget about marine biodiversity or the baby birds starving on oceanic islands thousands of miles away. Those things matter of course, hugely, but to whom?

Keep it locally relevant. Talk to people about what actually matters to them, day-to-day.  Talk to mothers about the health of their children – if there are dirty nappies (diapers) on the beach where you are also collecting shellfish to feed your family, they’ll get sick. If fishing is your livelihood, and there is plastic in the ocean, fish will eat it, it blocks their guts and they will die. If you work in a hotel with a dirty beach, tourists will be disgusted and will leave, so support your community initiative to clean the beach, lend them wheelbarrows, buy gloves, let them wash their hands in your hotel afterwards. Breathing fumes from burning plastic increases risk of diseases like cancer and lung disease. Top tip: if you really want to pull the emotional heartstrings, stress links to impotence and infertility.

And do you know what? It worked.

The volunteer peer-to-peer educator team went out and spent the next few weeks introducing ideas of environment and sustainability into new communities, and, armed only with information about the locally-relevant dangers posed by pollution, motivated enormous participation in the clean-up events. Literally thousands of people turned out to participate, and collected several tonnes of waste, and were offered no incentive other than knowledge of why it would be worth it.

And it wasn’t a one-off: the new communities formed environment clubs, committees and NGOs themselves. Clean-ups became monthly and in one community even a weekly event.

And do you know what else happened?  A few months later JAMABECO invited me to attend a beach clean-up event in a community in the north of the island, outside the remit of our partnership and not in the budget. They were so fulfilled by the success of the new approach, so proud of themselves and empowered by their new-found skills, that they funded and organised it themselves.

Yes, this approach is more complicated, and yes, it takes longer and you’ve got all that cash that has to be spent by the end of the reporting period… But bribery-by-T-shirt as a sole-incentive fosters dependence, inhibits creativity, demotivates and disempowers. It misses the point.

As it happens, I have to admit that our project was donor-funded, so – though we kept it top secret till after our successful clean-up events – they got a T-shirt too.

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