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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

I’m back!

I’m back! published on No Comments on I’m back!

Laurel Burch notebook  coverSomehow a year appears to have passed since I last posted here… I suppose I’ve just been very busy. I’ve made some changes around Ecologue – I’ve moved the Sustainable East Africa content to a new domain – so check out the Sustainable East Africa website for news about my work (and what’s been keeping me busy all this time)!

I’ll be back with a proper post shortly, but for now, here’s a piece of art by Laurel Burch, which adorns my notebook (as in pulped dead tree bound together (from a sustainable source, of course) not my computer).

Life is chaotic here in Zanzibar, fluctuating wildly from utterly bewildering or tragic to simply spectacular, and everything in between except boredom. It’s necessary every now and again to take a step back and just accept things. Being reminded of it by these words whenever I get out my notebook is a daily reminder.

If you want one too, you can find this design of notebook or diary here.



Close your eyes and dream a dream

and seek the courage to make it real.

Reflect on the past, envision the future

and embrace them with an open heart and soul


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!

Zanzibar Sustainability Directory now online!

Zanzibar Sustainability Directory now online! published on 2 Comments on Zanzibar Sustainability Directory now online!

I have created a Sustainability Directory for Zanzibar (and the Swahili Coast), including links for sustainable initiatives, NGOs and projects, and information about how we can live more sustainably.

I hope it will be a useful resource for everyone in Zanzibar who is interested in the environment, recycling, sustainability and other related issues. – Check it out here.

This is just the start, and I know I have missed many exciting and important projects, so I hope you will help make the resource as comprehensive as possible by suggesting additional links I might have missed through the form provided on the Directory page, or contact me if the information about your initiative is incorrect.

New section on Ecologue – all about Sustainable East Africa

New section on Ecologue – all about Sustainable East Africa published on No Comments on New section on Ecologue – all about Sustainable East Africa

If you’ve been wondering what work Sustainable East Africa, the NGO I founded here in Zanzibar, is doing, you can now read all about our programme, partners and activities on Ecologue!

So to learn how waste plastic water bottles helped provide water for a rural community, how young school leavers are earning sustainable income for the first time, or how a community transformed its streets to become clean and healthy – have a look around!

Start here!

SEA around the web

New resources tab now added to Ecologue

New resources tab now added to Ecologue published on No Comments on New resources tab now added to Ecologue

I’ve started to add some resources to Ecologue.

under the Resources tab above you will find:

  • Links, including more information about my work at Sustainable East Africa, a blogroll, and other Zanzbar-related sites.
  • Downloads – which has a link to download (free) the book about the environment and sustainability in Zanzibar that I wrote while I worked at Chumbe.

I will be adding more to this section – so if you have any suggestions, I would love to hear about them in the comments!

The hippo in the room

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Hippo in Zambia © Farhat Jah

I told you in the last post that there were some bits of must-watch video Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen that really made me think, and here is the first.

In the first part of his talk, Ernesto Sirolli tells us an anecdote about Lessons from an Agricultural Aid project in Zambia (this extract from topnonprofits’ synopsis)

[Ernesto Sirolli] Worked with an Italian NGO. Everyone had great intentions and truly wanted to help. Yet everything they touch failed.

For example, the came to part of Zambia near the Zambezi River and were amazed why the local people in such a fertile valley would have no agriculture. So they taught people to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini.

But the people weren’t interested.

So they paid them to come learn…and sometimes they showed up.

Instead of asking why they weren’t growing anything [the donors] said, “Thank God we are here. Just in nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.”

Of course everything in Africa grew beautifully and they were telling the Zambians, “Look how easy agriculture is.”

Just when the tomatoes were nice and ripe, [two hundred] hippos came out of the river and ate everything.

And they said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”

And the Zambians said, “Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?!?”

You never asked.

This story truly struck a chord with me.

It is clear that before deciding agriculture was the answer, the Italian NGO ought first to have asked why it wasn’t already happening, rather than assuming it was because nobody had thought of it before. But from the way the story is presented, some people hearing this story might also think “but the local guys really ought to have given them a heads up about the hippos – poor communication goes both ways”.

This is understandable, but I want to explain why I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that.

I have found in my work that leaders and members of local organisations and groups too often do not feel empowered to challenge donors, even when what the donors are saying has major flaws. At first, like the Zambian donors, I found it baffling, enormously frustrating, even hurtful. But over time I have learned that frankly there are sometimes pretty good reasons for reticence.

Firstly, foreigners are presented, and present themselves, as experts. People with the answers. They come with an attitude that says ‘We are experts. We have many years of training and experience that we are here to share with you. You don’t know why you need this yet, but bear with us, trust us, and soon, you will see’.

More pragmatically, however, consultants that come in from large donors essentially have money in their pocket: inconceivably large sums of money in comparison with local wages. Projects are designed (and this is something for another post) to put money in local participants’ pockets (or give them T-shirts) for helping implement projects, and project success is measured by ticking boxes for having carried out activities and spent the money allocated in a timely fashion, rather than by actually making things better through less measurable metrics. Tell such a donor that their proposal is inadequately thought through, and the money (which is needed) might be taken away.

And, thanks to power arrangements and limitations of donor-funding, this is in fact true. There is seldom any flexibility built in to allow projects to be adaptive. Take this, or take nothing.

If you are an NGO that wants funding to carry out a project, you have to define (often months in advance) exactly what your outputs and outcomes and activities will be, how many workshops you will hold and on what dates, how many books you will print, and how much everything will cost (2-3 years from now). And don’t forget the T-shirts!

It is nigh-on impossible, I can assure you from experience, to secure funding for a project from conventional donors by honestly explaining, ‘We have lots of ideas that might work, but until we get out there, we don’t know what we’re going to do, so we’re going to ask the people we want to help how we can help, and what they need, tell them our ideas, and let them choose what we do together’. Incidentally, if you know of a donor who would accept such a proposal, please let me know!

So it is not really fair to surmise that the ‘beneficiary’ community in Zambia was at fault for not telling the aid agency about the hippos. After all, agriculture was not working for them, money and food were scarce, and they were being offered money to grow food (for the hippos as it happens, but they could at least use the money to buy food elsewhere). The donors had come in armed with seeds and tools. Tell them they are wasting their time, they will consider you uncooperative, and may go away and take their money with them.

And remember, too, that the donors come from rich countries and drive big cars. They clearly know how to make money and be successful and have come to share expertise. Perhaps they have some special varieties of tomato and zucchini that hippos don’t eat? It seems unlikely to us but they’re clearly very confident, and they are willing to pay us good money to grow them, so let’s bear with them and see what trick they’ve got up their sleeve. Perhaps they have got it wrong, but they’ll learn eventually – and at least we can eat today.

What’s more – and although I’ve had my own ‘hippo’ moments in project implementation I’ll admit – I have a particularly large amount of sympathy for the community in this case.

If you have ever been to place where there is a river with hippos in, do you not agree, that you knew the hippos were there?

They are not exactly shy and retiring animals. We’re not talking about insects that live hidden in the soil until one particular month of the year, or a parasitic fungus whose spores are borne invisibly in the wind. A hippopotamus is a rather conspicuous 2-3 tonnes of solid muscle (with big teeth) that rather commands attention, or in this case, two hundred hippos… With the best will in the world, I am afraid I find it rather hard to imagine they hadn’t made themselves known.

So, in the circumstances, I can’t help the community should be given enormous credit for not responding to the donors’ questioning “Why didn’t you tell us?!?” with,

Tell you? Tell you about the hippos? Tell you what about them? We thought you knew! See? Look! Hippos! Big animals, hundreds of them, they live in the river all day splashing and grunting, come out at night to eat vegetation. How did you miss them? How on earth were we to know you hadn’t noticed them? You said you were experts and knew what you were doing! We thought you must have some other clever trick up your sleeves! It didn’t occur to us you didn’t know they were there!”

So – if you want to help – please, for the love of hippos, Shut up and listen! Don’t assume you have all the answers. You probably don’t even know the questions to ask, so ask open questions. Ask people what they need and be prepared to listen and respond to what they tell you.

And to my local partners and others I am collaborating with – if I ever get carried away and forget – please, remember I do not know everything, and I sometimes need you to point out the “hippo in the room”. I will thank you for it.

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!

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