Solar powered recycled plastic boat taxi trialled in Kenya

Solar powered recycled plastic boat taxi trialled in Kenya

Plastic revolutionaries pave the way for zero-emission water transport in Kenya with a new taxi boat made from 100% recycled plastic waste and powered by an innovative solar engine.

By Dipesh Pabari

The Flipflopi Project, who built the world’s first 100% recycled plastic sailing dhow, have teamed up with Newcastle University engineering experts and ePropulsion, the makers of an innovative solar-electric propulsion system, to design and test their latest innovation.

The team have installed an innovative solar-electric engine to Flipflopi’s latest vessel, a boat taxi fabricated entirely from recycled plastic collected and manufactured on Lamu Island in Northern Kenya, now certified for sea-worthiness. 

Over a month-long trial ferrying islanders on the solar-powered water taxi, the new eco-friendly system was found to match the speed of traditional petrol engines, while being substantially cheaper to run, and with zero emissions. 

The water taxi is currently being used by the Flipflopi team for their daily transport since the electric engine is still in its pilot phase. This is the Flipflopi’s third boat that has been made from recycled plastics and they hope that the boat taxi and solar engine will create a coop model for youth where it will generate income for them and act as a service model. For example, they can lease the boat and engine and can charge and maintain it at an affordable price. The goal is to keep it as circular as possible!

The FlipFlopi boat made out of recycled plastic powered by solar engine ferrying the Flipflopi team

Dr Simon Benson, project lead at Newcastle University said“The pilot programme showed that electric propulsion is no longer just a climate solution for luxury cars, or for mass transit in high tech cities; it can contribute to solving environmental problems in lower resourced rural communities too. Since the solar panels can be fully recharged daily, on land and on the boat, this makes it a great option for short transit routes in coastal, lakeside and island communities across the world who use small open boats with outboard engines for fishing, cargo and passenger transport.”

The boat and its solar engine underwent this pilot as part of a broader Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) programme that is supporting the Flipflopi to research community-centered circular solutions including heritage boatbuilding to help solve the waste management and plastic pollution problem in peri-urban shoreline communities. 

The recycled plastic water taxi was built out of 1.2 tonnes of HDPE plastic that was recovered by the community-centered programme, and would otherwise have been burnt, dumped or destined for the ocean.

The Flipflopi manufactures high-quality plastic lumber at the Lamu-based recovery and recycling centre which is then hand-crafted using traditional boat-building techniques by local craftsmen combined with new appropriate technology.  

Ali Skanda, Co-Founder of The Flipflopi Project, said; “Our mission is to help solve the plastic pollution crisis by supporting circular solutions in low-income maritime communities like ours. With our recycling and heritage boatbuilding centre, we are exploring how to create viable boat prototypes from plastic waste and preserving the indigenous craftsmanship of boatbuilding and furniture making for generations to come. If we can also adopt solar powered engines, we start to realise even greater opportunities for a greener and more sustainable future.”

The project is part of a wider set of objectives to determine the potential for holistic step-changes in addressing the environmental impact of working boats used in maritime and low-income communities like Lamu.

Former Minister of Environment to Kenya who is a member of the Flipflopi’s Advisory Board, Prof. Judi Wakhungu, said; East Africa has been leading the way on the climate agenda for many years now, and The Flipflopi Project is an excellent example of Kenyan organisations tackling the problem through a systemic approach with their hands on localized solutions for mitigating plastic pollution alongside spearheading a campaign to ban unnecessary single use plastics at the regional level.

“Now we have another first in Lamu with this recycled plastic boat powered by solar which not only reduces waste otherwise destined for the ocean, but also lowers carbon emissions, removes carbon fuel costs impacting local people, and reduces local environmental pollution. This is a powerful demonstration that lower-resourced communities can lead the world in driving policy agendas, and sustainability by innovating with combinations of low and high technologies such as artisanal boatbuilding, plastic recycling and renewable energy,” she added.

Read Also: The Flipflopi Dhow: Returning Home — Short Documentary

The project’s success demonstrates the potential for artisanal boats made from waste plastics and equipped with electric engines and boat-mounted solar charging systems, paving the way for zero-emission transportation solutions. The research also highlights the need for improved support systems such as maintenance and hire-schemes to help more places adopt this technology, ensuring a greener future for marine transportation.

The solar electric engine project was made possible with the support of maritime engineering experts at Newcastle University led by Dr Simon Benson with funding from the UK government’s International Science Partnerships Fund.

Flipflopi are supported by the Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) Programme that enabled the design and build of the water taxi itself. The project was turned to reality through collaborative partnerships with UK based ePropulsion who supplied the battery powered engine, and Kenyan based Solagen who supplied the solar systems. 

This story was produced by The Flipflopi

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