Be Good is a series that looks behind the buzzwords of conservation and social responsibility, uncovering stories from travel projects that are not simply paying lip service to the growing importance of doing the right thing.

“I’m from a coastal region where the communities live from fishing, livestock and tourism. I have seen booming businesses collapse due to the contamination of plastic waste and people dying of poverty.” For all of the hours spent writing manifestos of sustainability and actionable change in the ‘developed world’, it’s worth remembering that there are those living through the very real results of our heedless negligence.

Ismael Essome Ebone

Ismael Essome Ebone is a 27-year-old Cameroonian who has been moved not by vapid obligation, but by witnessing first-hand the stark effects of waste on the natural world. “Since I was a child, I’d had a passion for protecting nature, and so became an environmental engineer, specialising in the sustainable management of aquatic ecosystems”. Keenly involved in art and creativity, Ismael’s latest venture is a non-profit organisation with upbeat solutions to upsetting realities.

Formed in April 2016, the young conservationist’s Madiba & Nature serves as a research and development project dedicated to the preservation of the natural world, employing the circular economy to recycle damaging waste via traditional artisan techniques, and putting some of those recycled products – namely waste plastic bottle canoes – to use in ecotourism projects where experiential escapades promote greater understanding, awareness and aid in community development.

Accompanied by his nephew and other young helpers, Ismael travels the streets of Douala – Cameroon’s largest city and home to Central Africa’s largest port – to collect the sort of plastic waste that has wreaked havoc on his locality. “I started to tell myself”, the environmental engineer begins, “that if floating structures with bottles, containers, and drums could be made elsewhere, maybe we could make a platform with bottles. I started to tie these bottles together and I thought: what if we made a boat?”

Madiba & Nature

Plenty of experimentation, one thousand discarded plastic bottles, a few wires and boards later, and Cameroon’s ‘first 100 per cent ecological canoe’ was ready to ride the waves – “a canoe built with plastic bottles is incredible”, gasps a startled fisherman of more than ten years, “I didn’t imagine it would be possible.” It’s not just the fishermen who were impressed by the canoes maiden voyage: Ismael was affected enough to invest all of his savings (some 1,500€) into furthering the project – a core team of five people joining volunteers in building six boats that have been left around key destinations to ‘bait’ fishermen, tour operators and potential investors.

With traditional wooden canoes costing up to 750€, and Ismael’s sustainable alternatives coming in at 150€, the bait has been quickly taken, with Madiba & Nature receiving some 50 orders since August. “Wood has a limited life”, he says, “while bottles take more than 400 years to degrade in nature. Our canoes are much cheaper and lighter, are difficult to capsize, and protect the environment by fighting against waste and deforestation.”

Ismael Essome Ebone

Recently presenting his work in Barcelona and Madrid as part of Grigri Pixel – a programme of talks and workshops that promote the creation of inspired objects in urban spaces based on collaborative practices from the African continent – Essome Ebone’s innovative work is beginning to garner plaudits from the international community. His mission to improve the wellbeing of aquatic ecosystems has been introduced to a wider audience, in one of the few situations where creative plagiarism would be an honourable thing in which to partake.

Proposing eco-excursions from the resort town and port of Kribi, Ismael wants that wider audience to be better educated in the tangible impact of waste that has informed his life’s work, and for them to learn more about nature and its protection. His guided tours will use the bottle-boats to navigate the region’s rivers, lakes and ocean, an onboard drone offering aerial views of the forest, flora and fauna that surround them; and he hopes to establish an environmental education project with support for young students for personal development and business training in environmental initiatives.

Ismael Essome Ebone’s commendable dedication to a better world is easy to understand: “I have seen booming businesses collapse due to the contamination of plastic waste and people dying of poverty.” Please don’t wait until your own experiences are as tangible before making your mark.

Using drones to educate about the local ecosystem
Using drones to educate about the local ecosystem

James Davidson is Editor-In-Chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.