How to build the next Century


For over a thousand years, the port of Lamu, Kenya, traded with the world. Merchant ships would arrive, dock near the city’s minarets and palm trees, and leave carrying ivory, mangrove wood and slaves. Then, a century ago, the old trade began to decline, before being gradually replaced by a new one: tourism. Growing up in Lamu, Mansoor, now 31, watched as visitors arrived with money and left behind their trash. Then, one day, he was looking at the discarded plastic along the shoreline and had a revelation: this was a resource, and with it, he would build something everyone in Lamu needed. He would build a boat.

“The dream came from God; I didn’t learn this in any school. My dream said, ‘Go and collect the garbage that floats.’ For four months I collected it. Now I am the first person to make this in Africa, maybe all of the world – this plastic boat.

“I’ve been building the Century for two and a half years. She is built from plastic, tires, and nails; there is canvas, also, and I use tar to cover the holes. I call her Century because tires and plastic live for a century in water. If you put wood in water and plastic in water, plastic floats 100 percent, but wood floats 50 percent. Put water into a wooden pot. After one week you’ll go to the pot and say ‘Oh, no water!’ Wood naturally has holes, you see.

“People used to say, ‘Are you crazy?’ I told them that this was going to be a made-of-plastic boat. They said, ‘No, there are no plastic boats,’ but after I starting building, they said, ‘Ah, no water in the boat. Wow!’ Children would come, and even on the radio, they said, ‘Oh, he uses waste and it’s floating perfectly. It’s a miracle.’ Now many people are interested, especially in how I do the bottles. You can make a window, a door, through this system, even a table. Even the environmental ministry is interested.

“I started with the corridor, and then I built a place where I can sleep. There will also be a toilet, a place where people can relax and eat, and another captain’s room. To move the Century I use poles or I take another boat to pull me.


I call her Century because tires and plastic live for a century in water.
Mansoor, 31, Lamu, Kenya

From the pages of COLORS #82 - Shit.

“People say they are part of the boat, but there is no sharing. Me, I work alone. Three days a week I look for money because I have a wife at home and a baby. My father was a seaman, a chief engineer, but he died when I was nine. My grandfather was a captain on the first ferryboats in Kenya.

“The people call me Captain Rubbish, but I don’t feel bad because I know what I’m doing. I know plastic; I know wood. I know the percentage of wood that floats; I know the percentage of plastic that floats. I know that what I’m doing is perfect. The Century will never sink.”

Make your own bottle boat:


  1. Make a frame for your boat’s hull with driftwood and nails.
  2. Collect Styrofoam washed up on the beach. That’s a start, but you’ll need to buy more. Go to fishmongers and ask for the Styrofoam they use to keep sharks in the freezer. This is the cheapest, at 50 Ksh (US$0.60) a block, because the shark oil makes it smell so bad.
  3. Nail the Styrofoam onto both sides of the frame to create a solid shell. Every liter of Styrofoam below the waterline can carry almost one kilogram in the boat.
  4. Line the bottom of the boat with closed plastic bottles. These bottles can carry slightly more than the Styrofoam, but only if they have no holes. Check. Fill gaps between bottles with Styrofoam to create an even floor.
  1. Look for empty plastic jerricans, either washed up on the beach or behind local stores.
  2. Cut along the edges of the jerricans and lay them out flat.
  3. Find something to use as a big needle to stitch the containers together with string. Then nail this base to the underside of the boat.
  1. You are going to need 400 used bicycle tires and you’ll need to buy them from a nearby village. The going rate around Lamu is 20 Ksh to 30 Ksh (US$0.25) for each used tire. Buy some paint while you’re there, too.
  2. Cut the tires so that you can lay them flat in long strips.
  3. Nail them to the outside of the hull, completely covering the Styrofoam.
  4. Boil up some tar. If you can’t find any tar nearby, you’ll need to find some pine trees and a small oven. Burning the pine without oxygen will provide a steady stream of tar. Collect it and reheat back on the beach.
  5. Thoroughly tar the outside of the boat, plugging any larger gaps with discarded slippers, pieces of beach towel or any similarly coarse cloth you can find. Then paint.
  1. Hopefully, you’ll have started to make a name for yourself among other beach-goers. Let them know you’re looking for plastic because you’re going to need 700 bottles, and it will take forever for you to collect them on your own.
  2. Cut the necks off all the bottles to make hollow plastic tubes, closed at one end. Fit them into each other, creating 10 tubes about five-meters long. Build another 23 tubes about three-meters long.
  3. Make large circuits with the longer tubes, and put them one on top of the other on the back end of the boat. Thread string vertically through each layer and attach the whole thing to the hull so it doesn’t blow away.
  4. Put the shorter tubes side by side to create a square. This is your roof. Weave them together with string, tie the sides to your boat and support the center with a string attached to a driftwood frame. The end result should look like a tent, but a tent made of plastic bottles.

Now that your boat is complete, it’s time to think about how to make it move. Mansoor uses a pole or paddles, so make your own using light driftwood and nails.