Downward Duck - colourful yoga blocks made from recycled flip flops

The blocks are bold and bright, and each one is unique

The blocks are bold and bright, and each one is unique - Credit: Archant

When lockdown hits and you have 50 brightly coloured yoga blocks sitting in your spare room ready to be sold... you know it’s time to launch your business. Here Jina Carnelley from Downward Duck tells her story.

Rafael is a flip flop artist and helps to create Jina's blocks

Rafael is a flip flop artist and helps to create Jina's blocks - Credit: Archant

Growing up in Kenya with a conservationist Dad, Jina Carnelley had always been aware of the environmental impact of rubbish washing up on the shores of Africa beside her family’s campsite and tourism business.

Moving first to Devon, and then settling in Winchester, her passion for conservation and sustainability stayed with her; so when her sister Katie started working for an eco sculpture company, she was intrigued.

“I always had a real interest in conservation through my family and then five years ago my sister, who lives in Kenya, got a job working for Ocean Sole Africa who make the most amazing artwork and sculptures out of flip flops. From five metre giraffes up to life size elephants all out of waste flip flops, they make these crazy cool things.”

Having seen the work that Ocean Sole Africa could achieve, Jina started thinking about what else could be made using the huge piles of flip flops that wash up on Africa’s shores every day.

Downward Duck's yoga blocks are made from waste flip flops found on the shores of Africa

Downward Duck's yoga blocks are made from waste flip flops found on the shores of Africa - Credit: Archant

Spending time at Wanderlust yoga festival in London, Jina was inspired by all the different products on sale; but when browsing for a sustainable yoga block among the sea of eco-friendly mats and clothing, she realised there was nothing on the market. She exp;ains, “When you hold Ocean Sole Africa’s products in your hands, they’re foam, and it has always reminded me of yoga blocks. I just thought how amazing it would be to upcycle something to make the same end product.”

Unfortunately, when she first pitched the idea to Ocean Sole Africa, they weren’t in a position to take on small scale items and so Jina held on to the idea as she went back to her day job at Itchen Valley Brewery.

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“I thought if I couldn’t do it with them, I didn’t want to do it with anyone. I wanted not only to do it from an environmental point of view but also because it was working with my sister and doing something in Kenya that actually helps the people in Kenya that need employment.”

Jina’s life then took a different turn when she realised she was pregnant with her daughter Azora. Seeing her maternity leave as an opportunity she explains, “I thought ‘I’ve got all this time’, and Ocean Sole Africa had grown and launched in the US and were able to make yoga blocks so I was able to pour my heart and soul in to something that I wanted to be doing in the future.”

The blocks are made in Kenya by local people

The blocks are made in Kenya by local people - Credit: Archant

Once she’d researched the most popular block size, Jina was able to go back to Ocean Sole with her dimensions and the instruction to make the blocks in the style of their brightly coloured artwork. After working with the flip flop artists in Kenya, Jina returned home to Winchester with 50 blocks, each made with 21 waste flip flops, before the pandemic hit and lockdown set in. She remembers, “I’d been a bit scared to start the business I think, I had the blocks and it was all I talked about but I didn’t have the confidence to get it off the ground. Then my maternity leave ended in March and I thought ‘I’ve got to do it now or I’ve got to find a job.’”

With lockdown forcing her to spend time at home, Jina was able to focus on launching her Etsy shop and Instagram profile to start selling the blocks she had at home already. She tells, “At first it was just my friends and friends of friends that were looking at the blocks, and then within the first week I had so much positive feedback that I wished I’d started my business ages ago. Everybody was so kind and encouraging and impressed with the idea. I was blown away with how lovely everyone was to me about it. Yogis from all over the world started to get in touch with me about the blocks and I knew then that I had a business.”

Jina has now sold over 150 blocks during lockdown, with more on order using over 3000 waste flip flops. She says, “I think the yoga community has boomed during lockdown, it boosts your overall wellbeing and it’s something you can practice on your own at home. More and more people are thinking about where their things come from and how they’re made and so for me, it has been a really good time to launch my business.”

Next steps for Downward Dog include launching different sizes and colours and working on social media to bring these unique blocks to a wider audience. There are also international wholesale orders being placed and collaborations with other sustainable businesses happening all from Jina’s dining room table.

Jina Carnelley

Jina Carnelley - Credit: Archant

Each block costs £25 to buy and Jina says, “It’s amazing how many people’s lives one block can affect and change in Kenya. They get picked up on the beaches by one person and then they get washed by another. They are ‘blocked’ or stuck together by somebody else, then carved and sanded before being washed again. The process is so labour intensive; buying one of my blocks is an investment in somebody’s life in Kenya. The story is the most important part.”

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