In sub-Saharan Africa, 80 percent of agricultural production is done by smallholder farmers, and the female share of the agricultural labour force is the highest in the world. Introduced to the island of Zanzibar in 1988, seaweed farming now employs 25,000 people – mostly rural women.
When the first farms were set up in Zanzibar, they were in the shallow waters by the beach where conditions for growth were the most ideal. Because the deeper sea was traditionally where men would go to fish, women took up cultivating near the beaches and shallow waters. The slow pace of seaweed farming seemed less appealing to men, who were used to fishing and hunting with immediate results. As Zanzibar’s industry grew, so did the profits for its female farmers. Within the first decade, the women of rural Zanzibar were taking home significant sums of money and had become the leading source of income to their families.
Seaweed is commercially farmed in Zanzibar primarily for an extract called carrageenan, which is used as a stabilizer and thickener in everything from toothpaste to chocolate milk. The global trade in seaweed harvested for carrageenan was worth $1B in 2015, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
However, today, some women have been discouraged from farming because of increasing climate change challenges. “We have many problems with climate change while we’re farming,” said Mwanaisha Makame, a Zanzibar native who has been cultivating seaweed for two decades. “When we are in the ocean, we see the sand is getting too hot and the seaweed is dying. We’ve been noticing this since 2011.”
She says that there are just 150 seaweed farmers left in Paje, down from 450 two decades ago when she began farming. “Temperatures are rising in Paje, and now seaweed just burns on the hot sand that’s exposed to the sun. It’s unusable for cultivation.”
Cooler waters are required for seaweed to grow steadily. Though Zanzibar’s deeper waters are more optimal for growing, strong, fast currents would break up the plants before they had a chance to develop. But another, more detrimental challenge was facing the farmers as well: many of them never learned swim.
Groups like Farm Africa advocate that empowering women is a central part of their work. Farm Africa provides the knowledge and the tools so that small-scale women farmers can increase their harvests. Their project is helping 2,500 women farmers in the North-East to grow better-quality seaweed and make more money from their harvests. They are working hard to help the women by training them in deeper water cultivation techniques and adding extra value to their harvests by developing processing facilities, such as The Zanzibar Seaweed Center, which dries the seaweed and extract products that can be sold for extra income.
To combat the changing climate and other natural causes, Zanzibar’s government has commissioned more research into the exact reasons for the seaweed mortality and how to counteract it. That being said, seaweed farming is still thriving for the time being in Zanzibar, and women are still able to provide for themselves and their families.
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