Written by Jerry Mang’ena and Nancy Iraba, Aqua-Farms Organization (AFO), Tanzania

On the shores of Zanzibar’s azure seas, where the sands sparkle and the coconut palms sway in harmony with the gentle ocean breeze, lies a story of resilience that is a testament to the strength and determination of Tanzania’s coastal communities.

Each morning, as the golden sun rises over the Indian Ocean, Fatuma Makame begins her day much like her parents did in the 1980s, venturing into the shallows to harvest precious seaweed. Fatuma has been a seaweed farmer throughout her life, learning from her parents and their peers. Seaweed is a part of her identity. She is now a matriarch in seaweed farming, guiding the next generation in a livelihood that holds the key to their survival. Of the seaweed farmers in Zanzibar, 88% are women, making this an important activity to elevate their economic status and role in the community.

Sometimes described as a “hidden champion”, seaweed has a range of applications, from food for humans and livestock to pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, additives, bio-packaging, cosmetics, biostimulants, and biofuels. The use of seaweed, and subsequently the market for it, has grown rapidly over the past 50 years and continues to be the most rapidly expanding sector in aquaculture production. It currently accounts for a whopping 50% of total global marine production, with the global industry’s total value estimated at US$ 14.7 billion in 2019. Globally, the industry supports approximately six million small-scale farmers and producers, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

Seaweed trading began in Tanzania in the 1930s. It was originally harvested from the wild for export to Europe and the United States, but the trade collapsed in the late 1970s when wild stocks depleted. Experimentation with commercial cultivation in Tanzania followed, with commercial cultivation of cottonii (Kappaphycus alvarezii) and spinosum (Eucheuma denticulatum) seaweed that started in 1989 on the east coast of Zanzibar. With a market in the US, France, Denmark, Spain, China, and Chile, seaweed farming is now the third largest source of income in Zanzibar and contributes significantly to the economy of the Island – particularly benefiting women like Fatuma.

Fatuma Makame, a deepwater seaweed farming pioneer from Tanzania.

The social impacts of this industry have also been far-reaching for women, not only enabling them to purchase food and essentials but also to improve housing and pay for the education of their children. This has given them recognition and power within the family and society as equal breadwinners. Men who were initially skeptical of the idea of women farming seaweed became more supportive when they saw the results. The global markets, however, have not been as supportive. The women farmers are disadvantaged by the instability of the global markets, combined with their very limited negotiating power in this billion-dollar industry.

Now, a new threat has crept in. The capriciousness of climate change is especially impacting shallow-water seaweed farming, which is the predominant method of farming for women. Rising sea temperatures, varying salinity, and unpredictable weather patterns have thrown the industry into turmoil. There has been a ten-fold reduction in the production of cottonii seaweed. The crops succumb to “ice-ice” disease – caused when changes in salinity, ocean temperature, and light intensity cause stress to the seaweed, inducing the characteristic “whitening” and hardening of tissues. Harvests have become uncertain, making it harder for families like Fatuma’s to make ends meet or to plan for the future. Without access to traditional credit or external support, the lifeblood of their community has become a precarious endeavor.

Traditionally, seaweed in Zanzibar is grown in shallow water, less than 10 cm deep during low tides, using what is called the “peg and line off-bottom method”. In these shallow waters, however, the seaweed is more exposed to sunlight and warming conditions, making it more vulnerable to ice-ice disease and epiphyte infestation. Exposure to these threats, as well as storms, is reduced in deeper water. A 2007 study found that the so-called “deep-water floating line method” is economically superior because it reduced die-off that occurs using the off-bottom method; created a seed bank that minimizes the amount of time needed to produce seed; and acted as a fish-aggregating device, allowing seaweed farmers to harvest a substantial number of fish. Other deepwater seaweed aquaculture techniques, such as deepwater tubular nets, have also proven effective in improving harvests and responding to increasing climate risks.

Some of the "Seaweed Women" of Tanzania.

An Appropriate and Contextualized Financial Solution

In 2016, a group of 13 scientists and researchers came together to form an NGO dedicated to supporting development and food security in Tanzania through sustainable aquaculture and fisheries. The founders of Aqua-Farms Organization (AFO) recognized the critical need to transform indigenous “wooden peg” tools and methods of aquaculture farming that came down through generations. These tools and methods were extremely laborious and unsuitable for a changing climate with higher temperatures and more storms. Monetary and technical support was necessary, but insufficient on its own to address the multifaceted challenges faced by the Zanzibar seaweed farming community. Subsequently, AFO joined forces with three women scientists working on seaweed – Dr. Flower Msuya, Dr. Nariman Jidawwi and Dr. Cecile Brugere – to create an “innovation cum empowerment model”.

Islam is the predominant religion in Zanzibar, where AFO first began work, with more than 90% of the population identifying as Muslim. Finance, investment, and banking practices in day-to-day life are therefore guided by Islamic Sharia laws, which prohibit all forms of exploitation and charging of interest while actively seeking fairness, equality, and justice. These were critical considerations when AFO sought a way to support the seaweed farmers through a socio-culturally appropriate financial solution.

AFO therefore designed a rent-to-own microcredit model with support from the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance Under this model, groups of up to 15 farmers (80% women and 20% men) from Kilwa in mainland Tanzania and Pemba in Zanzibar have formed cooperatives to rent deepwater seaweed farming equipment up to the value of US$ 15,000. The equipment loan covers a fiber boat, 15 horsepower engine, buoys, ropes, and cash for seeds and fuel. The terms and duration of the loan are based on the financial standing of the seaweed farmers in the cooperative, and the equipment is owned by the cooperative at the end of the loan period. In effect, this constitutes a 0% interest loan where only the cost of the equipment and administrative costs are recovered. Any additional costs incurred by AFO (such as inflation and transaction costs) are transparently communicated to the cooperative members and built into the monthly repayments. The cooperatives are supported to form “village community banks” to access financial services, such as a bank account for the security of their collective funds, and to pay back the microcredit equipment loan.

Cooperative members are also provided technical support, including training to use the new technology, evaluation of sites where the technology will be used, and training on best farming practices (including financial management and goal setting). This mix of finance, technology, and training has allowed the seaweed farmers to operate farms at scale, increase yield per unit area, and improve incomes and financial security. Improved and stable harvests have increased their ability to negotiate prices with buyers.

Women are also trained on how to add value to the seaweed by producing seaweed-derived products such as soap, shampoo, lotions, juice, jam, salads, and cakes. AFO has recently opened a local retail store to buy and sell these products, which also serves to boost local awareness and demand for seaweed products in addition to generating further income for the seaweed farmers.

As a result of the intervention, the average monthly income of each farmer like Fatuma has risen from US$ 30 to US$ 80. The communities aim to increase this to US$ 140 by 2026 with AFO’s support, by increasing annual yields from seven tons per group to 28 tons. AFO also plans to expand this model to other farmers in Zanzibar over the next two years, from two groups to ten with 150 farmers, and from the current coverage of eight hectares to 23 hectares. This is expected to result in generating more than US$ 150,000 annually for the communities.

Seaweed farmers from Pemba at a financial and goal-setting training session.

AFO is currently exploring a revolving-fund model, where the loans paid back into the fund can be made available to other cooperatives on a rolling basis. Currently, the farming cooperatives that are part of the pilot use the collected funds to continuously build the capacity of existing cooperatives. With the revolving fund model, AFO will be able to sustainably scale up the number of loans the organization can provide in the future. The aim is to mobilize both public and private finance, through a blended finance approach, to capitalize the revolving fund. In the next few months, AFO in collaboration with Mawimbi Ocean Initiative and with support from Convergence – a blended finance facility – will conduct a feasibility study for establishing an Africa Seaweed Finance Facility to house the revolving fund. 

Fatuma Makame, who is part of one of the cooperatives and benefited from the increase in income, has become a pioneer deepwater seaweed farmer in Zanzibar. Her story, like many others, reflects the resilience of women in the face of adversity. As the coastal communities of Tanzania grapple with the challenges posed by climate change and the shifting tides of the seaweed farming industry, the importance of locally led adaptation cannot be overstated. The community’s intimate knowledge of their environment, its intricacies, and its history are invaluable assets in devising more sustainable livelihoods in the face of climate change. They need tailored financial and technical support to converge the wisdom of tradition with the innovation of necessity.

Seaweed harvesting by the cooperative.