Seaweed farmers in hot water as Zanzibar struggles

2016-05-01 16:11
A woman harvesting seaweed. (Issa Yusuf, AFP)

A woman harvesting seaweed. (Issa Yusuf, AFP)

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Zanzibar - Waist deep in sparkling blue water off the white beaches of the Indian Ocean spice island of Zanzibar, seaweed farmer Mtumwa Vuai Ameir gently ties seedlings to wood poles.

Seaweed farmed on the Tanzanian archipelago is one of Zanzibar's key exports - used for food, cosmetics and medicines in Asia, Europe and North America - but now the vital industry is struggling with warmer waters killing the crops.

"We are desperate, and some farmers have been discouraged and abandoned the work," said Ameir, who has been a seaweed farmer for over 20 years.

She works alongside her daughter and husband in the small village of Muungoni, about 40km southwest of Zanzibar town.

As crop yields decline, cheaper production and transport costs in Asia are also challenging Zanzibar's position as the world's third-biggest producer of spinosum seaweed.

Over 23 000 farmers grow and harvest the seaweed - around 80% of them women - according to government statistics.

But tens of thousands more depend indirectly on an industry that provides a key income for families with few other means to earn a living.

Medicine, cosmetics, food

Seaweed from Zanzibar is exported to China, Korea, Vietnam, Denmark, Spain, France and the US. It is used as an ingredient base for cosmetics, lotions and toothpaste, as well as in medicines. It is also eaten as a vegetable.

Farmers say that reduction in demand from abroad and subsequent falling prices has made turning a profit a challenge.

"Seaweed is now cheaper in Asia, compared to our price, therefore we must drop prices to maintain our buyers," said Arif Mazrui, who runs Zanque Aqua Farms, a seaweed business, blaming price fluctuation in the world market.

But the plants also face a threat from disease as well as poor weather, which have both caused production levels to drop in Zanzibar.

Warmer waters - due to climate change or other causes - is a major factor in the decline in seaweed growth.

Hotter water, lower yields

Narriman Jidawi, from the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Dar es Salaam, said research into the production decline was under way.

"When it is too hot... seaweed [does] not grow very well, so a lot of women have stopped actually cultivating," Jidawi said.

The university's marine scientists and environmentalists are encouraging seaweed farmers to try and grow their crop in deeper, cooler waters in a bid to minimise infection, after tests showed the seaweed fared better there.

Farming in deeper water, however, is harder to do.

"The seaweed business is now a challenge - both farmers and exporters are frustrated," Mazrui said. "But we are encouraging them to continue production with hope that the price will rise again in the near future."

The government is worried, and trying to find solutions.

Zanzibar's President Ali Mohamed Shein - who won a second term in office in March after a controversial re-run of elections the opposition claimed it had won - used his inaugural speech to parliament to address the seaweed issue.

Improving seaweed production was among his priorities, he said, promising to improve equipment for farmers and to work to boost the market.

Hashim Moumin, head of aquaculture at the ministry of livestock and fisheries, said they were promoting "seaweed processing light industries" as an alternative to relying on exports of raw material.

"We invite investors to establish industries that will use seaweed as material," Moumin said.

For the farmers, they must struggle on with little choice.

"Despite low prices and poor production, I am still reluctant to quit this hard job, because I need to earn money," said Ameir.

Read more on:    tanzania  |  climate change

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