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Photo: Rachel Clara Reed

The crop called ‘a gift from the ocean’ is threatened by rising temps

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania — “Twenty years ago, this beach was full of women farming. Now, barely anyone.”

I’m following Mohamad Mzale as he steps onto the white sand of Paje beach, a southeastern slice of paradise on Zanzibar island off mainland Tanzania. Mzale farms maize and cassava, but today he will introduce me to his friends that farm seaweed—the island’s third biggest industry after tourism and spices.

Seaweed farming was introduced to Zanzibar in 1989 from the Philippines, and 90 percent of the farmers are women. “Communities [on the island] were so happy when it started,” Narriman Jiddawi, a marine scientist from the University of Dar es Salaam tells me. “They call it a ‘gift from the ocean.'”

However, today, she says, some women have been discouraged from farming because of increasing climate change challenges.

Mohamed and I join Mwanaisha Makame and Mashavu Rum, two women who have been farming seaweed for 20 years. They are sisters-in-law and neighbors, and they formed a cooperative of 28 women farmers 10 years ago to join forces and increase incomes.

“We can think of stronger ideas together,” Mwanaisha explains. “It’s much easier to help each other with all the tasks we have to do.” This proves to be particularly helpful as healthy seaweed levels dwindle and the women have to get creative with how they make their daily income.

I spend a humid day on the beach with Mwanaisha and Mashavu, learning about the process of seaweed farming and how important the farming is to the women’s livelihoods.

Rachel Clara Reed

Mwanaisha and Mashavu wade through the low ankle-deep tide, their skirts dragging in the water, until they reach their farm. It looks like a bunch of wooden stakes stuck haphazardly in the sand. There, they get to work. Mwanaisha collects floating seaweed and hands it to Mashavu, who ties it to bright blue rope. Then, Mashavu ties the rope around two stakes a few meters apart and pushes the stakes into the soft ground below. They work quickly and silently, a rhythm picked up over years of working alongside one another.

Rachel Clara Reed

The seaweed will grow underwater for at least 45 days. When it reaches one kilogram, the women pick it and dry it out in the sun. Then they pack it in bags and sell it to companies that export to countries like China, Korea and Vietnam, where it’s used in medicines and shampoos.

As an agricultural product, seaweed is remarkably efficient and environmentally friendly. It can grow to be a 10-foot plant in six weeks and requires very little labor between planting and harvesting. Seaweed absorbs fertilizer runoffs and carbon dioxide from the ocean, so it has the potential to restore dead ocean spots. But climate change is making farming much more difficult.

Rachel Clara Reed

“We have many problems with climate change while we’re farming,” says Mwanaisha, her face grim. “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.

Rachel Clara Reed

Mwanaisha holds up a clump of seaweed. “This is what good seaweed looks like.” Then she holds up seaweed that they won’t be able to use. A hard white substance has grown at the tips. Later, marine scientist Narriman Jiddawi tells me this looks like ice-ice disease, caused by higher ocean temperatures and intense sunlight. The disease produces a substance that attracts bacteria and hardens seaweed tissues, eventually killing the plant.

Mashavu looks around the farm and shakes her head, “If conditions stay the same, we can cultivate, but if [climate change effects] keep increasing, we will have to stop farming.”

As Mohamed and I head back to shore, he points out a clump of seaweed in tides so low almost none of the plant remains underwater. “This is another problem with climate change,” he says. “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.”

Rachel Clara Reed

Zanzibar’s average temperature is projected to increase by as much as 3.6º Fahrenheit  by 2050. Coastal ecosystem services like fisheries and seaweed farming make up at least 30 percent of Zanzibar’s gross domestic product and are critical to the economy. But at this rate, the island’s 23,000 seaweed farmers might be in danger of losing their livelihoods in the next few years. Some scientists suggest moving seaweed farms to deeper water where the temperature is cooler, but many local women can’t swim.

If seaweed farming dies out, women may have to return to farming on land. Mwanaisha says some farmers have tried farming cassava in the coral, but have trouble with animals eating their crops. Other women are learning to make jewelry, baskets, bread or mandazis, Kenyan donuts, to supplement their income.

Rachel Clara Reed

Later that day, we join the women again back at Mwanaisha’s home in Paje village. Mwanaisha and Mashavu mix water, ground seaweed powder, coconut oil, caustic soda and essential oils into a large plastic tub to make homemade soap.

Mashavu and the other women learned how to make soap at the Zanzibar Seaweed Center, a business that started as an NGO in 2009. At the Seaweed Center, 10 local women are employed full time to do the same farming that Mashavu and her friends practice at a larger scale. They turn seaweed into soaps, body oils and body scrubs that sell as premium organic products. When the Seaweed Center first opened, it invited all independent farmers to learn how to make the skin care products themselves at home.

After about 10 minutes of stirring with a large wooden spoon, the soap mixture looks like thick oatmeal. Mwanaisha and Mashavu, with help from another farmer in their cooperative, pour the mixture into a pan, to set aside for 24 hours until it hardens. Then cut, wrap, and package. Later in the week, they will sell their finished products in Zanzibar town or to regular local customers. Mwanaisha dreams of having a more modernized system. “We’re doing everything by hand. We need machines, especially for grinding the seaweed. Then we will be totally self-sufficient.”

Resilient, the women refuse to let declining harvests stand in their way. Just around the corner from Mwanaisha’s house, their cooperative bought a small plot of land where they’re building a structure for more production space. A T-shirt hanging in Mwanaisha’s home reads “Mwani is money.” Seaweed is money.