A tide of opportunity for Tanzanian women

Thembi Mutch spends the day with women farming seaweed in Zanzibar and discovers how an innovative community business is empowering them to take control of their lives

I’m sitting at a restaurant table, on the beach, with Dr Flower Msuya and the sun is so bright we can’t see if the tape recorder is working. We’re a few hundred metres from the Seaweed Center, a new community-owned business that is transforming the lives of local women on the small island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, east of the mainland in the Indian Ocean.

A young chef proudly presents the meal: seaweed salad, garnished with peppers, tomato, fresh sardines and chips. Seaweed tastes like crisp lettuce, slightly sweeter, and is one of the highest sources of vitamin K and iron possible to consume. In an area where poor soil and rainfall makes growing vegetables a huge challenge, this is fantastic news for people on low budgets.

“Isn’t this great!” gushes the very likeable Dr Flower. “Several years ago I was training young people in the restaurant and catering college to use seaweed in dishes. It’s worked!”

Offering much needed work for more than 40 women farmers, the Seaweed Center combines a seaweed farm, a seaweed processing site and a factory for an intriguing range of new seaweed products, with a guesthouse and educational centre. The centre employs cooks, waitresses and other staff, as well as hosting a constant stream of gap year volunteers eager to get their hands dirty. Many of the female farmers also run tours for commercial and interested travellers, where they patiently explain the seaweed farming processes to intrigued foreigners.

The magic ingredient

Toothpaste, antibiotics, medicinal capsules, furniture varnish – what do they have in common? The answer is seaweed; it’s one of the most versatile emulsifiers. As the source of substances known commercially as agar and carrageenan, seaweed is the reason why your toothpaste doesn’t completely harden in the tube after you’ve opened it.

But the use of seaweed is about to change. Step forward seaweed cake, seaweed soap, and seaweed jam; all made for the first time on Zanzibar.

The world market for seaweed is dominated by the Philippines. With large expanses of sand, extremely clean water, no sewage outlets and no kite surfers, sailors or fishermen to disrupt the seaweed, it grows prolifically.

“The use of seaweed is about to change. Step forward seaweed cake, seaweed soap, and seaweed jam; all made for the first time on Zanzibar”

Back in 1973, the seaweed E. spinosum was introduced in Tanzania, with a view to production in order to diversify and decrease the pressure on fish stocks. But Tanzanian seaweed quickly ran into trouble due to the low world prices and the delicacy of seaweed – even fresh water (from a heavy rainfall) destroys it, as it needs a particular salinity to thrive.

Never one to give up, Dr Flower started experimenting over the next 20 years. She was determined to make use of Zanzibar’s assets and the local women’s need for work and control of their livelihoods.

Two new varieties of seaweed were introduced: Striatum and L. papillosa. They are pink, beige or dark green depending on the stages of their growth, and small and feathery looking. They’re more resilient and achieve higher market prices. Today it’s estimated that Zanzibar produces 5,000 metric tonnes of seaweed a year; each strand picked by hand, and probably a woman’s hand.

Tackling the challenges

Now, the new Seaweed Center – which is based in the village of Paje and overseen by Dr Flower Msuya and Swedish entrepreneur Fredrick Alfredsson – has identified ways to overcome the ongoing challenges, particularly that of fluctuating international seaweed prices.

“The key problem is that the world market keeps the prices low and the farmers were dispersed and had no collective bargaining power,” says Dr Flower. At the moment the price for seaweed is 450 shillings a kilo (about twenty pence) and seaweed is farmed wet, and is therefore very heavy, but once dry it shrinks to half its size.

Zanzibar’s contribution to the seaweed market is not big enough to flex any muscle. So, with help of graduates on the MBA programme at the Danish Chalmers Business School, the Zanzibar Marine Sciences Institute and various European stakeholders, the aim behind the Seaweed Center was to find ways to make the women autonomous and in control of the market.

The main challenge for employment in this idyllic tourist spot is lack of diversity and choice in the work market. Young men often hunt octopus by hand, jeopardising themselves and the octopus population. Ironically despite the almost daily springing up of hotels – which presents another set of problems, as they block access to the beach and erect fences that cause beach erosion – the routes into tourism work for people who have no English are minimal.

Women dance during the opening ceremony of the Seaweed Center. Photo © The Seaweed Center

As well as helping provide employment, the Seaweed Center is also beginning to make a contribution to addressing health issues. The local doctor, a Canadian affectionately known only as Ali Baba runs a free local clinic, treating hundreds of seaweed farmers a month. Over 15,000 people, 90% of whom are women, are employed sporadically in seaweed on the island best known for spices and tourism.

“The thing is people don’t necessarily have the resources to know what is wrong with them,” says Ali Baba. “They come in complaining of headaches, backaches, it could be a minor thing like slight dehydration, or a pulled muscle or something more serious like kidney stones. We actually don’t know what the long term effects of being immersed in sea water for hours a day is.”

I follow three women farmers for the day – Patima, Sejaba and Kidawa – who crouch in the water for hours on end, cultivating the seaweed: tying it on to pieces of rope strung across the low tide fields. When the tides come in, work stops, when it is low, work happens. No matter that it is the hottest part of the day, with temperatures hitting 48C out of the shade. Seaweed farmer Mama Sejaba complains that she gets a bad back, sore eyes from the sun, and swollen feet from the work: “I lift about ten kilos each sack, and do about ten a day, walking up to 2km each way across the beach. God, I get so tired, it all takes so long, to change.” But she goes on to explain that these days, she can cut down on her hours actually harvesting seaweed and instead concentrate on production of soap, and marketing opportunities.

The benefits of diversifying

The solution to the employment and health issues was to diversify. Rather than just exporting seaweed, since June 2012 the Seaweed Center’s factory has put the drying and processing of the seaweed – for products such as jam, soap and possibly in the future a range of beauty products – in the hands of the actual farmers. In the process local women also learnt new, and importantly, transferable skills, such as negotiating, planning, costing and distribution.

“Profit shall be invested in future development and expansion to include more local women”

The women take their own seaweed into town with hired cars or public transport and are no longer dependant on one buyer or the overcrowded lorries that also take vegetables, fruit and people to market in the early hours. The Seaweed Center has its own distribution networks, and thus power and leverage.

The Seaweed Center also provides a space where women farmers can socialise and learn. Mama Patima explains: “It’s been so important for me to have outsiders and foreigners giving me input in my work, and more background. Plus I am seeing how other farmers work, what options are available, and I talk to other women, which I like a lot.”

The centre’s ‘resilience networks’ – whereby farmers, producers, buyers and packers all meet up and mutually control the pricing – are essential safety nets in times of hardship.

Radical jam

The move to make soap, cake and jam is radical in a quiet way, believes Dr. Flower. She feels this is real corporate social responsibility in action: “In the articles of the company, the women are the only stakeholders who can take out profit or money from the company. We want the Seaweed Center here in Paje to expand, but all the dividends and all the profits will go back to the women. If we create three seaweed cluster initiative centres, we get new profits and are creating new markets.”

A limited dividend policy has been applied by the Seaweed Center, stating that profit shall be invested in future development and expansion to include more local women, which will give them much needed extra cash for schooling, medicine and mobile phone credits.

“Having a bit of extra money to ring family not on Zanzibar is a real treat for me,” says Mama Patima, “something I really appreciate, and can do now.”

Kidawa, who has the looks of a supermodel despite her gruelling routine, smiles when I ask her what she wants. “Obviously, I want our soap in all the shops, I want a greater understanding of supply chains and markets, and I want a sense of how other women, women like me, live in other parts of Tanzania,” she answers. “And to maybe share knowledge and business ideas.”

I leave with a stack of soap, a mouth refreshed with the tingly fizz of seaweed jam, and a feeling that the way forward for development is models like this, based on more equal distribution of profits with those at the ‘hard end’ having a say in decision-making, pricing and distribution.

The writer would like to thank everyone at the Seaweed Center.