seaweed farming in zanzibar

the best “office” view in the world - working in warm, shallow, crystal clear water, looking out to the Indian ocean and the white sails going past. but the work is hard and relentless for the young girls tasked with transferring the still wet seaweed from the farms to shore.

Seaweed farming is big business in Zanzibar. Actually, it’s huge business, with Zanzibar exporting up to 12,000 tons of seaweed a year, contributing over $5 million to the local economy. For a relatively poor island, this is important on many levels - financial, social and reputational. For a structured and, in many ways, strict, Muslim society, the ability of women to not only work - and work hard - but also to contribute significantly to the family budget, have an independent status in society is both unusual but also groundbreaking and has influenced Zanzibari society quite significantly over the years.

But, what is seaweed farming? Well, it is pretty much what the word suggests but, as always, the devil is in the details. In Zanzibar, seaweed is farmed in a rather unusual way: short poles, no more than 30 or 40cm high, are driven deep into the sand in shallow waters with rope or string (also relatively thick) strung loosely between them. Then, at regular intervals, small or medium sized thick seaweed is tied along the rope and then left to grow over a period of 3-5 weeks until they are ready for harvesting. Seaweed farming plots are not unlike normal agricultural plots, ranging in size from a few square meters to more than a hundred meters in width.

Almost all farming is done by women (more than 90%) and younger girls and it is truly back-breaking work. Yes, the work environment is second to none - emerald blue, crystal clear waters, white sand, coral and unprecedented wildlife, the ocean breeze on your back and the sight of white sails crisscrossing the horizon is not something you can beat, but the work is harsh!

From around 9 in the morning to well past 2pm, under constant harsh sun, intense heat (sometimes reaching 40C) all the time walking on sharp coral, sea-urchins and even sharper roots, cutting the soles of your feet constantly, most of the time bent over and working under time pressure. I spent less than two days with the women of eastern Zanzibar and after that, the condition of my feet was so bad that they swelled for almost a week and walking was extremely painful! No wonder the old Zanzibari saying: "Mwani (the Swahili word for seaweed) is money"!

following a storm, seaweed gets ripped from the farms and carried along the water. the first task of each day is to walk around and collect separated seaweed to return to the farm

To the visitor of course, the sight of the women with the colourful dresses against the wonderful blues of the sky and sea, with patches of green and white breaking up the blue is majestic and the subject of many photos, selfies and excitement. Don’t get me wrong, this is rightly so - the sight is truly spectacular and I cannot imagine another place in the world where so many colours can be seen so close together - the young girls, dressed in every single colour imaginable, sometimes combining both clashing and complimentary colours, running along the shallow waters, laughing and teasing each other, their mothers (or, generally, elder women) carefully and tenderly managing the delicate seaweed, all set against the brilliant backdrop of amazingly blue waters is a spectacle like no other - have a look at the images and tell me what you think - and anyone can simply just spend hours looking at them without ever getting bored…and yet, there is intense toil and hardship underneath all that beauty. And it’s only getting harder.

Before we explain WHY things are becoming harder, let’s take a quick look at a seaweed farmer’s daily routine - which, by the way, goes on every single day of the week, without any breaks. The women will usually start their day around 6 or 7am, patrolling the sandy beach at the water break point, collecting any loose seaweed (either loose from the start or detached during the night). These are collected in sacks (approximately 1m high) and then carted to an established collection/gathering point. This task, depending on how rough the sea was the night before, may take anything between 1 and 2 whole hours or, in any event, until the sea recedes enough to allow access to the plots themselves. That’s when the hard work starts.
The older women head out directly to the plots, examining each one and each strand within each plot, checking they are still attached, correcting and reattaching when necessary, identifying problem areas and so on. It is a very time sensitive task and one which requires skill!

On top of everything else, this has to be done quickly because sometimes the work identified can be quite significant. Poles need to be driven into the sand, ropes reattached and seaweed retied where loose - in other words, bringing order to whatever chaos the sea wreaked the night before. I came across two separate cases where most of the plot was so damaged by the overnight waves it had to be "replanted" almost completely. Then, it’s all about harvesting the mature/ready seaweed, replacing the gaps in the strings, moving less mature seaweed into the more mature slots and so on. As more and more seaweed are harvested, it is the turn of the younger girls to step in. Their job is to package the wet - and surprisingly heavy - seaweed into the sacks, packing them as highly as possible, and, once each sack is full, hoist it on their head (which is a task and a half) and then carry it to shore. Once deposited, they return again and again until all seaweed is collected and deposited on the beach.

After that, things become a little bit simpler - the sacks are opened and emptied on the sand (the sand in Zanzibar is largely fine coral and sea shells and is mostly very tightly packed, allowing the seaweed to be spread out without problems and with little sand contamination) and left to dry for anything between 2 and 6 hours (depending on maturity, thickness etc.) They are then sorted and repacked before being shipped to the central warehouse for subsequent processing. It is, as you can see, hard work and getting progressively harder... and this is a big problem for Zanzibar.

You see, traditionally, seaweed farming in Zanzibar was easier. Plots could be set up on shallow waters no more than 2-3m from the beach, usually in soft sand and, believe it or not, sometimes even under the shade of palm trees. In fact, traditionally, it was conditions like these which would produce the best seaweed - cool water, non-rocky surroundings competing for nutrients, not too many other factors endangering the plots and the harvest. But during the last decade, things have not really been going very well.

There are many reasons for this: global warming resulting in constantly increasing water temperatures (warm temperatures result in smaller, softer seaweed, which are not prized as highly in the markets), bigger differences between high and low tides, resulting in plots sometimes simply left drying in the sun (and once they dry, they are dead and cannot be revived) and, increasingly the last few years, tourism (and not the good kind). Let me explain:

I first went to Zanzibar in 2011 - back then, along the eastern shores of the island there were, maybe, one hotel every 100m, most of them smaller, boutique ones, most of them catering to laid back tourists wanting to spend a few days after their “hardships” going on safari in Kenya and Tanzania. Pretty much everyone I met back then fit this profile. Sure, there were a couple of hotels offering windsurfing (there’s some excellent wind in Zanzibar, especially in the mornings) but that was pretty much it. I would wake up in the morning and for hours I would only see local women walking along the beach, gathering small shells for cooking later in the day and, let me tell you, not a seaweed farm in sight! Now, this is significant, so please read on.

Now, almost 8 years later, hotels are literally packed next to each other and almost all of them offer wind-related activities, most of them kite-surfing and jet-skis. On a soft windy day, the sky is literally littered with hundreds of sky kites (it’s ridiculously satisfying to see them getting tangled with each other and falling down) with their riders crisscrossing the surface of the water EXACTLY where the seaweed farms would be, at the exact time when farmers would need to tend to their plots. Jet skis, far fewer in number, simply compound the problem.

seaweed is tied along thick string at a distance of 15-20cm. the string is then strung along two deeply buried wooden sticks at just below the waterline at low tide

The above means farmers have been forced to move away from the ideal or preferred spots and to waters far deeper only accessible at low tide which, in Zanzibar, lasts between 10 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon. This means less time spent tending to the plots, more intense farming, worse conditions (as receding waters take with them most nutrients and also put forces on the seaweed stunning their growth). And, on top of that, add the fact that they constantly need to carve new paths to their plots among the coral (and for those of you who have never stepped on a sharp coral, let me tell you, it’s horribly painful!) and the sea urchins, making carrying the gathered seaweed all the more difficult and time-consuming.

Seaweed farming is a very qualitative - rather than quantitative - business. Seaweed must be selected, harvested, based on very soft qualities - their softness, their colour, their size and even their spread - how complex and far-reaching their branches are. Sorting them, selecting the ones which are ready for harvest, and moving them to help promote their growth or affect some of their other qualities, can only be taught on the job, through many back-breaking hours. Any factor influencing the quality of the seaweed has an enormous impact on the quality of an entire crop, sometimes lasting for months, reducing the price commanded by the seaweed by as much as 50%. And, as we all know, once prices start going down, it is very difficult to bring them back up. As a result of the ever increasing pressure on prices and the diminishing quality of the seaweed, the farmers are forced to seek revenue elsewhere - some have turned to household crafts (basket weaving, rug making etc.), but those need material, an independent distribution network and points of sale - all of which are mostly either lacking or are in very basic levels, making subsistence harder and harder.

Others have tried to expand their operation by banding together, forming cooperatives and even opening their farms out to tourists and making deals with hotels. This is still not very easy - Zanzibar is a Muslim territory and business ran by women is frequently frowned upon, often needing male directors and finance officers to flourish, but in this day and age, the women seaweed farmers of Zanzibar are becoming more and more open to new ways of working, even if it means sacrificing some of their hard-earned revenues. It is these women who are still keeping this amazing tradition alive and the world - us - owes it to them to help them succeed.

I cannot recommend a visit to the seaweed farms enough - it is a rare sight and, while the people are not always amenable to random tourists snapping hundreds of pictures of them in the middle of their workday, they are overall very nice, very willing and eager to laugh (mostly at the tourists suffering from a hundred things slashing their feet) and more than happy to share their workday with you. Of course, these days finding a large seaweed farm is more complex than it used to be - there are fewer now and more difficult to find, but if any of you happen to be in Zanzibar and you want to see them, head out to Jambiani beach, south of Paje, and a few hundred meters past Pakachi Beach Resort (in fact, you can access the beach from Pakachi) and you will see a massive one. If you don’t know how to head out to the east coast, most hotels can organise transfer or even a driver for the day for you. Two things: first, make sure you have some beach, waterproof shoes. No, not flip-flops or those really thin foot glove things - they are the worst - but actual, proper shoes you can take into the water. Second, a wide-brimmed hat and very strong sunscreen… trust me, you will thank me!

To see more images from Zanzibar, click here.