Seaweed farming: two decades of hope and despair for Zanzibar villagers

By
Abraham Makinda:

It is
a curse and a blessing for women villagers at Bweleo, Mjini Magharibi District
in western Zanzibar. Seaweed farming binds
the women together into a vicious cycle of poverty. Yet for the majority, the
crop is the only assured means of livelihood.

For a
few, it is also offers a hope to entering the world of aplenty personified by
tourists at Zanzibar heavenly beaches, the ruling elite and affluent members of
the business community.

In the
early 1990s after the crop was introduced, it was a kind of a black gold,
offering hope for quick economic solution. After all many women used to be
housewives staying at home as their husbands went out fishing. No wonder women
quickly, adopted the crop and within a few years almost every other housewife
became a seaweed farmer.

Safia
Hashim Makame (45) is one of the pioneers, who took seaweed farming at heart
when the crop was first introduced in her village 20 years ago. The prospects
were big but after years of hard labour she could not see any light at the end
of the tunnel.

Low
prices and unpromising market has been our undoing, says Safia. Lack of
knowledge has also been another impediment. With the vicious cycle of poverty
seemingly endless, Safia had to think outside the box.

It is
only a few years ago the mother of six, realised
to get added value, and possibly get the long sought economic salvation, moving
beyond selling raw seaweed was necessary.

Safia
has started using seaweed to manufacture simple products like soaps and juices.
Her life since she started the additional ventures has improved manifold, she
admits.

From
the new ventures of making soap, snacks and juices made from seaweed, she rakes
home a monthly profit of Tsh 200,000, when the business is bad.

With
additional income from making ornament like necklace, bracelets and earrings
from shells, life seems to be treating her kindly. If she would had disclosed
her total earnings, I guess, it’s handsome!

According
to Safia, about five years ago, Dr. Narriman Jidawi, a marine biologist at the
Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) of the University of Dar es Salaam, with an
American friend taught villagers how to use materials found in the coast to produce
ornaments. “Many villagers attended the free training but only a few took the
challenge,” she says.

Her husband
has been very supportive and she considers herself as an example of how the coastal
community has changed for the better. “We
can afford better housing, education, food, clothing and other
necessities,” she says.

But
for the average seaweed farmer life is not so rosy. Agents of foreign companies
are the main buyers of their produce. A kilogram of seaweed goes for Tsh 250. Many
rake home about Tsh 40,000 to 60,000 after a month of handwork. Their better
counterparts producing more seaweed per month are able to make about Tsh
300,000. Some reports say the amount is better than what the fishermen earn in
a similar period.

For
the average farmer, the amount they get is not enough to meet basic
necessities. Mwanaidi Abdallah (37), another villager at Bweleo, the little
amount earned makes it impossible to get out of the mire of poverty.

To
make ends meet villagers have to supplement seaweed farming, which is the main
cash crop activity for women, with other chores.

Mohamed
Mrisho Haji (39) alias ‘Okala’ of Jambiani Village in South Coast Zanzibar says
a good number of farmers are involved in illegal dynamite fishing and tree
cutting for firewood so as to better their lives. According to him, the environmental
destructive activities only make things worse.

Okala,
one of the few men involved in the trade at one time says to achieve his dream of
economic freedom, he had to abandon seaweed farming. He has become a tourist guide and also works
for Marine Culture, an organisation looking at the viability of a sponge
project in Zanzibar.

“For
many years, I was a seaweed farmer….I realised, in order to succeed, I do not
have to keep all my eggs in one basket,” he says.

The
story of no solution in sight for poverty eradication for the farming community
is replicated in Paje where in 1989, the crop was introduced first as well as
in Fumba Chaleni, Fumba bondeni, Nyamanzii, Unguja Ukuu, Chwaka and Kigomani
villages.

Most
farmers are not aware that the seaweed they produce can be used to manufacture simple
products with readily available market. Rather than act creatively to solve
their problems they blame the politicians for the poverty in the island.

Zikeni
Mosi (22), a farmer from Kigomani is angry with the whole establishment. She
says during the election period politicians promised to fight for improved
prices for the seaweed. “That was the last we saw of them,” she says.

Dr.
Narriman Jidawi has a passion for people centred development. She says, farmers
must do their best to improve their lives. Other support should be counted as
an addendum. She feels that spoon feeding people for development does not work.

The Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) has
been trying to add value for seaweed farms. “We have been training the community how to
use the seaweed to make soaps, juice, cookies and jellies,” she says.

Dr.
Jidawi is totally convinced that seaweed farming offers a big hope for economic
salvation for the villagers. What is needed is the use of the right approach.
IMS had advised farmers to establish cooperative societies. A plan to have an apex
body that will link all cooperatives is underway, she says. It will solve the
problem of the market, where foreign agents exploit the disunited farmers, she
adds.

“Women
can do seaweed farming during the spring tides and do jewellery at neap tides
when they cannot go into the ocean,” she says.

Makame
Salum Nassor, public relations manager of Seaweed Corporation, which has been
buying seaweed for 20 years says, prices are controlled by the law of demand
and supply at the international market. Thus there is little that can be done
to increase the price of the raw produce. Still, he agrees farmers have been
getting a raw deal and stakeholders including government should come together
in seeking solution.

The
company exports to America and Europe unprocessed seaweed. He says they would
like to build a plant but the environment is not conducive as constant supply
of raw materials, water and electricity is not guaranteed. “We would need constant
supply of 10,000 seaweed tones every year, which are hard to come-by in the
current setting,’’ he says. There are six companies which buy the produce in
Zanzibar.

Radhia
Rashid Ally, director of policy, plans and research, Ministry of Labour,
Economic Empowerment and Cooperative in Zanzibar, says, the government is aware
of poverty problem facing most of seaweed farmers and is seeking ways to empower
them through offering entrepreneurship skills.

It
seems what will save the coastal community from the vicious cycle of poverty is
undertaking multiple but creative entrepreneurship activities. Asha Abdi, social change officer of Tanzania
Media Women Association (Tamwa) – Women Empowerment Program in Zanzibar (WEZA),
sums it all, saying that for seaweed farmers to be liberated from poverty they
have to become entrepreneurs first. ”

End

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