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.
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Mwanaisha and Mashavu wade through the low ankle-deep tide, their skirts dragging in the water, until they reach their farm. There, they get to work harvesting seaweed as a team.
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.
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.
Back at home, Mwanaisha and Mashavu mix water, ground seaweed powder, coconut oil, caustic soda and essential oils into a large plastic tub to make homemade soap.
After about 10 minutes of stirring with a large wooden spoon, the soap mixture looks like thick oatmeal. The women set it aside for 24 hours until it hardens. Later that week, they sell their finished products in Zanzibar town.
Finished soap made at home by Mwanaisha and Mashavu, two women seaweed farmers in Zanzibar.