When seaweed farming started in Zanzibar, 30 years ago, it was hailed as a success story, giving women producers economic independence, a chance to engage in an activity away from their homes, and a way to assert their rights.
But this is no longer. With the drastic onset of climate change, rising sea temperatures and salinity variations have significantly reduced the amount of seaweed growing along the shores of Zanzibar, and are jeopardizing the livelihoods of the women seaweed producers who grow it and sell it. Using the traditional peg-and-rope technique, women work in appalling conditions, spending long hours sitting in shallow waters under the burning sun sorting uprooted pegs and tangled lines, getting cuts and stings from aquatic animals, carrying heavy loads of wet seaweed on their heads ashore. Yet their income is meagre and far from commensurate with their efforts: a kilo of dried Cottonii seaweed sells at only US$0.4, and one kg of dried Spinosum seaweed at only US$0.2.
Armed with these considerations and determined to change the situation around, help meet the women producers’ needs and regain their economic independence, Dr Flower Msuya, myself and three other colleagues from Zanzibar, Tanzania mainland and Kenya, came up with the idea of introducing a new seaweed farming technology – deep water tubular nets – to improve seaweed productivity and women’s livelihoods and empowerment. This is how Sea PoWer started.
Tubular nets: new hope and new challenges
What are tubular nets?
Tubular nets are long tubes made of fishing net material, in which seaweed bunches are placed at regular intervals. The nets holding the seaweed are then taken out to sea on a boat and placed in deeper waters (approx. 5-10m deep) by a snorkeler. The nets are held in place by ropes weighed by sandbags on the sea floor. At harvest, the nets and their contents are lifted up on a boat, brought ashore and opened to extract the grown seaweed. This short video shows how small bunches of seaweed are “planted” in tubular nets before being taken out at sea for being placed under water: “Innovating Now”
The nets alleviate hardship because they are relatively easy to operate and can handled from a boat instead of being carried by women themselves.
However, the use of tubular nets presents a number of key challenges for women producers. Local culture and traditions regarding assigned gender roles in society prevent women from performing some tasks such as going out to sea and engaging in economic activities without asking for permission from their husband. As tubular nets are for deeper water, they also require either swimming or boat handling skills that most women do not have. Little is known about the economic profitability of this new technology, its potential cultural acceptance and adoption, as well as its impact on livelihoods and women’s empowerment. There are unfortunately plenty of examples where the introduction of a new technology did little to improve women’s conditions, and instead resulted in an increase in their workload or was taken over by men. Accounting for cultural factors as well challenging prevailing gender dynamics is therefore pivotal for the sensitive introduction of the innovation to women’s groups of seaweed farmers and for its sustained adoption before it is scaled out to the rest of the region.
In 2016, Sea PoWer – the introduction of an improved seaweed farming technology for women’s empowerment, livelihoods and environmental protection – was selected as one of the ten winners of Australia’s prestigious Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Blue Economy Challenge Award. A year later, in 2017, SwedBio, a knowledge interface at Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, further complemented our funding to increase the impact of Sea PoWer by involving a second group of women producers and focusing on social issues and women’s empowerment arising from the introduction of the tubular nets.
The Sea PoWer story narrated by Dr Flower Msuya can be viewed in this short video produced by SecondMuse, Inc.
Sea PoWer’s unique approach: women’s empowerment through innovation
Sea PoWer’s goal and activities
The goal of Sea PoWer is to achieve, in partnership with the women seaweed producers, an adapted seaweed farming technology – the tubular nets – that transforms their lives, supports their aspirations, farming and livelihoods needs, helps the sustainable integration of seaweed farming in the local economic and ecological landscapes, and is ready for scaling out and widespread adoption in the entire Western Indian Ocean.
Find out more about Sea PoWer’s goals and activities.
Sea PoWer’s achievements
Thanks to the innovative and gender-sensitive approach Sea PoWer has used to introduce the tubular net technology and develop the capacity of the women seaweed producers, Sea PoWer has become more than a technology project. It has become a concept under which seaweed farming innovation cannot be separated from women’s empowerment.
Sea PoWer has helped the women seaweed producers become familiar with the tubular net technology, produce the higher valued seaweed, be knowledgeable and skilled in making and using tubular nets, and work in deep waters without fear. At the end of the project, women showed their confidence in using the tubular nets and the innovative protocol of production, and in working together more closely than they ever were in the past.
The Sea PoWer pilots demonstrated that seaweed productivity from tubular nets in deeper water is higher than with the traditional off-bottom technique in shallow areas. With this technology, women are getting fewer stings and cuts from paddling in the lagoon, as they are mostly on the boat.
The details of all the Sea PoWer research activities, findings and achievements are available in the final report.