Seaweed Farmers in Zanzibar
Project info

Seaweed farming is an occupation dominated by women who live in rural villages. Today roughly 3% of the population of Zanzibar is involved in seaweed cultivation, and it provides approximately 20% of Zanzibar’s export earnings. The thin thread that connects seaweed farmers in Zanzibar to the global economy is growing more fragile by the day as poverty levels rise and environmental and economic activities like seaweed farming become increasingly unsustainable.

There is something sublime about the way in which the two seaweed farmers looking outwards towards the horizon line across the vast expanses of ocean and sandbars at low tide seem so distant, so detached and so protected from the intrusive technology and architecture of modern life. There is something sacred about their proximity to nature and their graceful alternation between togetherness and solitude, moments of union, attunement, separation, individuation and reunion.

In my mind, the direct contact between the hands of the seaweed farmers, the water and the seaweed, evoke memories of timeless images of women laborers in paintings such as Jean‐Francois Millet’s The Gleaners and Vincent Van Gogh's Two Peasant Women Digging. The minimalist visual elements of Zanzibar’s rural coastal landscape and horizon line at low tide in the shifting light, illuminating rippling currents, elicit associations with Monet’s Haystacks, Caspar David Friedrich's Woman Before the Rising Sun and Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides - as they mark the day's evolution from sunrise to sunset. In the photographs, timeless elements of nature appear resilient and perpetually renewable with reliable constancy, even as other aspects of the modern world rapidly grow and change, altered by human hands, becoming more and more synthetic and technology-driven.

Many seaweed farmers are illiterate and have limited leverage when it comes to negotiations with local brokers who often provide tools such as ropes and pegs on the condition that the seaweed farmers sell their seaweed exclusively to them. Within the isolated confines of Zanzibar’s rural villages, these factors contribute to depressing prices for the raw commodity. One major problem currently facing seaweed farmers in Zanzibar is the absence of infrastructure and hardware needed to process crops and extract valuable algae. This incapacity forces them to be totally dependent on industrialized countries.

After the seaweed has been laid out in the sun to dry it is transported from rural villages to Stone Town and from there it is exported to Europe and the United States where it is prized for the chemicals it produces in the form of algae extracts and also for its remarkable ability to absorb tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide. Algae’s valuable extracts are widely used in food (such as processed dairy, meat, and fruit products), in cosmetics (such as lipstick and mascara), in paint, toothpaste, air fresheners, pharmaceuticals, and in agriculture, a sector in which farmers have seen great improvements in their harvests, thanks to products like Kelpak. On a global level, the import and export of seaweed is a $200 billion business, with the United States importing nearly $50 billion worth each year. One seaweed broker in Zanzibar reported that he paid farmers seven US cents per kilogram of seaweed. According to another report that looked at Tanzania as a whole including Zanzibar, farmers who harvest seaweed every two months earn about $500 per family. That is equivalent to approximately six months of work for fishermen.

Fuels derived from Algae have demonstrated great potential in the arena of transportation as alternative green biofuels, with molecular structures that resemble those found in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Exxon and Boeing have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in genetically engineering synthetic strains of algae. Without microfinance loans, improved education, and community organization amongst laborers, seaweed farming as a cash‐generating, economically empowering occupation for rural village women cannot grow as an industry and a valuable opportunity will be lost.

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