Warming waters hurt Zanzibar's seaweed. But women farmers have a plan.
Climate change is threatening Zanzibar's seaweed industry, and the gains that it has given farmers, who are mostly women: not just income, but newfound authority. Now they're fighting back, collaborating with researchers to protect their crops.
Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Zanzibar’s streets are serene in the dark moments before sunrise, and an amber glow tints the beach. The tide is out, and the air is fresh. A few women head to work, toting sticks on their heads and empty sacks in their hands as they walk toward the sea. They cross acres of damp white sand before reaching the warm, clear waters that shelter their farms: seaweed growing on dozens of neat, parallel ropes staked to the Indian Ocean floor.
“Seaweed farming in our area is only done by women,” says Mwanaisha Makame, a 20-year veteran of the business, as warm little waves lap at her long, flower-print skirt.
Ms. Makame’s family didn’t have money for higher education when she was young, so she went to the ocean to farm. These macroscopic marine algae changed her life.
“I used the money to build a house, I used the money to school my children,” she says of her son and daughter, now in their early 20s. “I’m like a father.”
And that’s a bold statement in Zanzibar: a semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, where women typically have lower employment, pay, education, and decisionmaking power than the men in their homes.
Seaweed farming has enabled thousands of Zanzibari women to earn cash and climb social ladders. They are working together, bucking social norms, and attaining leadership roles in communities where their authority has long been limited. As in other parts of the world, entrepreneurship has created incremental changes in women’s lives.
But the women’s success is threatened by a changing climate, which mirrors another global trend: women are disproportionately affected by global warming. Furthermore, they’re often kept out of conversations on how to adapt to a changing planet.
In Zanzibar, a significant rise in sea temperatures is killing seaweed. Not only does that jeopardize business – it threatens the sociopolitical achievements women have made. So they are fighting back.
Here and across the world, environmental activists say, channeling women’s knowledge could help save both local economies and ecosystems. It’s a model that seaweed farmers here are putting into practice, working hand-in-hand with researchers (and each other) to help communities adapt to a changing sea – while simultaneously protecting the environment itself.
Years ago, “women used to stay indoors and wait for their husbands,” says Flower Msuya, a senior researcher and seaweed expert with the University of Dar es Salaam’s Institute of Marine Sciences. Then seaweed farming presented new options.
The local industry started in the late 1980s, when two species – Eucheuma cottonii and spinosum – were imported from the Philippines. (Before that, wild seaweeds were collected for export, but the trade collapsed in the 1970s when stocks were depleted.) At first, both men and women farmed, but that soon changed. The work is hard, the pay is relatively small (though significant for women) and men sought other options. But the women stuck with it.
Today, Tanzania exports thousands of tons each year to Europe and the United States, largely for production of carrageenan, a thickener used in processed foods and cosmetics. The industry employs roughly 24,000 Zanzibaris, and the majority are women operating small-scale farms, Dr. Msuya says. “At first their husbands were like, ‘What? How can my wife go out there?’ But with time, they saw that their wives – they were getting money.”
And more than just money: now they have “money power,” Msuya says, “and their status has completely changed.” Mothers started covering the costs of their children’s school fees and uniforms. They bought food and furniture and radios. They paid their families’ medical bills.
That clout spread beyond the home. Seaweed farmers are often wealthier and more active in their communities than women who don’t farm. Some even travel to neighboring islands to train other women in commerce. “They started being business ladies,” Msuya says.
It used to be that export companies set the seaweed prices; now, some women work together, building business acumen by forming groups with collective bargaining power. They buy their own equipment, like ropes, or foster new businesses selling “value-added” products like seaweed powders, soaps, creams, and sweets – all of which earn more money than raw algae.
A steeper toll
But the business is in trouble as seaweed succumbs to the effects of warmer waters. Overall, Western Indian Ocean temperatures have climbed 1 degree Celsius in the past 30 years, and are still rising.
In the past, surface waters never exceeded about 88 degrees – the upper edge of optimal for seaweed growth – but shallow-water temperatures now stretch beyond 98 degrees, Msuya says. The warmth creates conditions ideal for plant diseases like ice-ice, which stresses the algae and makes them susceptible to bacteria. At first, the seaweeds turn white at the tips. Eventually, they die. Makame estimates she’s lost 80 percent of her crop.
In an already volatile global market, where prices can swiftly drop in the face of competition from more established industries in Asia, the potential loss could devastate any entrepreneur. But here, farmers’ misfortunes also threaten women’s independence.
Zanzibar’s seaweed troubles put a local lens on a global picture: the economic and sociocultural burdens of climate change fall unequally on women. In the Himalayas, they walk farther, work longer and miss school to collect water. In the United States, increased heat and pollution are linked to pregnancy complications. And when natural disasters force communities to move, women and girls can fall prey to sexual harassment and trafficking, as in the Philippines.
According to Women Watch, a United Nations gender-equity project, women are significantly more vulnerable to climate change for myriad reasons: they constitute a large percentage of the world’s poor, their livelihoods depend heavily on natural resources threatened by climate change, they dominate agricultural labor in developing countries, and social and political barriers limit their access to land, water, and other resources.
Climate change “amplifies difficult conditions and makes them worse,” says Brian La Shier, a policy associate of the Energy and Climate Program at the Washington-based Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “This is even truer for countless women around the world … oftentimes simply because of their gender and where they live.”
When natural disasters strike, it’s harder for the disadvantaged to get back on track. Say a flood destroys a home or a family’s crops. The husband may leave to search for work elsewhere – but the wife stays behind to care for the children. If she has little education or job experience, “there’s no safety net or alternative economic paths,” Mr. La Shier says. “These societal, economic, and environmental constraints can decide the ultimate fate of an individual, a family or even a community.”
For these reasons, he says, climate policies must include women and address gender. “Women form the economic foundations of many communities, but their contributions and expertise are often overlooked or dismissed outright.”
Tapping in to women's knowledge
Yet women aren’t powerless against a changing climate. In fact, their work – whether farming, foraging, or finding potable water during droughts – can give them crucial insights about natural resources that can help their communities adapt. That’s a message made clear by the United Nations last November when it adopted a “Gender Action Plan” to help ensure women are equally represented and influential compared with men in climate change decisions worldwide.
From Peru to India to Kenya, research suggests that when women are included in environmental planning and decisionmaking, community projects are better organized and longer-lasting. And that means families ultimately have better access to necessities like safe water and food, healthcare, and education.
In Zanzibar, women could play a critical role in saving the seaweed industry. And there are ample reasons to do so – including ecological sustainability. Ironically, it turns out, the victim of climate change is also a potential mitigator.
Emerging research shows that seaweed farming could temper the effects of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, locally and globally. Seaweed farms serve as carbon sinks, increase oxygen levels, and help remove nutrients that lead to algal blooms. And that, in turn, fosters diverse local marine environments. Seaweed farms can also dampen wave energy, protecting shorelines from erosion – another big problem in Zanzibar.
The potential climatic benefits of seaweed farming are so great, the authors of a 2017 article in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science argue for economic compensation to seaweed farmers in recognition of the role they play in combating climate change. This incentive could help expand the industry, hence women’s economic autonomy. Zanzibar represents just a fraction of the global seaweed trade: roughly 30 million tons produced annually, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Msuya is helping women grow their businesses through the Zanzibar Seaweed Cluster Initiative (ZaSCI), linking farmers to government and industry representatives to improve sales and prices for local farmers. Through ZaSCI, which Msuya heads, scientists and farmers communicate directly. When farmers have problems, they tell the scientists, who use that information in their studies. In turn, scientists share their findings with farmers.
Yet the problems – and possible benefits – of seaweed farming in Zanzibar have not received more public attention precisely because the industry is dominated by women, says Aboud Jumbe, head of policy, planning, and research at Zanzibar’s Environment Department. “It is because of that, that the voice for social equity has been missing,” he says. That bias is not uncommon: globally, women’s issues often get less attention, from medical research to immigration policy to economic growth.
“If seaweeds were grown by men,” Mr. Jumbe says, “we could be sitting here talking about something different.”
Msuya isn’t deterred; she’s determined. She is working with Swedish researchers to find native seaweed species that can withstand higher temperatures. And she’s collaborating with the Scottish Association for Marine Science on a program called Global Seaweed STAR, in which Tanzanian, Philippine, and Indonesian researchers work to improve seaweed farming in developing countries. The research relies on the direct experiences – and stories – of the women working in the water: the obstacles they face and how they can overcome them. “We say that the human mind works faster than events,” says Msuya, whom farmers affectionately call “mother.”
One solution is to farm deeper in the ocean (2-6 yards at low tide), reaching the farms by boat, she says. Since stronger currents can cause the seaweed to break, Msuya’s team developed a tubular net to keep the algae intact. (The design won the Australian government’s Blue Economy Challenge in 2016.) In addition, women are placing fish basket-traps near their seaweed “so they have two crops in one area.” For now, the harvest – rabbitfish, spadefish, parrotfish, eel – is mainly for the women’s families. But soon, Msuya says, they’ll have enough to sell.
There’s just one problem with deep-water farming: many Zanzibari women don’t swim (largely due to the archipelago’s conservative interpretation of Islam). So Msuya is helping to teach them, and providing life jackets. The farmers can work in teams so those who are more comfortable in water can dive in to anchor the seaweeds, while others can work from the boats, placing seaweed in nets and hauling in harvests.
Back on the beach, Makame and other farmers stand waist-high in gentle waves as the tide begins to roll back in. An overcast sky shields the equatorial sun. The women pluck bunches of vibrant red and green seaweed and offer a taste. “It is like you are eating cucumber,” she says. Crunchy, salty, and nutrient-rich.
Makame understands her industry is changing, and she must adapt. That’s why she and some of the other women have joined a 29-member farming cooperative, making it easier for customers to reach them, and for members to bargain for supplies. “When we are in groups, we have one voice,” says Makame, who serves as group secretary.
But she is particularly concerned about one thing: deep water. “It is very much worrying me,” she says. “That is something I really fear.”
Yet that is where Makame’s financial future lies. It’s where she can assert her independence. And she says she will go there.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.