Zanzibar's seaweedy wage earner

Who would have thought? Even those who don’t like sushi are digesting seaweed every day.

The algae is a source for carrageenan, a natural gelling agent used to thicken foods—especially milk products—and it is used in the production of toothpaste, cosmetics and medication.

Companies from Europe, Canada and the United States import a good percentage of their seaweed from holiday paradise Zanzibar, which is better known for its spice and coconut exports. And most of the seaweed farmers here, who harvest more than 12 000 tonnes a year, are women.
Farmer Jabu Abdullah sits in the warm, shallow water of the Indian Ocean, her legs stretched out in front of her.

For the past 10 years the mother of seven has been farming a small seaweed field off the beach of Jambiani, a small village on Zanzibar’s east coast. Commercial seaweed farming was introduced to Zanzibar, which has a population of one million, two decades ago and has since created more than 10 000 jobs.

The tides dictate Abdullah’s work rhythm. When the water recedes, she walks barefoot out to her field. Each plot is relatively small—an average of 50m2—but seaweed grows daily and can be harvested quickly. The women pull the algae in big sacks on land, where it is dried and weighed by traders. From here, it is shipped north in massive containers.

Even though the work is badly paid—seaweed farmers earn between R150 and R250 a month—it enables many uneducated women, who would otherwise be unemployable, to gain a degree of financial independence. Only a few women and girls have access to education in Zanzibar’s patriarchal society, where 98% of the population belong to the Islamic faith.

Left alone
Since Abdullah’s husband died three years ago, the 38-year-old widow is her family’s only breadwinner. “It’s not easy for us. But I am glad that I have this job. Otherwise, we would be starving,” says the farmer, who can neither read nor write.

Every month she harvests an average of 125kg of seaweed, she says, which brings in about R175 because the traders pay R1,40 a kilogram. “I work hard but earn little. It’s only the big companies who make lots of money through exports,” she says.

Life is a little easier for Abdullah’s colleague, Fatime Mgoli. The 32-year-old doesn’t earn much more than the widow, but her husband, a fisherman, makes enough money to feed his wife and five children. With Mgoli’s second salary, the family can buy luxuries, such as two beds and a sewing machine.

“We now even have electricity. Most villagers can’t afford that,” says Mgoli, who lives with her family in a small, thatched stone-and-clay house. Other seaweed farmers use their income to renovate their houses and pay school fees, and some can even afford radios, tape recorders or cellphones. When companies started to farm seaweed commercially in Zanzibar in the late 1980s, both women and men were trained in the trade.

“But as soon as it became clear that the salary was low, the men dropped out,” says Haji Mande, the manager of the Kibidija Seaweed Farming Co-operative in Jambiani.

The cooperative does its best to improve the working conditions of the algae farmers, so far with little success. “The traders dictate the prices and we can’t do much about that,” says Mande. Because there are no minimum-wage regulations in Zanzibar, the co-operative doesn’t have a legal basis to negotiate. In Jambiani most of the seaweed is bought by American firm Zanea Seaweed, one of the three biggest seaweed exporters in Zanzibar.

Although the island can’t compete with Indonesia and the Philippines, which produce annually more than 100 000 tonnes of seaweed, the quality of the East African algae is rated by experts as superior.

Zanea’s general manager, Zubeir Khamis, admits that seaweed farming is work-intensive and badly paid, but claims his company creates thousands of jobs for unskilled women, who would otherwise be unemployed. “We buy the harvest of about 7 000 seaweed farmers and thereby create more jobs than any other sector on the island”, he says.

In his opinion it is the government’s fault that the farmers are not better off. Seaweed traders like Zanea could pay better rates if the market was regulated more strictly, argues Khamis. “If we had more trade security, we could pay higher prices.”

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