With the first low tide of the day, the beaches of the Indian Ocean reveal the bedrock of the island of Zanzibar. Hundreds of wooden stakes get exposed above the water level. Tied to those stakes and facing the luxury hotels and resorts grow the Spynosum and the Cottoni, two valuable algae which, once they are processed, the Carrageenan is extracted. This product is used as food preservatives (thickener, flavour enhancer or stabilizers) in food and cosmetics industry. The “seaweed farmers” (mainly women) who work during long periods of hours, are bent surrounded by water at their waist level. They collect the seaweed, and receive just a few cents per kilo of dried seaweed. Those seaweed once processed double their price in the developed countries trade due to their high demand.
With water at their waist level, another group of 50 women had been working planting and collecting seaweed for over an hour. The clouds in the sky threaten rain although they alternate with sunny spells. Those women work hard, bending the water wearing wet clothes regardless the cold or hot weather during the day in the coast of Paje, Zanzibar. Sometimes they work during the night resembling mermaids with the moonlight. They can work over 10 hours daily depending on the cycles of the moon. These farmers work forming groups in the plantations of two species of algae Cottoni (Kappahycus alvarezzii) and Spynosum (Euchema denticulatum), source of the Carrageenan.
These two species of algae, were introduced in Zanzibar from the Philippines in 1988. Seaweed farms are generally located in shallow, calm and constantly warm waters, but only where the bottom is sandy. They were exported to other countries with low manifacturing costs such as Indonesia and the United Republic of Tanzania (Zanzibar). The companies involved in the extraction of carrageenan are actively promoting the plantation in other areas like India, Africa or the Pacific Islands. For 20 years those two types of algae have been the basis of the economy for many families living in Zanzibar.
“Every six hours the tide raises or falls up to 200 meters every time; it is because of the moon” Mohamed recalls. He is a local journalist who lives at the top part of the beach where the population live oblivious to the touristic resorts that pack the coastline.
“When it is full moon, the cycle reduces to four hours and the farmers, as those women are known, have to rush before the tide rises too much and drag them towards the dangerous coral reef that surrounds the whole island”.
Mohammed tells us about the history of this cultivation: “After the revolution and the decay of the Sultan of Zanzibar the island joined Tanganyka and together they formed what nowdays it is known as Tanzania; women and men harvested the seaweed that grew unsupervised and handed them to the national Company “Zanzibar State Trading Corporation”. Around 1989, Doctor Mshygani from Dar er Salaam National University and with the assistance of philippines experts, carried out a research about the controlled cultivation of the algae. As a result they discovered that the growth of the red algae was quicker in shallow, tropical waters (like the ones in Zanzibar) rather than in other regions of the world where they had been cultivated. And after that, foreign companies like ZASCOL arrived to the island to set up business.
The tourists on the wide beaches of Zanzibar who witness every day those women working, ignore the fact that it is them who collect the raw material used in most of the products they can buy at the supermarkets or are used in hotels.