TANZANIA More than just a plant: Seaweed helps Africans to help themselves
Tanzanian farmers harvest seaweed every two months, earning $500 per family.
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania (AP) -- When 21-year-old Mwajuma Hamisi finished high school a few years ago, the only future she could envision was finding a husband as quickly as possible, to spare her family the burden of taking care of her.
Instead, Hamisi found seaweed.
Used by companies in the West as an additive in processed meat, toothpaste, mascara, beer and other products, seaweed is helping villagers in this Indian Ocean archipelago find their way out of poverty -- and has improved the lives of women in ways they never thought possible.
"Seaweed farming has enabled me to buy a sewing machine," Hamisi said, adjusting her Islamic headscarf. "I have plans to study tailoring and open a tailoring shop to earn additional income ... I now contribute to household expenses."
"I have hope in the future," she added, her dark eyes brightening. "I am now in no rush to find a husband .... Nobody can say that I am a burden to the family."
The Group of Eight summit in Scotland focused attention on what the world can do for Africa, but experts say the key to development is creating opportunities for Africans to help themselves out of poverty.
In Tanzania, farmers harvest seaweed every two months, earning about $500 per family. That is equivalent to six months of work for fishermen, said Jeremiah Daffa of a U.S.-funded initiative to promote coastal development and improve quality of life among inhabitants, the Tanzania Coastal Management Partnership.
Villagers sell seaweed to brokers who transport it to Stone Town, a 200-year-old town of winding alleyways, ancient mosques and raised terraces. From there, it is exported to Europe.
Villagers grow the Eucheuma cottonii and Eucheuma spinosum varieties of seaweed, said Dennis Cengel of the United States Agency for International Development, which is helping coastal residents develop alternative sources of income.
The algae requires little initial investment, and no fertilizer or irrigation. Though the growing period is about eight weeks, portions of farms can be harvested and replanted more frequently, ensuring regular income.
Asia Mohammed Makungu, who lives with her husband and five children in her father's house, has begun building her own cement-brick home with the proceeds from her farm -- something her husband could never provide the family on his fisherman's income.
"I work as a seaweed broker. I saw there is money to be made in it and I began farming too," Makungu said, standing in her plot at low tide, inspecting seaweed attached to lengths of rope strung between wooden stakes driven into the seabed.
The growth of seaweed farming also has spawned environmental benefits by weaning some coastal dwellers -- among the poorest in the country -- from coral mining and cutting mangrove swamps, Cengel said.
In Tanzania, where about 25 percent of the estimated 36 million population live on or near the coast, some 10,000 people are involved in seaweed farming, producing about 3,858 tons of the algae, Daffa said.
"Come 2007, we want to reach about 7,500 metric tons [8,267 tons] for the whole country," he said.
The growth of seaweed farming is, however, held back by the lack of processing capacity in the country -- which keeps prices down, Cengel said. Economists often point to a pattern in Africa and other parts of the developing world of countries rich in raw materials reaping little from those resources because processing -- which adds value -- is done in the industrialized world.
Cengel and others say investors would be willing to set up processing factories only if production increases greatly in the archipelago.
Meanwhile, USAID is trying to increase what farmers can earn. Currently, some brokers supply farmers with initial tools, like ropes and pegs, on the condition the farmers sell their seaweed only to them. USAID is providing the farmers with access to small loans so they can buy their own tools -- and then be free to sell their crops to the highest bidders.
Even on a small scale, seaweed helps ease the hardships of poverty, according to 5-year-old Omari Juma, who combs through seaweed that washes ashore most evenings in search of fronds suitable for sale.
"Nobody taught me how to do this," the boy said as waves lapped the sandy beach of the fishing village.
He said he makes 20 cents to 40 cents in a day from selling seaweed, adding: "The money helps us buy rice. I like rice, but we only eat it once a month."