[Kenya] What began as an experiment is slowly turning the fortunes of hundreds of villagers around in Shimoni, Kwale county.
Tapping the opportunities being offered by the blue economy, a group of women has embarked on a rare but sustainable project that not only earns them their daily bread but keeps check on the dwindling fish stock at the sea.
Meet Kibuyuni Seaweed Farmers, a group that has defied odds to stay afloat, despite the hard economic times. And they do this by engaging in seaweed farming at the ocean.
The over 50 farmers have commercial seaweed farms in the South Coast, a project that has proved to have massive potential to develop the area and also play a major role in conserving fish stocks.
During a tour of the area, group chair Fatuma Mohammed said some years ago, plenty of fish died in Kisite, forcing researchers to seek the root cause.
“The initial report was that there was inadequate seagrass, which could act as refuge from predators, while other fish species that consumed the seaweed could not find adequate food for themselves,” she said.
The official added that the report indicated that most fish would eventually swim up to the mangroves, with most of them being killed by prey, while others just died in the harsh environment around the mangroves.
KMFRI principal technologist James Onyango said a research carried out in Kibuyuni proved that there was a direct correlation between seaweed production and abundance of fish.
The study found that the seaweeds farms acted as aggregation “devices” for fish, which used the seaweed farms as refuge from predators, while other species fed on the weed itself for food, though not detrimental to the overall production.
“The farmers reported an increase of fish catch in areas adjacent to seaweed farms, as commonly reported in other areas. The study found that there was fish biomass transport between seaweed farms and adjacent areas, where fishing was being carried out,” Onyango said.
After the research, which lasted two years, the villagers partnered with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, who purchased their first seaweed seedlings from Zanzibar.
KMFRI Mombasa Centre director Dr James Mwaluma says the institute established the technical feasibility of seaweed farming along the Kenyan Coast through scientific research more than 15 years ago.
“Between 2009 and 2010, KMFRI introduced the first commercial seaweed farms in the South Coast of the country. The species being cultured at that time was mainly Eucheuma denticulatum,” he said.
The farms were rolled out in collaboration with the FMC corporation, an international seaweed buying company and a local NGO, Pact-Kenya, local CBOs and Beach Management Units.
Mwaluma says the communities have taken up seaweed farming and earned from the sale of raw and dried seaweed. He foresees substantial economic gains if the venture can be taken to a higher level.
Fatuma says every three months, the officials go down to Kibuyuni to conduct trainings. Initially, she was the only one interested in the project, but within months, several other women, and a few men, joined.
“This project would not only help us reduce poverty levels but ensure there was adequate breeding grounds for the fish, and at the same time, cut on the levels of depleted fish stocks due to overharvesting,” she says.
The group chair added that illegal fishing, through use of ring nets, had also been a hindrance.
“Before we embarked on seaweed farming, we had been small-scale farmers dependent on maize, and livestock keeping. Fishing, which was mostly done by the men, was our major activity,” Fatuma said.
In 2011, luck knocked on their doors and they got the first major business with the seaweeds, after a buyer from Zanzibar offered to buy their seaweeds.
“He could come down three to four times per year, translating to about 20 to 25 tonnes of seaweed, with 1kg going for Sh9,” Fatuma said.
By then, their numbers had grown to 27 members, and by 2014, the membership increased to 50 farmers.
In the same year, they produced and sold 41 tonnes to an investor from Belgium, who was based in China.
“He bought us a belding machine for compressing the seaweeds to fit in his truck,” Fatuma said.
Under the Kenya Coastal Development Project, 2012 to 2016, KMFRI aimed to upscale production to commercial levels at Kibuyuni and three new sites, Gazi, Mkwiro and Funzi, using a new strain, Kappaphycus alvarezii (Cottonii), which fetches a better price in the market.
Dr Mwaluma says it has been hard to get a consistent market for the dried seaweed and seaweed storage.
“However, for storage, a building was constructed by the county government where the farmers are currently storing their dried seaweed,” he said.
A seaweed farmer needs gumboots, ropes and tie pegs as his tools of trade, with the farming period taking up to 45 days before harvest.
They are later transported using plastic boats and pushed to the drying place by casual labourers.
The drying process takes about three to four days.
Back at the sea, each farmer has six blocks of ‘land’ for seaweed farming, with each rope at the block, measuring up to 11m. One block, Fatuma says, has 50 ropes.
The ropes are neatly stretched out on the blocks and the seaweeds planted in line, and within weeks, they overgrow and cover the ropes.
“There is no weeding, no fertiliser needed. We only remove stump roots and leaves that occasionally interfere with growth,” Fatuma said.
During the 45 days, the women have to visit their farms on a daily basis to check on them. At times, the seaweed is carried off to the ocean. This is a loss to the farmers, since it would only mean that they will not have any harvest.
Dr Mwaluma says local communities have embraced seaweed farming as an alternative means of generating income, and demand is also coming from other areas of the coast (North), especially Lamu.
“However, before such an uptake can be undertaken, a proper site survey needs to be conducted to see the extent of the low tide, level of exposure, bottom topography, among other factors, to see whether they are suitable,” he says.
The women note that high tides affect the growth of the seaweed, while high temperatures are not conducive to growth since it affects the topography of the sea.
“When the temperatures are as high as 28.5 degrees to 30 degrees celsius, the seaweeds change colour, rust off and rest at the bottom of the sea.
“The ideal temperature for growth should be between 25-26 degrees celsius.
The farmers say temperature variates mostly during heavy rains, which occasions siltation that affects the salinity levels.
April to June are the most suitable months for cultivation, but with lack of a ready market, most of the produce goes to waste.
The bandas (drying shades), which were constructed by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), can take produce of up to six farmers, with each farmer taking a maximum of six rows.
Dr Mwaluma says there are currently about 150-200 farmers involved in seaweed farming.
“Seaweed farming can be found in other areas like Nyumba Sita, Funzi and Gazi. All these are in the South Coast in Kwale, though at smaller scale than in Kibuyuni.
The farms, he says, with improved marketing and value addition, can generate some income for the locals, and with some environmental benefits, such as improved fish aggregating areas.
“It is prudent, however, that before expansions are carried out to other areas, an Environmental Impact assessment is carried out and annual monitoring,” he said.
Apart from selling the raw seaweed, the women have been taught on value addition on the product, with the weeds being used to produce shampoos, soap, juice, among other products.
While the shampoo is manufactured when the seaweed is wet, the soap is made when it is dry.
“We make the products on our own and sell them to locals and visitors. A soap goes for Sh100, while shampoo goes for Sh50. The soap has medicinal value and treats various skin conditions. For the shampoo, we boil the seaweed and make gel from it. But for the soap, we grind it into powder,” Fatuma said.
Just like the raw seaweeds, there is no permanent or stable market for the value-added products, despite only needing a day to produce.
The farmers received training from the FAO and KMFRI-Zanzibar teachers.
During benchmarking last year, the Kibuyuni villagers learnt of some of the challenges their counterparts in Zanzibar, Pemba, were facing and how to improve on theirs.
Currently, a solar drier is in the offing for the farmers to enable them harvest, dye and store adequate seaweed without running into losses. This will also ensure that they produce the seaweed in large scale.
Dr Mwaluma says the Kibuyuni farmers are currently producing about 30 tonnes of dried seaweed with proper conditions.
For value addition, the government is assisting the farmers with production through the Blue Economy Initiative.
Hassan Masudi, a committee member, says: “At times, they want to sign agreements with us but we cannot commit to this due to production challenges. Some of the farmers fell off the business because of discouragement. Harvesting 100 tonnes takes a long time. We used to call other landing sites for help to raise the needed tonnage but to no avail. They also have their challenges.”
It takes the women one and a half hours to get to their farms, and they normally harvest at different periods.
In the last breakthrough with the buyer from Belgium, they earned Sh1.2 million.
“Our members paid school fees for their children and sorted out their other needs,” Hassan said.
A single farmer invests within 45 days before harvesting.
“In a day, when there are visitors, we can sell up to Sh2,000, with the cost of investment being around Sh1,000,” Hassan said.
To make the products, they need powder, seaweed, which individual farmers buy at Sh50 per kg if they don’t have stock. Grinding is charged at Sh20 per kg. Five-litre cooking oil is also needed to make the soaps and can produce up to 64 pieces, which is 12 bar sticks in a tray. A piece goes for Sh100.
“We have the capacity to grow. We want others to join us for farming and environmental conservation since we have also been rated highly in that, by KMFRI,” Hassan said.