Coastal farmers suffering dwindling returns from fish farming are now commercializing the farming of sea weed, in a shift that could earn the country Sh40m a year and restore thousands of coastal livelihoods.
Farmers who have traditionally relied on fish farming have seen climate change and growing pollution slash fish stocks. But years of study by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) on the commercial viability of sea weed farming has exposed a market potential that could place the country in the same league as its neighbours Tanzania and Zanzibar who have for 20 years been supplying a global sea weed market with an annual value of now $5bn.
The first model farm has been developed at Kibuyuni, a seaside village in Kilifi with 1,500 people. Other sites to follow suit include Mkwiro in Wasini Island with 1,000 people, Funzi with 1,000 inhabitants and Gazi with 15,000 residents.
"Seaweed farming has been identified as a good prospect for social and economic development of coastal areas. It is aimed at diversifying livelihood opportunities for poor fishing communities whose source of income have been seriously put at risk by diminished capture fisheries," said MFRI Programme Co-ordinator Betty Nyonje.
Extracts of dried seaweed are used as thickeners, food and in the global pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Seaweed has also been used as an additive to soils, mainly in coastal areas, where the wet or partly dried seaweed is easily transported to areas to be fertilised. The high fibre content of the seaweed acts as a soil conditioner and the mineral content as a fertiliser.
Randa Mwanaharo, one of the farmers now involved in the seaweed farming project, is one of many who has seen her income from fish farming nosedive. “I used to make about Sh10,000 from fish farming when life was good. This pollution of the ocean and the rising and falling of the tide unnecessarily has taken a huge toll on my fish project. Even the fish ponds I have at home haven’t been performing well, since the feeds are so high,” said the 30-year-old single mother who was among the first women fishermen in Coast at age 17.
However, the seaweed farming has now opened a new economic opportunity. "A model farm has 15,000 seedlings," explained Nyonje. These are tied with strings on the seabed. From each model farm, one metric tonne of dry seaweed is harvested every six weeks, making eight to 10 harvests a year. A metric tonne of produce at current market rates sells for
Zanque Aqua Farms of Zanzibar, is already buying from the local farmers, but the farmers could serve many more buyers on scaling up the production, say the researchers. The seaweed is mainly exported to America, where demand has been rising.
Two strains of seaweed known as Kappaphycus alvarezi (cottonii) and Euchuma denticulatum (spinosum) are available at the south Coast, and the market opportunity is currently strong.
In the 1960s, Norway pioneered the production of seaweed meal, made from a dried and powdered brown seaweed, used as an additive to animal feed. But drying is usually by oil-fired furnaces so production costs have been affected by crude oil prices.
China is the largest producer of edible seaweeds, about five million tonnes, but the greater part of this is for local consumption, produced from hundreds of hectares of the high yielding variety that is also being grown in coastal Kenya.
The use of seaweed as food has been traced back to the fourth century in Japan and the sixth century in China. Today, those two countries and the Republic of Korea are the largest consumers of seaweed as food and their requirements provide the basis of an industry that worldwide harvests 6m tonnes of wet seaweed a year.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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