School leavers delve into algae farming creating a multipurpose business venture

A three year journey into a rare kind of farming has culminated into a business venture worth millions for the 35 school leavers of Galaxy United Youth Group from Kakamega who have been farming nutrient-rich blue - green algae, scientifically referred to as spirulina.

Having first fronted the idea to a nutritionist Prof Asenath Sigot the deputy vice chancellor of Masinde Muliro University, the professor was upbeat about a joint research involving a team from the university and members of the group.

A site was identified at the university and the group began work to lay ground for a venture which has become a money spinner for the group while promising to revolutionize agriculture in an area that has traditionally relied on farming of cereals with frequent disappointments due to erratic weather.

Part of the funding for the project came from the inter-ministerial Agricultural Sector Coordination Unit (ASCU) through its Innovation Fund for Agriculture and Agri-business (IFAA). Other financiers have included the European Union, GTZ and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The group set up seven ponds at the university - two are used for research while five are for growing spirulina. The algae is harvested in seven to 21 days using fine linen and a sieve before it is placed in a solar drier to remove moisture.

From their tiny office at the Mwalimu Centre Building in Kakamega town, the group then grinds the dired spirulina pellets into fine powder. The powder is then packaged into 500mg capsules and sold for Sh10 each. It is also mixed with honey to make a honey tonic used to treat coughs and colds. The group is targeting the market with a food supplement for the malnourished -- including children and the elderly.

Further research work is in progress on the use of residue extracted from the algae to manufacture hair shampoos and other beauty and products. "We have big plans to set up a cooperative society and train farmers to grow mushrooms and spirulina for products we have started making and selling," said Clare Muhindi, a group member.

The group is fundraising to take spirulina farming skills to farmers in the region with the hope that they will adopt it as an income generating venture. Their strategy according to their chairman is to invest in value addition to the spirulina to penetrate the market and inspire future expansion operations.

This interesting kind of farming has catapulted the group into national stardom with students and scientists from across the country travelling to learn more on spirulina farming. Kari Harris, a student at the School of International Training in Nairobi, said she had travelled all the way from Mombasa to see how the group was going about the rare farming. Ms Harris said she was impressed by efforts made by the youth to produce high quality spirulina. "I have travelled here to be able to learn how the food supplement can be used to deal with malnutrition in poor communities and I must say that I'm impressed by efforts shown by the group," said Ms Harris.

The group has also been involved in a campaign to sensitise the public and medical teams to adopt use of the supplements which boost the immunity of HIV/Aids. Spirulina has been widely used as a dietary supplement in many parts of the world since 1970.

Spirulina, has been harvested by indigenous peoples in Mexico and parts of Africa for hundreds of years. In the past two decades, commercial production has begun in many countries including Mexico, Thailand, Chile, India, Myanmar, Taiwan and the United States. Current worldwide production is estimated at about 3,000 tonnes. However, in Africa the potential of this spiral-shaped algae to boost health, immunity and incomes has so far been realised only in Chad, where the annual spirulina harvest of about 40 tonnes is worth US$100,000.

Spirulina is often referred to as a superfood because it is 60-70 per cent protein and it also provides essential fatty acids, phytochemicals such as beta-carotene (which the body converts into vitamin A) and micronutrients, including vitamin B12 (which is rare in plants) and iron.

In a 2002 review of almost 100 published studies of spirulina, most conducted in the last ten years, Dr. Amha Belay stated in the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association that the "evidence for its potential therapeutic application is overwhelming in the areas of immunomodulation, anti-cancer, anti-viral and cholesterol-reduction effects."