As scores of fishermen from a small village on Kenya’s south coast prepare to head out to sea, a keen eye can pick out the tips of pegs pinned down in block formation beside their moored fishing boats and canoes. Move closer, and you will encounter what looks like leafy grass in neat lines from one peg to another along the entire shore off Kibuyuni village on Kenya's south coast. They are seaweed farms — a major economic activity for the people of Kibuyuni and nine other villagers.
Up to a few years ago, Kibuyuni was a typical fishing village. Majority of the houses were made of grass thatch and mud walls. Few children made it past primary school due to lack of school fees. Working-age men were only engaged in fishing. Due to societal norms, women did not venture out to sea. They engaged in small-scale farming for subsistence purposes.
However, through the ecologically friendly activity of seaweed farming, women have been able to earn a decent living and develop their villages. They hope to process and market seaweed products in the future and create value addition.
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Fatuma Mohamed, a mother of five and the chair of the seaweed farmers of Kibuyuni, recalls how difficult it was for her family before she started farming seaweed. She used to grow crops in her one-acre piece of land, and the proceeds weren’t enough to send her children to school.
“I have managed to educate my children up to university whereas others are in high school all because of seaweed farming,” she said.
Nineteen years ago, the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute ventured into research on the potential for commercialization of seaweed farming. Among other places that KMFRI chose to conduct its research was the sea off Kibuyuni and two other sites.
It took years to undertake the pilot, which looked for the best sites that had favorable conditions for seaweed farming and were close to the villages. “Kibuyuni had the best characteristics supporting the upscaling of seaweed farming,” said Alex Kimathi, a research officer of KMFRI. The research institute then introduced seaweed farming to residents of Kibuyuni.
Going against traditional norms
In 2012, the first pilot, led by Mohamed, was initiated in Kibuyuni. Two years later, the village started farming seaweed for sale. Then slowly, other neighboring villages started following suit under the guidance of KMFRI.
Women make the majority of seaweed farmers: 200 women compared to 50 men in Kibuyuni. Initially, seaweed farming supplemented their income but has since become their primary income-generating activity.
Men were initially opposed to their women engaging in activities because in Kenya’s coastal communities, traditionally, the sea is not a place for women, and not many women fish or swim at sea.
“When we started, we invited men to join us in seaweed farming, but they said that women should not go into the sea,” Mohamed said. “So, when men saw that it is us — women — who are paying for the education of our children, then they slowly started to join us.”
The women have also been able to bring development to the village as a result of the activity. Mohamed said that the women who joined the seaweed farming group started building better houses and educating their children.
“I have managed to educate my children up to university whereas others are in high school all because of seaweed farming.”— Fatuma Mohamed, chair of the seaweed farmers in Kibuyuni
Tina Said, a seaweed farmer from Kibuyuni, earns a minimum of $100 per harvest of seaweed — the farmers harvest four to five times a year. She farms seaweed together with her mother, and they have managed to buy blocks to build a better house for their family.
“We hope to buy sand, roofing material, and cement with the next harvests,” she said.
Ecological and economic impact
In addition to the economic impact that seaweed farming has had on the community, Kimathi said that seaweed farming has an ecological impact. He said that seaweed develops a dense canopy, which reduces the waves’ strength, which could cause coastline erosion. Seaweeds are autotrophic plants, which capture carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to carbohydrates using sunlight. They also act as a buffer against ocean acidification.
“Seaweeds also create micro-habitats for marine organisms. They support [a] high diversity of fish and provide a place where fish can hide, breed, and feed,” he said.
Kimathi believes that seaweed farming contributes towards capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is one method of countering climate change. However, no research has been done to establish the quantity of carbon sequestered through seaweed farming in the more than 300 acres under seaweed in Kenya.
Seaweed has traditionally been used for domestic purposes such as food and feed. However, due to industrial uses like gels, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals have emerged, making seaweed a billion-dollar industry. Unlike in East Africa, where production is still low, countries in Asia produce millions of metric tons a year.
But the seaweed farmers in Kibuyuni have faced some challenges in their attempt at value addition. Fatuma said that the Tanzanian company they sell to hasn’t increased the buying price since they started selling six years ago. They feel that the 25 Kenyan shillings ($0.23) per kilo they earn isn’t enough, but they have no alternative.
The farmers have obtained machines to undertake value addition by processing shampoos, soap, and seaweed powder, but they have had difficulty finding the right packaging for their products because plastic bags were banned. They await communication from the National Environmental Management Authority on packaging.
While the government has supported the farmers with equipment to dry and process seaweed for value addition, they haven’t been successful in getting a suitable market for their produce. According to Kimathi, the government ought to implement policies and legislation to enable the seaweed industry to grow.
“Seaweed farming could be turned around, but there needs to be policies and legal framework for the same to happen,” he said.
An industrial fishing port, set to be constructed soon in Shimoni, a few kilometers from Kibuyuni, also threatens the practice. In December 2020, drilling for the project started. Though this was done to test the site, the seaweed farms were affected, and one of the neighboring villages, Mkwiro, lost its entire crop and abandoned seaweed farming for a while.
Amina Sabel, who runs tourist guest houses in nearby Wasini Island, decried the fishing port’s construction.
“A full-fledged industrial harbor here at Wasini will completely destroy the ecosystem. These are close to fifty animal species, including some that are endangered,” she said.
Sabel has started an online petition to stop the construction of the port.
When the drilling for the construction work was done, soil was washed to the seaweed farms, which affected seaweed quality. The farmers also fear that with continued drilling at sea, oil spills will be inevitable, which will further affect seaweed growth.
“Right now, the ocean is being dug, and that is affecting our trade. We haven’t been told who is doing it and for what purpose,” Mohamed said. “When they were having discussions about it, we were not informed, yet it is us the farmers of seaweed and the fishermen who are affected by the project.”
This focus area, supported by the U.N. Development Programme, explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality and vice versa. Visit the Focus on: People and the Planet page for more.