Zanzibar’s sprawling white sand beaches make it the location of choice for thousands of honeymooners and holidaymakers. The archipelago’s economy depends on tourism as its main source of growth. But in recent years many of the islands’ inhabitants have found an alternative source of income.

As visitors step onto Paje Beach on the island’s South-eastern shores, they are greeted by neat rows of upright sticks jutting out of the shallows, like sentries protecting the island’s shores. On thin, bright-blue ropes tied between the sticks, seaweed seedlings roll in the surf. Local women in their colourful local apparel, known as kangas, tend to their crops in the early morning light. For these women, seaweed is their livelihood, their “gift from the ocean”.

Seaweed farmer Zanzibar 2

Seaweed farming arrived in Zanzibar in 1989, introduced to the local communities from Filipino traditions. The warm waters surrounding the islands made it the ideal place to harvest seaweed, and it quickly rose to become Zanzibar’s third largest source of revenue (behind tourism and spices). 23,000 island natives depended on the aquatic plant for their income, 90% of whom were women.

Seaweed farmers working Zanzibar

Seaweed crops require extensive nurturing and attention. Local women tend to their seaweed saplings underwater for 45 days until they reach maturity. Then, once large enough, they dry the seaweed in the sun, pack it up, and sell it to Vietnam, China, the EU, and Korea for use in shampoo, cosmetics, food, agricultural fertilizer, and medicines.

But now, the women’s livelihoods are under threat. Mohamad Mzale laments, “twenty years ago, this beach was full of women farming. Now, barely anyone.” Climate change has caused shrinking seaweed levels.

Warmer sea temperatures in the Indian Ocean are causing the crops to die. The women could grow their seaweed further out to sea, where temperatures are cooler, but most cannot swim.

Paje now hosts just 150 seaweed farmers. In the seaweed-farming heyday of the early 1990s, the beach had 450 farmers working on their crops. In the coming years, all of the beach’s farmers could lose their farms.

The situation is only projected to worsen for the women. The average temperature in Zanzibar is projected to increase by 3.6° over the next three decades.

The women of Paje are already coming up with contingency plans. Some plan to move inland and cultivate cassava crops, others plan on making jewellery to sell to the thousands of tourists that flock to the island each year. However, neither of these can replace their lost seaweed income.

Zanzibar, like many other regions of sub-Saharan Africa, is at the front line of climate change. The seaweed farmers are staring down the barrel of the economic devastation created by warmer seas. The effects will come to the rest of the world too, but by then, the seaweed farms of Paje Beach will be long gone, and the farmers that depended on them in precarious economic climes.


Featured Image from Wikimedia Commons by Moongateclimber

Woman working image from Wikimedia Commons by Yann Macherez

Second woman working image from Wikimedia Commons by Rachel Clara Reed

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