Women and Seaweed Farming
Why women and seaweed?
Stories about seaweed operations led by women crop up in our news feed quite often. As a female-run company ourselves, we were intrigued.
What can we learn about the socio-economic impacts of our favourite sea vegetable? Co-founder Xa Milne finds out.
Global demand in the food industry
About 27.3 million tonnes of farmed seaweed were produced in 2014, worth over $6 billion according to a UN study.
Demand for carrageenans (an extract from red seaweeds) is particularly high, and usage continues to rise every year. Carrageenan is used commercially in food as a binder and stabiliser, as well as in a wide range of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products.
Seaweed farming creates jobs
Seaweed farming provides both a food source and jobs in remote areas of the world. Operations are cropping up in countries such as China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa and the Philippines.
Seaweed creates much-needed jobs for women in particular, with women- and family-run seaweed farms successful for two reasons.
Firstly, seaweed harvesters need to be highly flexible to work around the cyclical time scales of the tides and the moon. However, this can fit around everyday chores and children's lives.
Commercial seaweed harvesting also has low capital and technological requirements for entry. It's an environmentally friendly industry that needs no fertilisers to maintain.
These factors have allowed small scale operations to flourish particularly successfully in the Philippines.
Philippines success story
With the source of carrageenans, Chondrus Crispus, becoming more scarce by the late 1960s, the oceans of the world were scoured for an alternative.
This answer came in Eucheuma, a seaweed found in the South Philippines. Identified as a good source of carrageenan, this meant that the Philippines soon became the top supplier over Canada, which had dominated the market.
The lower cost of labour incentivised companies to shift their buying to Asia too.
Small scale farming
This success in the Philippines was followed by Indonesia. Here they successfully harvested two species Kappaphycus Alvarezii (cottonii) and Euchema Denticulatum (spinosum) for carrageenan production.
Malaysia and Tanzania also achieved significant production, but since 2000 Indonesia has been the world’s top producer of cottonii.
Meanwhile India, Mexico and the Solomon Islands are all newcomers to the industry. These countries have great potential for making coastal communities more profitable through small scale seaweed farming.
Positive impact on communities
According to a Fisheries and Aquaculture report  the socio-economic impact of seaweed farming on coastal communities has been overwhelmingly positive.
Small-scale family operations are favoured over corporate, plantation style farms: they generate substantial employment opportunities, relative to other forms of aquaculture.
Alternatives to fishing
For many villages in developing countries, over-fishing was a problem that lead to families living well below the poverty line.
Coastal fisheries are often subject to gross exploitation. But carrageen seaweed farming has helped improve the status of women within society. It can also generally raise the socio-economic status of coastal communities.
With the income from seaweed farming families can now send their children to school, make improvements to their houses, improve their diets and have more financial security. Another reason we consider seaweed a future food.
 FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper 580 Social and Economic Dimensions of Carrageenan Farming