Island Industry: Meet Zanzibar’s Seaweed Mamas

Island Industry: Meet Zanzibar’s Seaweed Mamas

Zanzibar may be known as “Spice Island” but it’s the seaweed industry that’s shaking up its shores, tilting the balance of power in favour of women. We wade out in Paje to meet some of its seaweed mamas, who discuss empowerment, climate change and why the ocean has become their haven.

This article appears in Vol. 33: Collective.

is serene in the moments before sunrise. The tide is often
out, the air is salty fresh and an amber glow tints the mirror-flat
sea. It is as if the village’s best features are accentuated at
dawn. I’ve experienced it both after a good night’s rest and on the
walk home from a Saturday-night party. The edges of the clouds
appear to be embossed in gold.

Between the villages of Bwejuu and Jambiani on the southeast
coast of Zanzibar, Paje’s blue-green waters, African cultures and
reliable trade winds make it a popular holiday destination,
especially for kiteboarders. The expansive lagoon has a sandy
bottom and is shallow at low tide, with a reef that wraps around
the perimeter protecting the water from crashing waves.

There are sights and sounds I’ve become familiar with on the
beachfront: the whirl of a kite forming a figure of eight in the
air, the thud of a football being kicked, the repetition of “hakuna
matata” and the clobbering noise of calamari being tenderised. But
in the early mornings, the lapping of the ocean and the irregular
squawking of crows are about the only thing you’ll hear. While my
alarm usually goes off at around 6am, some days I find it hard to
get out of bed having gone to sleep far too late the night before.
The seaweed farmers, however, are always up at daybreak. Their
livelihoods depend on it.

While Zanzibar is perhaps best known as “Spice Island” thanks to
its spice-farming heritage dating back to the early 18th century,
seaweed farming was introduced to Zanzibar
in the 1980s, motivated by the thriving trade of seaweed in
Indonesia and the Philippines. Today, the industry is driven by
women, “mamas”, as a result of the fact that Tanzanian women have
historically not enjoyed the same opportunities as men. The work is
labour intensive and, for it, the average farmer receives the
equivalent of about £18 per month. Many men don’t think this worth
their while and seek more profitable opportunities in fishing or
tourism. But the women stick with it, owning it.

Though it is used locally to make skincare products,
‘s seaweed is largely exported to the US, Denmark,
Sweden, the UK and China, where it’s processed for cosmetics,
medicines and food. Regardless of its destination, it has proved a
liberating force on the predominantly Muslim island. Until
recently, women often only left their houses for funerals, weddings
or to visit the sick, their isolation reflected even in the
architecture of their homes, where stone benches at their front
doors allow men to receive visitors without compromising the
privacy of their women. Initially some husbands threatened divorce,
not agreeing with the liberation of their wives, but it made
increasing economical sense and it is now a way of life. Farming
means that, instead of being reliant on men for money, women can
buy their own food and stand a better chance of being able to cover
the cost of both raising children and family medical bills. Seaweed
represents independence.

When the tide is low the women are at work; when it is high,
they are back at their houses tending to the families. In time with
the waves, I head to the beach in search of the mamas. Much like
they have to visit the ocean everyday to see if the water
conditions are right for farming, I find myself on standby too,
checking to see if anyone is out there. On the days I see them at
work, I wade out in the lukewarm water and introduce myself.

A day in the field sees the women crossing acres of damp, white
sand before reaching their sheltered farms where their produce
grows. Dozens of neat, parallel kamba (ropes) are staked into the
ocean floor. The women collect floating seaweed which they tie to
the bright ropes in a rhythm that seems like second nature. Warm
water whirls around their long dresses, which glow with an
opaqueness in the sunlight.

When their work is done, they walk home with their skirts
clinging to their legs, balancing the sacks heavy with seaweed on
their heads. Outside their homes or at the community centre, they
sort their beautiful harvest of purple, red and green in the sun
and leave it to dry.

With one person, you can only do from here to there, but with many, you can do more.

I visit the community centre, where I join the women seated on
straw mats, chatting and watching them wrap small handmade seaweed
soaps. I am accompanied by a translator named Rossie who assists in
asking questions. Not understanding their mother tongue (KiSwahili)
means I am more focused on their facial expressions and body
gestures – and this tells a story in itself. Rossie confirms my
observations – the women seem to feel like they are a part of
something bigger. The ocean has become a haven. In the shallows,
they feel at ease discussing their everyday lives, current affairs
and family problems. It is a space where they come together in
trust, sharing ideas and supporting each other. Away from the
shores, they help with weddings and funerals and sometimes even
food. They turn to each other for financial support, and
automatically accept family members into their nuclear farming
teams. “With one person, you can only do from here to there,” one
woman humbly shares, gesturing with her hands. “But with many, you
can do more.”

Later that week, I pay a visit to the oldest (retired) seaweed
farmer at her home in the village. I arrive with a big, juicy
pineapple and am offered the only bench in the house. Though my
host is clearly senior, she settles herself on the floor. Her name
is Mwanamtumwa Imani Ally and while she was never given a birth
certificate, she believes she is in her nineties. She was
introduced to seaweed farming by her neighbour more than 30 years
ago, a time when seaweed was in such abundance that every morning
it was available in the shallow water – staked farms were not
needed back then. She worked independently for a decade before
joining the Seaweed Co. (now called Mwani Zanzibar, an
international skincare company). She recalls the terrible outbreak
of “ice-ice disease”, which most notably affected crops in the
Noughties. Higher ocean temperatures, increased salinity and
intense sunlight caused by climate change, led to the bleaching of
seaweed, a declining yield and the blistering of many farmers’

We sit on the dimly lit porch, illuminated by the light shining
from inside her house. I can just about make out her face. She is
small with weathered features but remarkably animated for a woman
so near to a century in age. During my visit, a phone rings
noisily. I hear a party picking up down the road and the trade
winds are blowing. I hope that my dictaphone is recording her full

There is hardship here. Women go through a lot to raise their
families. They come from a background where, if they are not
educated and don’t hold a job, they are very much at the mercy of
their husbands. If a marriage is failing, women are less inclined
to leave because they have no financial options. But Mwanamtumwa,
who has found financial security with Mwani Zanzibar, fondly
recalls a time when she had to loan her husband money to feed the
family. When he returned it, he said: “This is for you, my

Towards the end of our nearly two-hour conversation, Mwanamtumwa
is propping herself up against a wall pasted with flapping flyers
promoting the recent local elections. It is only at this point that
her age starts to show, I can see she is tired. The next day, when
she pops up behind me with a hug, I am reminded how small the
village is. We are friends now.

The proceeds from seaweed sales are barely enough to sustain
these farmers and their families, even when working independently.
This compelled Klaartje Schade, co-founder of Mwani Zanzibar, to
establish Mwani’s range of exceptional products that are kind on
the skin and the planet, also paying her employees six times the
average income of a regular seaweed farmer.

“Seaweed farming accounts for only 25 per cent of the work here
at Mwani Zanzibar. We are the only company that actually processes
the seaweed before it leaves our shores, and when you think that
more than 15,000 tons are exported each year…” says Klaartje.

According to the Zanzibar Ministry of Trade, Industry and
Marketing, the country’s seaweed-farming industry comprises 23,000
workers (the majority being women operating on small-scale farms)
who contribute to 90 per cent of the island’s marine export
products. The island has also become the third-largest exporter of
seaweed in the world. In Paje’s shallow waters, women have not only
found work but, more importantly, independence.

Today Mwanamtumwa, approaching her hundredth birthday, still
visits the shoreline from time to time to show her granddaughters
the ropes. Watching them farm seaweed like she used to decades ago
gives her a wonderful sense of pride. The world around us may be in
constant flux, but this sisterhood bonded by seaweed is something
that won’t be changing any time soon.

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Introducing Volume 33: Collective