The power of seaweed

When the Finnish botanist Peter Forsskal made the first collection of Red Sea seaweeds during an expedition to South Arabia in 1763, he likely had no idea of their rich vitamin and mineral content. In fact even today, countries like Djibouti that depend on food imports, do not properly utilize the bounty that the Red Sea has to offer. 

Some seaweeds produce unique phycocolloids with innumerable uses as gelling, thickening, emulsifying and stabilizing agents in cosmetics, textile, pharmaceutical and food products industries. Seaweed colloids are present in toothpastes, shaving creams, body creams, hair lotions, perfumes, medicinal syrups, salad dressings, bakery products, ice creams, fruit and other beverages, agrofertilizers and livestock feed to name a few. On the beaches of Djibouti, phycocolloid rich seaweed can be found in abundance, neglected because their virtues are largely unknown.

Djibouti offers ideal habitats for harvesting seaweed varieties that have industrial, agricultural and medicinal applications. These are characterized by an extensive continental shelf, clear water for good light penetration and many intertidal lagoons, which provide dynamic water currents for favourable seaweed growth.

Long-term changes in sea temperatures due to climate change are bringing about more auspicious conditions for the proliferation of algal blooms. Warmer waters broaden the seasonality of seaweed growth, and expands their range into different climates. Moreover, increased salinity in freshwater ecosystems can also induce their spread to lakes and rivers. While this is a harmful phenomenon in the case of toxic algal species, in Djibouti seaweed farming represents an uncharted economic opportunity.

The project to support the reduction of vulnerability in coastal fishing areas (PRAREV-PÊCHE) is investing in a pilot operation to harvest red seaweed (livestock feed) and brown seaweed (cosmetics market), targeting women as the primary beneficiaries. The overall approach of the project, which is co-financed by an IFAD loan and ASAP grant funding, seeks to address the weak resilience of fishers to adapt to climate change, given the low level of socioeconomic development and recurrent exposure to natural disasters.

Although the potential for seaweed farming is huge, since it is not widely practiced in Djibouti, pilot farming trials are necessary to train a critical core of local people, who can then further advance this activity once the project comes to an end.

The PRAREV project will also provide important training in conservation of marine habitats to protect the sensitive mangrove forests and coral reefs. Local capacity building will be a key determinant of the uptake and sustainability of both seaweed farming and conservation management.

The marine waters of Djibouti are strategically located along busy shipping lines to European, East African and Asian countries, giving the country a comparative advantage in farmed biomass. As such there is a pressing need to decisively invest in human capital and research to develop the marine sciences in support of seaweed farming.