CAPE PORPOISE, Maine — According to The Pan African Medical Journal, malnutrition contributes to more than 33% of child deaths worldwide. The lack of proper access to food is one of the primary factors preventing Africa from developing as quickly as it should. Protein Energy Malnutrition, which is caused by inadequate calorie and protein intake, can cause stunted growth and heightened vulnerability to disease. This form of malnutrition holds countries back from economic development. The high malnutrition rate in Sub-Saharan Africa has been a major issue for decades and has worsened with time. The Pan African Medical Journal reported that the number of hungry people in the region increased from 170.4 million in 1990 to 204 million in 2002. Fortunately, seaweed, particularly kelp, looks to be nutritious. Seaweed farming may be efficient enough to make strides toward alleviating hunger in Africa.
Success in Asia and North America
Of the 24 million tons of seaweed farmed globally by 2012, the vast majority of it was grown in Asia. Recently, however, western nations have caught on to the benefits of kelp farming. Atlantic Sea Farms, which produces most of the kelp in Maine, harvested around 450,000 pounds of kelp in 2020. This was nearly double its output in 2019. After the pandemic, this number could significantly increase. Additionally, the European Union’s Blue Growth Initiative aims to set up large-scale seaweed farming initiatives in Europe.
Much of the demand for seaweed owes itself to its status as a health food used in salads and drinks. Kelp has a high concentration of essential minerals and is a source of every major vitamin outside the vitamin B family. Notably, a 100 gram serving of kelp provides more than 50% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin K, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Seaweed is Easy to Grow
Seaweed farming, especially kelp, circumvents many of the challenges present in both land crops and traditional aquaculture. Unlike land crops, seaweed does not require fertilizer or fresh water. Moreover, as opposed to aquaculture operations, such as fish farms, seaweed farming does not need enclosures or waste management. In addition, the crop requires almost zero attendance during the six months between seeding and harvest. Even the startup costs are quite low, as one can set up a large kelp farm with little more than a small boat. For these reasons, seaweed farming in Africa is economically feasible.
Seaweed is for More Than Consumption
Although kelp is known for being highly nutritious, it has plenty of other uses too. Efforts to promote seaweed farming in Africa seek to take advantage of these other uses. Kelp Blue, a company that aims to develop large kelp farms off the coast of Namibia, plans on selling its crop entirely in non-culinary industries. Dried and milled kelp can enrich soil so that it is more conducive to abalone farming. Moreover, other kelp extracts can serve as fertilizers for land crops. Kelp extracts can also be used as a vegan substitute for gelatin and as a component in pharmaceutical fibers that are used to treat cystic fibrosis. Besides its immediate economic usefulness, these kelp products are more environmentally sustainable than many of their substitutes.
Zanzibar Sees Successful Growth
Zanzibar, an autonomous island region off the coast of Tanzania, has been farming seaweed at increasing volumes since the 1980s. According to the Bank of Zanzibar, the region exported $5.2 million worth of seaweed, in addition to all of the harvested product that the workers kept to feed the community. The vast majority of seaweed farmers in Zanzibar are women. Seeing the effectiveness of seaweed farming, organizations such as the Nature Conservancy are working to accelerate the spread of seaweed farming in Africa. They are also monitoring the presence of ocean debris and rising sea levels that may affect productivity.
While it is difficult to say that one invention or practice will end hunger on an entire continent, seaweed farming in Africa looks like it could serve as a major asset due to its health benefits and easy growth. Zanzibar and Namibia have already begun to embrace seaweed, and many other nations on the continent can soon follow. Eventually, seaweed farming in Africa can help curb malnutrition and pave the way for a higher standard of living.
– Sawyer Lachance