Zanzibar. An exotic archipelago nestled off the coast of mainland Tanzania. A place of contrast and surprise. A mix of Muslims, Christians and Hindus all living in an unexpectedly relaxed and very African island setting. Former slave trade capital of East Africa, former Omani sultanate. The homeland of Freddie Mercury. The more you find out the more fascinating it is. Beneath the Tide is a story about Zanzibar’s biggest commodity after tourism. Unexpectedly it’s not coconuts or spices (despite its nickname ‘Spice Island’) – it’s seaweed.
Seaweed farming has long being a tradition in these parts of the world. Most seaweed farmers are women and their work is considered one of the hardest occupations on the island. In order to farm they need to trek out to their farms at low tide which is often during the hottest part of the day. They bend at a super human angle for hours on end and carry their water- soaked harvest back to shore on their heads.
Raw seaweed is worth, at best, 20 cents per kilo so in the past the farmers’ were easily exploited by companies buying off their hard work for close to nothing. These companies would then grind the seaweed to a powder and mix it with other ingredients to make soap and other cosmetics which of course they sold for a lot more. The Zanzibaris began to work with local scientists and began to add value to their product themselves. Now seaweed farming and soap making is one of the most lucrative businesses on the island.
In 2001 the Seaweed Center was set up by a group of students, scientists and Paje seaweed farmers and it became one of the first official organisations for processing seaweed. Dr Flower Ezekiel Msuya (a Researcher and Consultant for the Institute of Marine Sciences) has spent 20 years researching seaweed farming and was a key figure in setting up the Center. She is a firm believer in local empowerment through value addition and is passionate about the innovative nature of Zanzibari communities. Many local women working at the center began to reap the benefits of their hard work by achieving a stable monthly salary for the first time in their lives. However, recently the Seaweed Center could not pay its own bills and kept running out of money. The orginial founders decided to bring in Klaartje Schaade, a former banker from the Netherlands to keep the Center afloat. But some steps she sees as necessary do not go down well with others…especially Dr Flower.
This is the interesting backdrop of Beneath the Tide. A story that goes beyond the local womens’ success and begins to the unravel the rich tapestry of its settings.