PICTURED: A sponge farmer in Zanzibar smiles for the camera with her new crop. Photo credit: Marinecultures.org. ARR.
In an area characterized by poverty, overexploitation of sea resources and high unemployment, women in Jambiani in southeast Zanzibar are beginning to farm sea sponges as a more reliable source of income.
Organized by marinecultures.org, a small non-profit in Zanzibar headquartered in Zurich, 3-4 sea sponge farms are being launched every year to help unemployed or single mothers support their families.
Historically relying on seaweed for income, a low market price worldwide and large-scale disruptions in production like diseases and pests mean that farming seaweed is no longer a viable trade for the people in Jambiani.
Writing for PANORAMA, a platform hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that allows non-profits and other organizations to host solutions that benefit the natural world, marinecultures.org’s Christian Vaterlaus details how sponge farming became the primary idea for how to save the livelihoods of seaweed farmers in southern Zanzibar.
Trial and error
“When searching for alternative means of income many aspects such as the know-how of the parties involved, eco friendliness, market-opportunities, investment requirements, general acceptance of the method, scalability, and availability of resources need to be considered,” writes Vaterlaus at PANORAMA.
“Aquaculture of sponges was identified to be a suitable alternative to seaweed farming promising substantially higher incomes.”
A research trip to Southeast Asia and the Pacific yielded this idea after witnessing an organization that worked with community members to farm sea sponges and invertebrates with materials and methods that were both sustainable and very cheap.
Sea sponges are used across the world as a kind of luffa for taking a shower, they are also sustainable methods for removing makeup and paint. Anti-allergenic, they are recommended by dermatologists for washing infants or for those with sensitive skin.
Back in Zanzibar, they opened up their first farm in 2009, but needed to test over 120 species of sponges to find one that was suitable for use in the bath, as well as sustainable and harmless on the ecosystem.
“We had to invest a lot of time to figure out best farming methods,” writes Vaterlaus.
In 2014, marinecultures.org also started coral farming for the international aquarium trade, as sponge farming was found to be a slow starting, albeit fairly reliable occupation.
“We’ve always lived in the lagoon with sponges. But only now have we learned how they help us to improve our lives and those of our children,” Shemsa, one of the new breed of sponge farmers in Jambiani, tells marinecultures.org.
“Sometimes something is very close to us without us knowing how to make money with it”.
“…aquaculture is like land based agriculture where years of experience, and trial and error are key to shape best practices,” writes Vaterlaus. However the hard work can certainly pay off as a single farm can feed 2-3 large families and about 3 new farms can be launched each year.
In contrast with pearl or fish farming, a sponge farm can be started with little or no effort, while empowering local women to learn the trade of the fishermen, marine biologist, merchant, entrepreneur, and farmer all at once while learning to dive and swim as well.
“To save the created jobs in the long term the coastal communities of Zanzibar have to learn more about the sea, the importance of corals, sea grass, mangroves and biodiversity to manage their natural marine resources themselves sustainably”.
Sponge farming 2020
An update in February of 2020 saw the sponge farming operations going well. The older sponge farms managed by some of the Jambiani women are clearly producing more sponges these days than in previous years as ecological conditions improve and know-how is built among participants.
In 2019, a starfish epidemic caused damages to the fledgling sponge-fishing industry, but the stock of sponge seedlings were enough so that farms started in 2020 should be able to harvest more and faster at the end of the program’s one-year training period.