Among the rocky beaches, mudflats, and lagoons that line the southeastern tip of India, it’s not unusual to see a group of women working together around a bamboo raft. These women are tending to young seaweed plants that, in just a month's time, will grow to five times their current size. One raft's harvest of seaweed is worth more than a fisherman’s daily pay.
People are used to seeing seaweed in miso soup or wrapped around a sushi roll. But many don't realize that the real drivers of the seaweed industry are byproducts extracted from the plants. These include substances known as alginates, agar, and carrageenan, which give a soft, jellylike consistency to products like skin care lotions, fertilizers, toothpastes, ice cream, soymilk, and fruit jellies.
Analysts predict that the seaweed extract business will reach $7 billion by 2018.
That impressive figure is especially interesting because fishing—the traditional industry of rural coastal India—has not been a welcoming place for women. Fishing requires a great deal of capital and long hours at sea—that's a problem for women responsible for household tasks including taking care of children, collecting drinking water, and gathering firewood.
But women often play a large role in seaweed farming, which in many cases is the only source of cash income available to them and the first paid work they've ever had. Seaweed farming works well for women in places like rural India because it doesn't require a lot of money or expensive equipment to make it work, and requires women to be away from home for no more than 4 to 6 hours of the day.
Typically, a group of six to 10 women will grow a crop of seaweed in six weeks. The majority of the work is done on land, where women work together stringing small young plants through ropes, which are then tied to sections of bamboo that form a raft. When the assembly is complete, the women move the rafts into shallow water. Women will typically plant and harvest one raft a day. Both fresh and dried seaweed is sold to seaweed-processing companies at a fixed rate determined by the farmers themselves at the beginning of each year.
During a recent trip to India, I witnessed this process firsthand. Many women in coastal villages have turned to seaweed farming, bringing them economic opportunities while contributing to their families' income—not an easy thing to do in a male-dominated society.
And this is not just any income. Women earners are more likely than males to save their money or spend it on their families, according to government officials and seaweed industry insiders.
Since the 1960s, agricultural crops cultivated by farmers in hard-to-reach villages in India have tended to go through a number of intermediaries, or “middlemen,” before getting to the market. Historically, farmers have struggled with middlemen taking advantage of their role and pocketing more than their fair share of earnings.
If rural women are benefiting from the seaweed industry, what's happening to make sure that money is secure? The answer, at least in India, is quite a lot.
Engaging in contract farming ensures the entirety of a farmer’s harvest will be sold directly to a company at a prearranged price, without going through middlemen. According to a recent report by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 5,000 rural poor from a single southeastern district alone engage in farming, transporting, and selling seaweed through contract farming.
Their efforts are supported by private investors, industries, NGOs, and financial institutions like the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and the National Fisheries Development Board. The Indian government has also been proactive in encouraging environmentally sound and socially responsible seaweed farming.
On the private industry side, the company AquAgri Processing has helped lead the effort to provide rural women with seaweed growing contracts. AquAgri was created when its current managing director, Abhiram Seth, left PepsiCo—which had initiated the contract farming model for seaweed farming in India in 2000—and started his own company in 2008. Currently, women comprise 75 percent of AquAgri's workforce.
AquAgri also works directly with farmers to make sure the money it pays out goes into local hands and helps to build long-term livelihood. Through its "Growers Investment Program," the company deducts, saves, and matches 5 percent of each seaweed worker's pay. This is especially helpful for farmers during the monsoon season, when for three months the seas are too unpredictable for farming.
Policymakers around the developing world are often stumped when asked how to ensure that rural women have access to income. As the demand for seaweed-based products increases, they might consider learning from what India has done with this industry.
• Shilpi Chhotray wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shilpi is a consultant at Future 500, a global nonprofit organization specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds–corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others—to advance systemic solutions to environmental problems.