AS Tanzanians, we have to cultivate a culture of recognising citizens amongst us who had or are contributing immensely to our progress and humanity at large.
One such person is Flower Ezekiel Msuya (PhD), a Tanzanian scientist who has, for more than 20 years, struggled to promote seaweed farming and its allied products.
She is a marine biologist working as a researcher at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). Over the years, she has struggled to make sure that seaweed farming thrives in Tanzania so that the country can claim its place in the world market when it comes to quality seaweed products.
Born in Kifula, Ugweno Division of Mwanga District in Kilimanjaro Region in 1959, Dr Flower is a world class seaweed farming, integrated aquaculture and innovation expert.
She holds a PhD on seaweeds in integrated aquaculture from Tel Aviv University, Israel, a Master degree in Fisheries and Aquaculture from the University of Kuopio in Finland, and a Bachelor degree in Botany and Statistics from the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In1993 to 1996, she researched on socioeconomic and environmental impact of seaweed farming-the first study of its kind, and 1995 to 1996 she pioneered the start of seaweed farming in southern Tanzania.
In recent years, she has been engaging herself in research and training in seaweed farming technologies and value addition and integrating seaweed with culture animals such as sea-cucumbers to fight effects of climate change.
She has done a number of consultancies in seaweed farming/aquaculture with FAO (Tanzania and Kenya), WIEGO, UNIDO, WWF and starting seaweed farming in Mauritius, Rodrigues and Mayotte.
Dr Msuya is the founder and chairperson of the Zanzibar Seaweed Cluster Initiative (ZaSCI), working with seaweed farmers in innovative farming and value addition, linking them with universities/research institutions, government departments and markets.
Her work has especially helped marginalised women in Tanzania increase their income through production of seaweed value-added products.
She has trained government officials, researchers, entrepreneurs, and seaweed farmers on innovative farming (developing technologies to farm higher valued but environmentally affected seaweed) and making seaweed products in many areas in Tanzania.
Her interests include impact of climate change (on seaweed farming/aquaculture), resilience linking communities with coastal resource management, and community based research to solve challenges faced by seaweed/aquaculture farmers. She has published more than 40 papers on seaweed.
Seaweed or “Mwani” in Kiswahili language, has been one of the island’s key exports since the early 1990’s, but the trend has been dropping as a result of climate, change especially rising seawater temperature that affect seaweed farms and some kind of bacteria which limits its growth.
These are some of the challenges that Dr Flower spearheads to make seaweed beneficial to the economy again.
The Island has historically been the third largest exporter of seaweed in the world, after the Philippines and Indonesia, with main markets being Denmark, USA, France, China, Korea, Vietnam and Spain.
When she started encouraging more men and women in Tanzania to engage themselves in seaweed farming, no one took her seriously.
The encouraging thing is that right now individuals, local and international institutions and governments have started to recognise her long-time efforts.
Seaweed farms are made up of little sticks in neat rows in the warm, shallow water, with ropes tied between the sticks and the seaweed seedlings put in-between.
The plant can be used to make cosmetics, lotions, toothpaste, medicines and eaten as vegetables.
Falling in love with seaweed plants
She explains that when she was taking her undergraduate, she took a course in phycology-study of seaweeds and that was the beginning of cultivating an interest about seaweed plants.
“Looking at plants grown in the sea as opposed to plants that I grew in my mother’s garden in Ugweno, Kilimanjaro, I wanted to learn more about these plants,” she said.
But the going has not been easy. It involved working longer hours, teaching, mentoring, inspiring, researching and engaging men and women who did not believe that seaweed farming and its allied products can change and improve lives.
When she introduced the whole idea of using seaweed to make products, no one understood her. But today, the initiative under ZaSCI has 15 villages where both farmers and non-farmers of seaweed make seaweed products and actually eat seaweed at home. There are also a number of individuals all over Tanzania who use seaweed in their homes.
“It inspires me to know that I have changed people’s mind-set and culture the positive way,” she says. When she started to promote the Seaweed Cluster Initiative, not many people in the government wanted to listen to her or help in starting it. Today, she sees lots of interest in the government to promote seaweed value addition.
The government of Zanzibar, for example, is in the process of developing small processing plants aimed at coming up with a big plant in the future.
“I am very proud for making this happen in my country,” she notes.
She vividly remembers how she was laughed at when she first told seaweed farmers (in one cooperative that she started with) that they can make seaweed soap and also eat seaweed.
“I remember a man in one village who looked at me and asked “lady, why should I eat seaweed, don’t I have food?” I wish I could meet him today, for, I am sure he is eating seaweed now,” she recalls.
Since 2005 she has been researching in innovative technologies that can be used to produce higher valued seaweed and add value to the lower valued seaweed.
“So far the most promising farming technology is the tubular nets which I and my colleagues are piloting in two villages,” she notes, adding that her work under ZaSCI continues to look at other farming technologies.
She is continuously inspired by her teacher and mentor, Prof. Keto Mshigeni who has persistently worked to develop seaweed aquaculture in Tanzania.
Challenges as a woman scientist
She says that the challenge she faced just because she is a woman came especially because she was from the mainland and wanted to work in developing seaweed aquaculture in Zanzibar.
“Trust me, at first it was not easy, but as time passed, I got used and so did the people of Zanzibar,” she says, explaining further that a woman from another culture telling a man from Zanzibar to practice aquaculture of other kinds (instead of continuing to be a fisherman) or use seaweed is not easy.
She explains the fact that women managed to convince their husbands and their communities in general to let them go out of the house to farm seaweed considering the Arabic culture was a big move.
She is a member of several professional associations, such as Tropical Agriculture Association (TAA), Royal Society of Biology (RSB), World Aquaculture Society (WAS), International Seaweed Association (ISA), Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) and Pan African Competitiveness Forum (PACF).
She is also one of the five International Trainers in Innovation and Clustering, where she has trained over 100 small-scale and large-scale entrepreneurs in Tanzania and a similar number in West Africa.
Dr Flower has since 2017 joined forces with colleagues from Scotland, Philippines and Malaysia to tackle problems facing seaweed aquaculture.
They are implementing the GlobalSeaweedSTAR project-safeguarding the future of seaweed aquaculture-where they are looking for solutions on climate change impacts, including seaweed diseases, genetics, biosecurity and socioeconomic issues that are hampering the development of seaweed aquaculture in Tanzania, Philippines and Malaysia.
The project is led by the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS) and funded by UK Research and Innovation Fund-Global Challenges Research Fund.
Advice to women
Her advice to women is that “they can”.
“They should “dare” and move forward with a go-go-go attitude and not listen to people who want to pull them down…seaweed farming and value addition is a very rewarding activity, and women should take a forefront position and reap the benefits of it,” she says.
Her dream is to be a key leader in leading Tanzanian women to become masters of production and sales of innovative seaweed products in East Africa, Africa, and the world.
“I believe this is achievable because we have a unique product in Africa-the red seaweed-which we are the third largest producer in the world,” she stresses.
She is happy that the government (of Zanzibar) has declared seaweed as the focus-crop in the country’s value addition sector, and that it will work with ZaSCI to make sure that value addition is scaled out and that the country has several seaweed processing plants for semi-refined carrageenan, the gel that determines the quality of the red seaweeds farmed in the Island.
Seaweed Day on the 23rd July of each year has been recognised by the government of Zanzibar as the ZaSCI Seaweed Day.
Guests of Honour in the ZaSCI Seaweed Day have so far been the President of Zanzibar or the 2nd Vice- President of Zanzibar.
Young girls have a lot to learn from Flower who has struggled for over 20 years in seaweed aquaculture and value addition, and persistently working with te farmers on voluntary basis.