Hadija Nassor Mwalim was introduced to seaweed farming from an early age. Born and raised on the shores of Zanzibar, a Tanzanian archipelago on the frontlines of climate change off the coast of East Africa, she’s been around seaweed for as long as she can remember. That’s in part because, as a coastal community, Zanzibar is highly reliant on seaweed as one of its top exports. The aquaculture industry is estimated to employ more than 25,000 people on the island, 80% of whom are women. One of these women was Mwalim’s auntie, Zanaib, who would regularly bring a young Nassor Mwalim to the seaweed plantations while she worked. There, the ocean and shorelines were her playground, and soon enough—her inspiration.
For women like Zanaib, the island’s growing seaweed business offered an opportunity for self-sustenance and financial and economic independence. And that, in turn, led Mwalim, who watched her auntie working in the fields, to ask herself: “Why not me?” On Zoom, Mwalim tells me in Swahili (via a translator named Pius Mwaisumo) that the promise of economic autonomy made her determined to start her own farm as an aquaculturist. But she soon realized that simply farming the seaweed was not the profitable self-sustaining business she had expected. So, in 2015, she joined Mwani Zanzibar, a non-profit turned private corporation creating macroalgae and plant-based skincare products.
At Mwani, Mwalim was given the opportunity to expand her skill set to not only farming the seaweed, but to processing and producing the products—like body butters, skincare oils, and Mwalim’s personal favorite to make, soaps—that come from it as well. The learning process at Mwani takes about three years of training in order for the farmers to transition to a farmer-artisan status. Since joining the nonprofit, Mwalim’s financial standing has changed drastically as she now makes eight times more in income compared to what she was earning when she worked independently, including receiving full protections and benefits. Mwalim is just one example of how Mwani Zanzibar’s mission to empower community members, both financially and through the development of business know-how, is changing lives. As cofounder Klaartje Schade, speaking to Suitcase magazine, says, “seaweed farming accounts for only 25% of the work here at Mwani Zanzibar. We are the only company that actually processes the seaweed before it leaves our shores.” And Mwalim’s newfound financial freedom and independence have not only benefited herself as an individual—but her family as well.
In addition to being a farmer-artisan, Mwalim is a wife and mother of four. Like many working mothers around the world, her mornings begin early. On a typical day, Mwalim wakes up around 5:00 a.m. to do her morning prayer (Mwalim is a practicing Muslim as the majority of locals living on the island are). She then feeds her four children, Salahia, Mosaina, Aroulduat, and Talmiha, before sending them off to school.
Later at Mwani, Mwalim joins her honorary family members, lovingly known in Zanzibar as the Mwani Mamas, which literally translates to Seaweed Mamas. The mamas embody the concept of Mtu ni watu, a Swahili proverb meaning a person is people. The proverb is used to remind people of the importance of collaboration and community— exemplified by the close teamwork carried out by the Mwani Mamas. The farming itself can only be done at low-tide. In the meantime, the mamas work in the production and processing of Mwani’s skincare products.
As someone who’s been doing this most of her life, Mwalim has become deeply connected to the tides that ebb and flow on Zanzibar’s coast. They dictate her livelihood as she works with the ocean to create products from one of its most natural resources. But Mwalim has also been forced to watch as those same tides slowly creep up the land over the last couple of decades. In fact, each year, more and more of her home washes away beneath the ocean’s surface. It’s an unstoppable force, one of the many effects climate change is having on coastal communities around the world. For context, sea levels are rising by 0.13 inches every year worldwide, and studies have estimated that by 2050 sea levels in Tanzania will have risen by between 0.5 to 1.4 feet.
And it’s not just climate change that’s hindering local seaweed farming efforts, Mwalim is noticing more hotels and large tourist facilities popping up on Zanzibar’s coast, taking over by the year. The island’s ever-changing landscape has Hadija wondering if the sun will set on her dreams before they are realized. The loss would be detrimental, economically and socially. Twenty-five percent of Tanzania’s population lives on the coast, and some communities have already begun relocating.
“It doesn’t stop. Just goes on and on and on, consuming the land… where will we sleep?”
Seaweed farming is an intergenerational practice in Zanzibar. And Zanaib and Mwalim’s story is shared by many other local families. It’s a dream that extends to Mwalim’s children: that they follow in her footsteps like she did her auntie’s. Yet, eco-grief and fear for the land are a constant consideration.
It’s not easy to stay optimistic. “Maybe the island will vanish,” Mwalim tells me. She wonders how future generations will find a way to live on the land—“unless they all turn into fish since there’ll be water everywhere,” she says. The ever-changing environmental circumstances leave little room for certainty. But one thing is true: in a world where female ecological knowledge so often drives urgently-needed climate solutions, the Mwani Mamas provide some hope for the future. Mwalim is painfully aware of the rising sea levels, yet she chooses to set her sights above the horizon, aspiring to one day open a seaweed production business of her own.