Making Waves | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Making Waves

The University of the Sunshine Coast is embarking on an ambitious 3.5-year project aiming to empower women in the Pacific – using seaweed.

Project leader Professor Nick Paul believes it has the potential not only to transform the lives of the women involved, but to bring about positive change across the Pacific’s fledgling seaweed industry.

“We’re working with three Fisheries Ministries and businesses to support women in Samoa, Fiji and Kiribati to start and expand seaweed farms – not only for economic prosperity – but to improve sustainability and environmental outcomes, create efficient supply chains, promote social wellbeing and preserve culture,” Professor Paul said.

“It’s pretty amazing what you can do with seaweed.”

Kiribati women processing sea grapes

With more than $1.8 million in funding from Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the team from UniSC’s Seaweed Research Group will commence field work in the coming months, starting with mapping the different seaweed supply chains.

IDRC Senior Program Specialist Dr. Mélanie Robertson says the project’s use of nature-based solutions to improve livelihoods and outcomes in the Pacific, aligned with its AQUADAPT program objectives in the region.

AQUADAPT is a four-year initiative between IDRC and the Canadian Government to test and scale practical solutions to improve small-scale aquaculture’s climate resilience, productivity and sustainability.

“We need more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable aquatic food systems to face the intertwined challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and food insecurity across Southeast Asia and the Pacific,“  IDRC President Julie Delahanty said at a recent agri-food and climate change event in the Asia Pacific region.

Kappphycus seaweed growing in Fiji

UniSC Project Coordinator, Dr Saskia de Klerk, says seaweed production has a long history in the Pacific where it’s predominantly been practiced by women.

Once a source of income, community and culture; in recent times it’s become increasingly difficult to do sustainably.

“Operating costs and environmental pressures make it challenging for the women to maintain this sustainable livelihood putting more pressure than ever on value chains,” Dr de Klerk said.

“There are 10 varieties of seaweed that are typically used in Fiji, Samoa and Kiribati, but some of them are becoming less common. We’re hoping to record some of the traditional knowledge surrounding their uses, but also for the women to try new recipes and approaches,” Dr de Klerk said.

“It’s important to find sustainable and inclusive ways to ensure food security in a fun, engaging and nutritious way."

Fijian women selling sea grapes at a local market

The challenges are clear. But there’s optimism seaweed is ripe for a rebound.

With the expertise of UniSC’s Seaweed Research Group, Professor Paul believes the project has the potential to bring seaweed farming up to an economically viable and sustainable practice in the Pacific.

“There's a really good foundation to build on,” Professor Paul said.

“We’re going to provide support with knowledge, equipment, development, improvement of supply chains and assist in monitoring environmental and social outcomes.”

The potential of the seaweed industry in the Pacific hasn’t gone unnoticed. The project has already caught the eye of the private sector.

“We have five companies interested in working with the team to use the resulting seaweed to develop products for consumption, in fertilisers and ‘biochar’ products, and even cosmetics like makeup and skincare,” Professor Paul said.

Sea grape harvesting in Samoa

While investment and support will make a tangible difference to the women farming seaweed in the region, the project’s success won’t be measured by dollars and cents alone.

“Diversifying income is important, but there’s sustainability and environmental objectives tied into this too. Another interesting aspect is the positive sense of wellbeing that can come out of seaweed farming,” Dr de Klerk said.

“That’s one reason why a lot of the women do it – the social element of working together. It can create stronger communities. So we’ll be researching what benefits come out of that too.”

“The best thing about this project is that it draws upon so many different types of expertise, highlighting the important roles everyone needs to play to make it a success,” Professor Paul said.

“With the broader program support of the IDRC, plus the technical expertise of Fisheries and the trailblazing work of the women’s enterprises and companies in the Pacific, we have an incredible team to transform the industry and create lasting change for the region.”

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