By Paul Kimanzi

Covid-19 pandemic has almost brought the world to a standstill. So far, the disease has claimed over 800,000 lives worldwide, destroyed livelihoods and endangered the global economy.

For coastal seaweed farmers in Kibuyuni and Tumbe villages in Kenyan South Coast, the pandemic came as an insult to injury as the farmers were grappling with challenges of extreme oceanic tidal currents and flash floods from terrestrial surface runoff.

The pandemic struck at a time when the farmers were working on mechanisms to save their farms following the oceanic conditions which had threatened to rob them of their only source of income.

As part of the measures put in place to curb the further spread, the government locked down Nairobi and some coastal counties which had recorded high coronavirus cases and restricted social interactions, a move which proved difficult for the seaweed farmers to carry out their normal activities in the farms. As a result, the Kibuyuni seaweed farmers lost Ksh 3.3 million while Tumbe farmers lost Ksh 960,000 from March to May.

To mitigate the situation, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) dispatched a team of researchers in May to assess the social and economic impacts of Covid-19 pandemic and abnormal tidal and flash floods on the seaweed farming.

Due to the urgency to mitigate the situation, KMFRI sought travel permit to the farming sites in Kwale from the Ministry of Health, noting Mombasa county was still under lockdown where the institute’s recovery team, who were to be involved in the mission, were based.

The approval was granted and a seaweed recovery team composed of KMFRI researchers, divers, technicians from seaweed farmers and seaweed stakeholders such as Kenya Fisheries Service (KFS), Beach Management Units (BMU) embarked on the recovery mission.

At Kibuyuni, the recovery was conducted for three days and most of the seaweed recovered was handed over to the farmers and part of it was preserved in the sea using perforated sisal sacks for Tumbe seaweed farmers which was transported and supplied to them the following day.

Mr Alex Kimathi, a researcher at KMFRI, who was among the experts involved in the mission, said they responded to the call from the farmers whose farms had suffered a double blow from the impact of Covid-19 and rough waters which had washed seeds to the deep sea.

‘A total of 964 kg (wet weight) of seaweeds was recovered from deep waters of the subtidal environment and distributed to more than 80 farmers at Kibuyuni and Tumbe villages. The seaweeds supplied to farmers was immediately planted in respective farms with a focus of propagating more seeds to share with other farmers. The farmers were quite appreciative of the effort and requested that another exercise be conducted to increase the number of farmers supplied with seeds,’ narrates Mr Kimathi.

The lockdown and curfew denied the farmers the ease of access to the established seed banks, to enable them to restock their farms in time, which were already in a sorry state. As a result, farmers lost all the seeds, rendering the farmers jobless, a situation which threatened to reverse the gains made in empowering coastal women as they form the bulk of farmers.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that farmers could not access some of the materials they use in repairing the farms such as polypropylene ropes which they ordinarily bought from Mombasa County, which was still under lockdown.

The little seaweeds the farmers had already harvested and stored in their farms could not cushion their economy because the buyer could only buy the produce collected in bulks, a threshold which the farmers failed to meet. Worse still, the farmers could not sell the value-added products they make from seaweeds such as soaps and seaweed shampoo because the local businesses were closing down due to the effects of Covid-19.

According to data obtained from Kenya Coastal Development Project (KCDP), Kenya small scale commercial seaweed cultivation is practised by over 600 farmers distributed in 4 coastal communities namely; Gazi, Mkwiro, Kibuyuni and Funzi in the southern coast of Kenya. The first commercial seaweed farms were established at Kibuyuni in 2009 and have progressively grown in biomass accumulation and a number of interested seaweed farmers. Tumbe is a new seaweed site whose farming began in 2018.

Ms Fatuma Mohammed, a chairperson of Kibuyuni seaweed farmers (now registered as Kibuyuni Cooperative) said they made the first sale of seaweed of about 27 tonnes in 2013 after a long period of hard work. With only three members of the group, she says they faced a lot of uncertainties about the viability of their seaweed project at the initial stages since it was the first of its kind in the country.

‘We received a lot of technical support from KMFRI. We began with some experiments in the sites. Now the project feed our families, educate our children and we contribute to other community events, says Ms Fatuma.

After sharing the success stories of seaweed farming, more locals have joined in with Kibuyuni group alone having 210 registered members. KMFRI has been offering technical support to all the four coastal communities involved in the commercial seaweed cultivation.