Sea Sponge Farms are Empowering Women in Jambiani

These sea creatures, which can be used as loofahs, are a way for single women to support their families.

Jul 9, 2020

Seaweed harvesting in Jambiani (Eros Rigoli / Shutterstock.com)

Life in Jambiani, Zanzibar, has always revolved around the ocean. Villagers have traditionally relied on fishing and harvesting seaweed. Later, the small coastal town’s economy expanded to hosting tourists eager for a picture-perfect vacation on Jambiani’s beautiful white sand beaches. 

While Zanzibar’s economy has largely depended on  fishing, seaweed harvesting, and tourism according to World At Large, these industries are largely weather dependent and several bad seasons have led to increased poverty.  Now, a small nonprofit, Marine Cultures, is helping women from Jambiani farm a new crop that’s both eco-friendly and lucrative. The organization which operates in Zanzibar, and headquartered in Zurich Switzerland, launched the initiative to train local women how to farm sea sponges. 

These sea creatures, invertebrates that live in shallow ocean waters, are used by many people as loofahs, perfect for exfoliating and scrubbing away dead skin according to the organization. Because sea sponges are all natural and contain no added chemicals or potential allergens, they’re ideal for people with sensitive skin. 

Writing for Panorama – a platform hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – Marine Cultures’ general project manager Christian Vaterlaus explained that “ecological aqua farming of sponges...promotes healthy economic growth, reduces environmental pressure and threats to marine life and other natural wildlife, improves public health and strengthens the economic and social status of women.”

One reason Marine Cultures chose to set up sea sponge farms is their minimal start-up costs. “Unlike fish or pearl farms, sponge farms can be set up with little financial resources and technical effort,” The first farm opened in 2009, but it took a while to settle on which species was best to use for baths and also did not damage the ecosystem.

The popularity of sea sponges has grown exponentially over the last 11 years, and “the demand for natural sponges is high and good prices can be achieved,” he said. This translates to more income for the women and their families. One sea sponge farm can feed two to three large families, and around three new farms can be created each year.

With 35 percent of Zanzibar’s children living below the poverty line, according to UNICEF, the economic empowerment women gain from the sea sponge farms is incredibly important.

“Nowadays life has become more difficult due to rising prices. With my sponges, I can earn money,” Nasir, a sponge farmer, said on the Marine Cultures website. “I am divorced, a single mother and the income I have now is enough to pay for my children's education and buy better food for all of us. I was also able to start building my own house. The sponges have really changed my life.” 

With more and more women joining the project, Marine Cultures officially transferred ownership of the farms to the villagers in 2019. Since they began, the farms have been slowly and steadily increasing their sponge production each harvest season.

"We've always lived in the lagoon with sponges. But only now have we learned how they help us to improve our lives and those of our children,” said Shemsa, another sea sponge farmer. “Sometimes, something is very close to us without us knowing how to make money with it.”

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LAUREN MARCUS, CONTRIBUTOR
Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.