By Hassan Ibrahim Conteh
Some piles of seaweed are often seen on the beaches of Freetown, especially in the coastal shores of Aberdeen and Lumley. They are woven with some avalanche of rubbish, which appears uncontrollable. Plastic bottles, syringes, dead animals, woods and other sorts of dirt are scenes of testimonies of a country which treats its ecosystem with some level of levity.
The situation is seriously worsened in the absence of ‘beach cleaners’ to control the dumping of contaminated substances into the sea and on the sandy beach areas. The economic value of seaweed is still not known by many Sierra Leoneans.
Although seaweed poses huge problem for local fishermen, researchers have found out that it has huge socio-economic impact, which is yet to be discovered in some countries in Africa. The general myths, held among some people in Africa, particularly Sierra Leone, are that the underground seaweed is just some ordinary wet ‘grasses’ drifted from seas.
The fishermen usually complain that the seaweed entangles and rip off their nets, which often results to low catch, as fishermen spend enduring hours in getting the seaweed off their nets before fishing could continue. Sometimes, they say, their nets are torn especially when a net gets entangled deep in the sea.
Despite the challenges, faced by fishermen, there have also been growing concerns, among citizens, over the discomforting piles of seaweed seen on our beaches, which do not attract investment as compared to other countries in Africa like Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.
In Sierra Leone, there are no seaweed manufacturers owing to little knowledge and existing industry. But studies have indicated that, with the application of the right knowledge and relevant technologies, the ‘red seaweed’ has the potential to generate economic growth and development.
Seaweed provides wide range of nutrients and thus used as traditional medicines or herbs to treat and cure some diseases. Moreover, seaweed also serves as a source of food, either to be eaten alone or added to dishes to increase the flavour.
There are many species of seaweed available and harvested worldwide, which fall into three categories: brown algae, red algae and green algae. For years, seaweed manufacturing has been in existence in Asian countries because the benefits of seaweed had been known long ago. The top producers of seaweeds are mostly Asian countries, including China, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and so on.
In several parts of South-East Asia, seaweed is cultivated in large quantities, which contain a component called hydrocolloids used in foods. They have water-soluble molecules, which can be dissolved in a liquid. One of seaweed varieties, being tested by CP Kelco, shows a positive result.
The ‘red seaweed’ waste contains nutrients, which could be used as stabilizers, gelling and thickening agents in foods like chocolate milk and meat products and other substances like toothpaste and face cream.
CP Kelco is a leading producer of special hydrocolloids. It is based in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States of America. Research has also proven that proteins, vitamins, growth hormones, iodine and other nutrients could be extracted from seaweed.
“We’re still facing challenges with proteins, and more work needs to be done before we see seaweed proteins in consumer products. But we have proven the general principle that it is possible to extract proteins from seaweed. In one seaweed variety we were able to extract up to 90% of the protein content,” says Professor Charlotte Jacobsen, Head of Research Group, National Food Institute.
He cautioned that: “In light of the global population growth, we must recognize that not everyone can meet their protein needs through animal proteins. We must find new sources of proteins, and I think we will need all the alternatives we can discover. We have demonstrated that seaweed definitely offers some potential.”
Researchers have also proven that seaweed contains important nutrients that can be used both in food and pharmaceutical industries. Like in Japan the seaweed dietary consumption is very high. Many seaweed species are used as food in Asia and the Pacific region. And a low rate of goiter disease is being accounted for among seaweed eating populations in these regions.
In 2005, a research shows that the regular consumption of dietary seaweed, in Japan and Korea, is attributed to low prevalent rates of HIV/AIDS and low risks of various cancers.
Global research has indicated, further, that seaweed can generate energy and can be used as fossil fuel as substitutes. This can be made possible with the use of appropriate technological devices.
As seaweed production increases, only few countries in Africa have tapped into the industry. It could be attributed to lack of relevant technologies, creativity, expertise and a body of research.
In 2010, Global production of seaweed soared from 11.66 million metric tons in 2002 to 16.83 million metric tons in 2008, according to FAO. Approximately 90% of estimated total world seaweed production is derived from cultivation. Ghana, for instance, has sought expertise in seaweed production research.
Likewise, in Nigeria, several academic researchers have done extensive studies to know the economic and biochemical compositions and other potentials that could be derived from seaweed. A special project was launched in Ghana to train farmers on seaweed cultivation and production. The project was championed by DTU with some universities in Ghana to exploit seaweed from the Atlantic Ocean.
During the project, researchers, from various institutions, including DTU, teamed up with colleagues from Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana to utilize the surplus of seaweed that is piling up on the Ghanaian beaches.
“We were amazed by the level of expertise we encountered in Ghana. The country has a highly educated academic class that is genuinely interested in helping to solve some of the problems Ghana is facing…I must admit that I was surprised at how skilled and visionary they are,” DTU’s Professor Anne Meyer admires.
Meyer recommended for a local refinement system to be set up in Ghana. The local seaweed industry, in Ghana, is said to have employed thousands of poor Ghanaians many of whom work as seaweed farmers while others find themselves in local dried seaweed-manufacturing companies.
DTU Chemical Engineering’s main activities lie within the areas of product design, process design and production in the chemical, biotechnological, pharmaceutical, food technological and energy technological industries.
Ghana dried seaweed products, supplied by the country’s seaweed manufacturers, have taken hold of the industry. The seaweed could be used to make local furniture, powder and organic fertilizer in some parts of the world. Seaweed can be used to produce many things, which cannot be explored in this piece. Research, on the benefits of seaweed waste, is still ongoing.
As it stands, Sierra Leone is yet to undertake any project to tap into the economic value of the seaweed industry, thereby creating employment opportunities for the masses who linger in abject poverty.
The country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environment Ministry have never undertaken similar projects like the one seen in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa on seaweed waste cultivation and production. Neither has there been any academic research done to investigate the biochemical compositions and the diverse use of seaweed in our universities and other public institutions up to date.
However, researchers have warned that seaweeds, if not managed well or properly cultivated, have negative effect on our world’s environments. This is evidenced in the case of our beaches, which are covered with plenty untapped seaweeds as they produce suffocating odour.
But, more seriously, the untapped seaweed waste, on our beaches, have robbed off or denied many Sierra Leoneans with job opportunities.