Seaweed has traditionally been a part of Samoan cuisine, and new research as part of an ACIAR-supported project is seeing renewed interest in local species to boost health and incomes. A core part of the project was an analysis of local diets to identify how local seaweeds could address nutritional shortfalls.
Species assessed included Caulerpa, or green sea grapes, also known as limu fuafua, which is eaten as a celebratory food when in season, particularly at communal events. The other species is Halymenia, a red seaweed that is still eaten by some elder community members, although it has fallen out of favour in the general community.
Dietitian and public health nutritionist Dr Libby Swanepoel has led this project, as part of the team at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
Dr Swanepoel said while the original project plan included Kiribati, restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic meant this could not go ahead. However, close relationships with project partners at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Samoa allowed work there to continue, with the 2-year project concluding in March this year.
Seaweed and nutrition
The project team engaged with 10 local communities to gather information about diet, including any seaweed consumption. A smartphone app designed specifically for the dietary interviews was well supported by community participants.
Data about the nutritional values of a standard Samoan diet was then paired with the nutritional profile of the selected seaweeds. The results suggested that increased consumption of both sea grapes and Halymenia could add important micronutrients to local diets, including iodine, magnesium and potassium. Halymenia could also contribute much-needed calcium.
These findings support increased seaweed consumption, said Dr Swanepoel, and could underpin increased demand and opportunities to expand production.
Production and supply chains
The project team also worked with local communities to identify the roles that men and women play in seaweed production and the supply chain, and how they might benefit from an expansion of the seaweed sector. Views from men and women were captured separately.
Dr Swanepoel said the project was revised from one focused on wild harvesting to include sea-based farming, to align activities with another seaweed project underway in the same communities at the same time. This was a United Nations Development Programme initiative, funded by the Government of Japan, to pilot sea grape farming at 20 sites in 10 villages in Samoa.
‘This change had implications for the business development opportunities for women,’ noted Dr Swanepoel. ‘Wild harvesting lends itself to women’s work. But farming involves more physical labour. Setting out sea cages to grow sea grapes and bringing them in is physical work, which lends itself to men.
‘Often, it’s then women who harvest the sea grapes from cages, clean and process them and bundle them for sale. We must be cautious when introducing new technology that women aren’t inadvertently pushed out of the value chain.’
The village of Vaisala then participated in the co-design of a village community action plan for seaweed, which included both wild harvest and aquaculture opportunities.
‘We brought everybody together for a couple of days to collectively workshop what seaweed production would ultimately look like in their village,’ said Dr Swanepoel.
‘Villagers developed a plan that built in the equal distribution of work between all village members and aligned with their aspirations. It also included a plan for the distribution of any income generated from the seaweed activities.’
Principal Fisheries Officer of the Inshore Fisheries and Aquaculture Sections of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Ms Ulusapeti Tiitii has worked closely with the project including the action plan workshop.
‘The action plan and activities have now been incorporated into the existing village fisheries management plan and our team is working with that community in implementing activities,’ said Ms Tiitii.
‘They expanded their marine reserve to allow harvesting and farming in new areas and have also cleaned up the coastline, where sea grapes are growing naturally.’
Ms Tiitii reported increased interest in seaweeds from local consumers as a result of the nutritional research and sharing those results with local communities. Consumer demand has seen the price of sea grapes triple. Halymenia, which had all but disappeared from the markets, is also reappearing. ‘People are starting to realise that these are good commodities not only for sale, but also for consumption,’ said Ms Tiitii.
Equitable access to opportunities
ACIAR Acting General Manager, Country Partnerships, Ann Fleming said the collaborative approach taken in the Samoan project represents a different way of engaging with enterprise development.
Canvassing views from different groups was an important step to ensure equitable outcomes by identifying social and cultural norms that might prevent some community members from accessing new economic opportunities.
‘It is important to integrate appropriate social and gender research into projects that aim to introduce new technologies for economic opportunities, to ensure culturally aligned and equitable access to those opportunities, rather than just setting up the products and markets and hoping the rest will all fall into place,’ said Professor Fleming.
ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Improving nutrition through women’s and men’s engagement across the seaweed food chain in Kiribati and Samoa’ (FIS/2019/125)