Seaweed: Trend, Nuisance, or Development Solution

By Kymberly Bays, Communications and Innovation Analyst

Multiple Accelerator Lab teams at UNDP are exploring the uses and effects of seaweed as useful resource for sustainable development solutions. Photo: Unsplash

“The Climate Friendly Vegetable You Ought to Eat” — New York Times

“Superfood to Superhero: How eating seaweed could help save the planet” — Financial Times

“The Five Best Seaweed Soaks” — Wall Street Journal

“Kelp is the new kale” — The Atlantic

Seaweed is having a moment. In the past few years, coverage of marine algae has exploded worldwide. Seaweed is making its way to consumers via cosmetics, medicine, food and beverages as an ingredient and flavor, and has been hailed as a “super trend for 2020” in Europe and North America.

Seaweed as a staple is already a fact of life in many regions, especially East Asia. It’s dense in essential nutrients. It’s fast growing. Its gelling, filtering and emulsifying properties make it a versatile additive. And it’s abundantly available — the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape estimates that there are nine times more algae and seaweed on Earth than plants on land.

Given the worldwide appeal of the modern use cases of seaweed, it is no surprise that of our 60 UNDP Accelerator Labs servicing 78 countries, several of them have lingered on seaweed (and algae, and river weeds, and the like) as a point of reflection and exploration.

The kelp we need

Like the tangled tentacles of seaweed itself, we are witnessing a cluster form within the UNDP Accelerator Lab Network around creating shared understanding of seaweed’s impact on communities. Labs are mapping its applications and pushing the boundaries of the potential of certain species to drive environmental, social and economic impact.

In Namibia, the team mapped a local solution, NamKelp which is repurposing seaweed from the country’s vast coast lines into a highly nutritious poultry feed. By producing feed from nutrient-rich seaweed, the company is able to provide affordable feed supplements to farmers. As drought conditions are creating unpredictable farming conditions, this lower-cost solution could have a profound impact on livelihoods in Namibia.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, domestic products like Afrikelp illustrate the potential of seaweed as commercial feedstock on a larger scale. The South Africa Accelerator Lab is engaging with a variety of stakeholders across sectors on strategies to use the underutilised natural resource to enhance crop production for subsistence farmers. The South African Lab will begin by unearthing indigenous knowledge regarding the use of seaweed, as well as surface any barriers to the use of this widely available and valuable resource with coastline communities.

A deeper understanding of the scalability of seaweed-related solutions which work in South Africa or Namibia can help other lab teams located along the 30,000km of African shoreline. The continent currently accounts for less than 1 percent of annual global aquaculture production, according to FAO.

With the global seaweed industry expected to grow to $22 billion by 2024, the Accelerator Labs are positioned to play a role in determining how this prosperity can be shared.

When seaweed becomes a threat

Sargassum seaweed, pictured here washed ashore, is causing ecological and health issues, as well as impacting tourism in several countries worldwide. Photo: Unsplash

Paradoxically, seaweed’s most valued attributes can quickly become a threat. Rich in nutrients, too much of a good thing means massive amounts of methane, nitrogen, and phosphorus released into ecosystems with catastrophic effects to reefs, animals, and humans.

UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean’s Blue Lab

We know that sargassum seaweed is blooming around the world at unprecedented rates, piling up on beaches and impacting tourism. Some Accelerator Labs are now exploring what to do with the problematic seaweed and whether it is possible to turn it into an asset.

In the Caribbean, the UNDP Accelerator Lab is working with the Oasis Laboratory to test whether sargassum seaweed could be used as a biodegradable alternative to single-use plastic. The Blue Lab, as they are called, is pursuing out-of-the-box thinking to. surface solutions which support small island developing states in the sustainable development of ocean-based economic sectors.

When starting off their initial sensemaking, the Mexico Lab team homed in on the issue of sargassum seaweed as well. Seaweed has contributed to a staggering 35 percent drop in tourism in Mexico, equivalent to 8.7 percent of the GDP.

The sensemaking among interdisciplinary country office specialists informed and expanded on UNDP Mexico’s Environment Unit active involvement on this issue. Efforts include promoting innovative local-led homegrown solutions and initiatives that approach sargassum from the female perspective, as well as supporting the International Sargassum Network and researchers studying invasive seagrass species via the Global Environmental Facility.

The Mimosa Pigra plant, an invasive species found abundantly in Zambia’s Kafue River, could be harvested and repurposed by local communities into eco-friendly energy briquettes.

Beyond the Sea

Invasive species can also disrupt river ecosystems in landlocked countries, like the Mimosa Pigra weed creating issues in Zambia’s Kafue River. Introduction of the fast-growing weed has degraded water quality and the natural environment of the river, affecting fisheries and tourism activities.

The Zambia Lab, along with country-level partners, are exploring ways to create a waste-to-energy value chain using local infrastructure and targeting vulnerable groups, specifically women and people living with disabilities. Community members can potentially harvest the Mimosa Pigra weed for sale for fabrication of eco-friendly energy briquettes.

The production of green briquettes in turn addresses a top of mind problem that the Lab is working with partners on — the country’s energy crisis. Zambia relies on hydro-electric energy production as its main source of household energy, which has been negatively impacted by changing rainfall patterns likely caused by climate change. Demand for low-cost energy solutions has increased household use of charcoal and firewood, which further impacts the depletion of natural forests and hydrological functions. Creation of a market for these sustainable briquettes would help meet energy demands, provide a domestic alternative to imports, and alleviate disruption of the Kafue River ecosystem, while providing sustainable livelihood options for Zambians.

Traditional knowledge to fuel modern breakthroughs?

Seaweed and aquatic plants are omni-present in the lives of coastal and riverine communities. Their multitude of uses have been harnessed by indigenous people long before recent worldwide popularity.

This is where another systems approach of the lab network is creating an impact — valuing local and traditional knowledge and putting solutions emanating from the grassroots in the forefront of development. Or simply, following a refrain we believe in, “minds at the margins are not marginal minds”.

The Pacific — Fiji Lab team is particularly committed to this way of working as it seeks to explore scalable solutions to climate security in low-lying coastal areas and atolls. Nature-based solutions using seaweed, seagrass and corals are seen as possible options to prevent coastal erosion.

The ocean carries deep spiritual and cultural connections to communities. In the Pacific Lab’s sensemaking and exploration phases, they found themes of cultural identity are intertwined with efforts to build climate resilience.

As a result, the team is now scouting for Traditional Ecological Knowledge practices that can boost social resilience and economic livelihoods of communities, such as commercializing coastal salt harvesting. The goal is to grow a portfolio of insights, complementary solutions and options that can amount to more than the sum of its parts and specifically scale across countries facing the existential threat of rising seas.

Getting smarter about seaweed

Seaweed, seagrass and aquatic plants are just one such “cluster” micro-issue our labs are teaming up to tackle. In 2020, the UNDP Accelerator Lab Network is busy testing and refining tools and methods, creating space for action and reflection on evolving development challenges. Aspects of waste management, energy, and youth employment have also attracted a clustered approach across countries and regions.

Individual labs are networking outwards beyond UNDP’s traditional partners while simultaneously connecting across country teams — the type of boundaryless, swarm-like behavior UNDP believes is needed to tackle development challenges at scale.

By creating the space for people to create and learn things together, seaweed may have more than just “a moment”.

This is part of UNDP’s bet on investing in a collective intelligence model. The networked structure of the Accelerator Labs is allowing for new and diverse approaches to unfold across vastly different contexts in a low-risk way. The labs studying seaweed, and other plant-based solutions, are able to unlock insights in real-time amongst each other and create cycles of continuous sharing and learning.

Thus, the Accelerator Lab Network is creating opportunities to surface ideas that are on the horizon but not yet part of mainstream development — through creativity, alliances and partnerships.

With contributions from: Zainab Kakal, UNDP Pacific — Fiji; Simon Smit, UNDP South Africa; UNDP Mexico, UNDP Zambia, UNDP Namibia and the Blue Lab (Caribbean).

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/

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