Zahanara Islam met a Japanese woman in the 80s at Cox's Bazar sea beach who told her for the first time about the potentials of seaweed which was considered as useless by the local people. As a local resident, she used to go to the beach with her husband frequently at that time.
Inspired by the Japanese woman, she started to study and research on seaweed and at one point invested Tk60 lakh in its cultivation by selling her ornaments. Now, she is known as an entrepreneur who produces more than 120 food items and 28 cosmetic products from seaweed.
At first, she started producing seaweed individually but later in 2010 launched Zahanara Green Agro to give her enterprise an institutional shape. Currently, she sells seaweed products worth Tk30-35 lakh annually from her agro farm.
"Among the food items made by seaweed, the demand for soup and pakora is high. The demand for seaweed cosmetics items is even higher. A number of parlours in Dhaka are selling various products including facepacks and facewashs made from seaweed," Zahanara Islam said.
Although many countries including China and Indonesia have been cultivating seaweeds for a long time, in Bangladesh it has started very recently. As a result, the consumption of it is limited to some foods and cosmetics. However, the government is planning to expand its use in the pharmaceuticals, chemicals, animal feed and fertiliser sectors.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (FAO) and independent researchers, large-scale commercial farming of seaweed started in Bangladesh in 2019. At present, around 400 tonnes of seaweed is being cultivated in Cox's Bazar, Satkhira and Bagerhat annually.
People concerned say backward linkage industries should be created to use seaweed as a raw material to produce different products. They also emphasised on the production of quality seaweed in the country.
Kabir Uddin, director of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, told The Business Standard, "In many countries, seaweed is being used to increase the nutrition in food. Seaweed is cultivated especially in China, Japan and Korea."
"Seaweed has many rich medicinal properties which are currently being used in various countries of the developed world as a curative diet. It is also being used as a raw material in the pharmaceutical industry," he added.
According to the FAO, more than 40 countries around the world are now producing 32.9 billion tonnes of seaweed per year. However, China and Indonesia share 87% of the global production. The world market for it is now $11.8 billion, which is expected to reach $22 billion by 2024.
The Ministry of Agriculture and BARC have already implemented a pilot project titled 'Support to Seaweed Cultivation, Processing and Marketing Through Assessment and Capacity Development' with the support of the FAO.
Under the project, farmers and processors have been trained for the cultivation and processing of seaweed. A trained group of 300 people has also been formed to use seaweed commercially in producing food and cosmetic items.
The authorities have also provided food vans to 25 vendors in Cox's Bazar to sell various food items made of seaweed.
Nasima Akhter, a farmer in Cox's Bazar, said, "It does not take much time to cultivate seaweed. The profit is also high."
Farmers say once the seeds are planted, seaweeds can be yielded within 25-30 days. It can be collected by trimming the crop from the seedbed, keeping one or two inches on the ground from which it will grow again. Farmers can sell raw or dry seaweed after collecting it.
The price of raw seaweed is Tk20-25 per kg and it is Tk150-250 when dried, they say.
According to researchers, farmers can produce 5,000kg of seaweed at a cost of Tk15,000 and sell the same amount of product at around Tk1 lakh.
They say seaweed cultivation does not require much effort. It can be grown by planting seeds on long lines of rope or bamboo at a place where tidal water can flow.
Robert D Simpson, FAO Representative in Bangladesh, told The Business Standard, "Seaweed has a good prospect. It contains a lot of nutrients which increase the quality of food. Bangladesh can emphasise on seaweed production."
Meanwhile, BARC Director Kabir Uddin said, "We have submitted a project worth about Tk3 crore to the Ministry of Planning for further research on seaweed and creating backward linkages. If the project is approved, we will be able to do more work on seaweed."
Use of seaweed
More than one hundred food items can be prepared with seaweed including noodles, soups, vegetables, singara, samucha, burger, biscuits, cakes, ice cream, chanachur, baby food and semai. Apart from this, processed seaweed can be used as a preservative in various processed foods.
Apart from food, seaweed can be used in producing biofuel, cosmetics, toothpaste, vitamin medicine, organic fertilisers, various chemical ingredients, iodine etc.
Researchers say that one of the important raw materials in the pharmaceutical industry is agar which can be obtained from seaweed. Agar is used in the pharmaceutical industry as a stabiliser and thickener agent due to its strength and microbial flora absence.
Researchers see great potential here as they say that if agar is made by processing seaweed in Bangladesh, it can reduce the import of this raw material from other countries. However, more research is needed for this. Some pharma companies in the country are researching whether it is possible to make agar from local seaweed.
Moreover, due to the high protein content of seaweed, it is possible to use it in producing animal feed.
Mohammed Shah Nawaz Chowdhury, associate professor at the Institute of Marine Science and Fisheries, Chattogram University, said, "We need an industry for producing high quality seaweed in the country. However, for this you have to ensure seaweed production. It can also be used as a raw material in different industries."