I have been reading about the marvels of seaweed for quite some time now. The so-called 'superfood,' rich in nutrients and trace minerals, was once foraged only by the coastal communities.
With growing awareness of the health benefits of these red, green and brown marine algae that grow along seashores, more and more people are adding this ingredient to their diet.
Seaweeds also have multiple uses in fields like cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fertiliser etc., leading to the commercial farming of these plants in many countries. The global seaweed market has been growing significantly thanks to its increased popularity.
Despite knowing all this, it was not until a marine conservationist friend of mine reviewed a Bangladeshi seaweed soup brand that I realised that even Bangladesh has made some real progress in this field.
While small-scale farming of seaweed has been going on here for some years, local enterprises are now producing and marketing seaweed products here in Bangladesh.
Zahanara Green Agro, a Cox's Bazar based company, is making scores of products from these marine plants.
"We have made 138 types of food with seaweed. Our goal is to popularise seaweed by remaking conventional foods with seaweed. We are the pioneers in Bangladesh when it comes to seaweed products," Zahanara Islam, founder and chairman of Zahanara Green Agro, told The Business Standard.
As astounding as the number is, so is the variety of the foods produced. Among them are a Horlicks-styled drink power for children, sugar-less dessert for all, and chips that do not have oil in them.
Zahanara Agro looks into making items that would be popular, and the entrepreneur, Zahanara Islam, says they are successful.
"Once people taste our seaweed items, they do not face away by the grace of Allah. These are delicious," said Zahanara.
Zahanara says Bangladesh has some species of seaweed that are extraordinary in taste, and it is essentially a plus point for the industry.
Zahanara Green Agro is going into a collaboration with other milk-based food industries based in the Barind Tract. It will supply 1 lakh bottles of seaweed extract which will be used to make seaweed jam, jelly etc.
The extract can be consumed directly or used to make other foods. This product makes it easier for anyone to prepare seaweed dishes without having to go through sorting and processing the plant, which is an extra hassle for the ones newly introduced to seaweed.
The variety of seaweed products made by Zahanara is not limited to food.
"We have also made 22 cosmetic products out of seaweed. Among them, 18 products are used and sold in packages, such as facial package, hair package, pedicure-manicure package etc.," Zahanara informed.
The firm even makes nutrients necessary for hydroponics from seaweed, a sector otherwise entirely dependent on chemicals.
Zahanara Agro does not have any outlets; rather, they arrange delivery on orders all throughout the country.
It was founded in 2010, but Zahanara Islam's journey through agriculture began in the early 1980s. A business graduate and a homemaker, she started food gardening and a small poultry farm just for her family. Later she scaled up, firstly gifting food products to friends and neighbours, and finally selling them.
Zahanara started researching seaweed food items in 1983. Currently, her firm has 50-60 employees and boasts a whopping two lakh small-scale farmers who are involved with it through contract farming.
We have been talking a lot about seaweed products in this story. Still, Zahanara Green Agro does produce and market a lot of other food items, ranging from mushrooms to coconuts and coffee beans to chocolate beans.
The remarkable achievement has apparently come from sheer experience and the love for agriculture.
"I don't have an academic background in agriculture; it is my passion that has brought me this far," said Zahanara Islam.
The humble entrepreneur says that despite her work, she has not been able to achieve everything that is possible but adds that she has prepared her next generation, so they can take her work forward.
All three of her children are engineers, but they are playing their roles to further improve their mother's work by bringing in their academic and technical knowledge.
"We want to develop our agro-industry with raw materials produced in the country," Zahanara said.
The self-taught agro-entrepreneur says she will expand into seaweed-based fertiliser, cattle feed, agar-agar etc. in the future. And, of course, she plans to grow on an industrial scale.
"Production on an industrial scale will require tonnes of seaweed every day. This will enable coastal people to earn with almost zero investment, using the vast coastline," said the chairman of Zahanara Green Agro.