When we reached Shafi Alam's place at Nuniarchhara in Cox's Bazar, the seaweed farmer had just finished his lunch.
One of his mentors Mohidul Islam, who looks after the seaweed culture and product development project of Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute, had informed Shafi in advance that we would interview him.
So he rushed to greet us in the rain and forgot to take his medicine after lunch. From the look of his reddish eyes, you could tell he badly needed a nap.
The middle-aged man told us that he has been cultivating seaweed for nearly five years after receiving government training.
"Besides what I produce myself, I collect the hyazalas (local name for seaweed) from other farmers and sell them in the market for around Tk50 if raw, and Tk300 per kilogram for the dried ones."
In each seaweed season that lasts from October/November to March/April, Shafi said he sells around 10-12 tonnes of them, mostly in raw form, because he finds drying hyazalas a complicated process.
Shafi looked grateful with the opportunity he found in seaweed.
"It doesn't need much hard work to raise them. My wife mostly looks after our seaweed farms while I can concentrate on something else to boost our income."
In addition to seaweed farming, Shafi does fishing and whatever else he gets to do on a free day.
During our half an hour conversation with Shafi, we often struggled to decipher much of what he said in his local dialect, but we were sure about one thing - that he doesn't care much about the myriad of health and other benefits of highly nutritious hyazalas.
As long as it (seaweed) remains a means for supporting Shafi's family, and around 300 other seaweed farmers in Cox's Bazar, they are happy with it.
The experts we spoke to however said, with proper investment, Bangladesh, a country home to around 215 variants of seaweed, could carve out a good space in the multi-billion-dollar global seaweed market.
Multifarious uses of seaweed
The scientists from different government research institutions like Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute (BORI), and Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI) told us that besides food and beverage, seaweed indeed has vast use in processed food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, chemical and anti-bacterial products industries.
Abu Syed Mohammad Sharif, chief scientific officer at Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute has been working on seaweed for around four years now.
"Seaweed is basically the common name for marine plants (Megafauna) having holdfast instead of root systems, that grows from intertidal to subtidal nearshore zone with available light", Sharif explained, adding that "these marine algae are full of nutrients, minerals and antioxidants. It is one of the main sources of Iodine".
Mohammad Sharif is now working on three kinds of seaweed in his laboratory to develop a commercial extraction process for agar-agar, carrageenan, and sodium alginate.
Sharif says these three products have a huge demand in the pharmaceutical industry around the world. For instance, the outer shell of any capsule medicine - that plastic-like transparent shell - is actually made with processed agar-agar.
Mostafizur Rahman, a scientific officer at BARI informs us that, "currently, Bangladeshi pharmaceuticals companies import this agar-agar from other countries, which costs them a fortune. If we could develop the industries here, the money would remain at home."
According to GM Insights, the global value of the seaweed industry will reach nearly $85 billion by 2026. In 2019, it was valued at around $13.33 billion a year, according to Fortune Business Insights, and the majority of them are produced in Asia. As of 2019 FAO data, the top five countries – China, Indonesia, Korea, Philippines, Japan – produced 11.69 billion dollars' worth of seaweed.
But Bangladesh has an insignificant part in this business if compared with those countries.
We asked the researchers and few businessmen working on seaweed in Bangladesh whether they have any data on our local seaweed market. They couldn't provide us with any figures.
BARI's Mostafizur Rahman, and later BFRI's Mohidul Islam, however, confirmed that the size of our annual seaweed production is around 600 tonnes.
Omar Hasan, CEO of Falcon International, one of the few local seaweed exporters, said Bangladesh has a ready seaweed market of nearly $20 million.
Hasan found this estimated figure through Dhaka University and North South University's marketing department.
Another research conducted by Chattogram University and FAO estimated the annual seaweed utilisation in our food, feed and manure, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industry are 47,775kg, 11,700kg, 13,650kg and 24,375 kg respectively. The research said that these could potentially contribute Tk 55.87 million to the blue economy of Bangladesh in near future.
Diversification of products
Jahanara Islam, a local seaweed product developer, has been into the business for a long time.
Have you heard of seaweed candies? Possibly most are unfamiliar with it. However, in Cox's Bazar, Jahanara Islam has been making seaweed candies for quite some time now.
"I have developed more than 110 products from seaweed so far, including desserts, balachao (local pickles), noodles, salad, drinks and smoothies, sunscreen and other cosmetics," Jahanara told us.
"The cosmetics items vary from potato and seaweed cleanser, sunscreen, seaweed facials with coffee, tea, milk etc. The food items include seaweed rice wraps, seaweed papads, seaweed and fish curry, seaweed custard, seaweed milk pudding, seaweed ice cream etc."
Jahanara is not alone. Recently another businessman from Nuniarchhara, Mokaddesur Rahman, has also started producing some experimental seaweed.
We visited his place to have a chat, but only to learn that he had a stroke three days before we reached Cox's Bazar.
Jahanara said if we want our people to consume the nutritious seaweed products, we need to create awareness among the people about their health benefits. "We cannot eat seaweed like the Japanese, but we can make ourselves an additional salad."
However, BARI's Mostafizur Rahman would like to look beyond food consumption. Concurring with BORI's Mohammad Sharif, Rahman said, "We can earn a fortune just by developing agar-agar. We have developed them on a limited scale in the lab successfully.
"But larger scale production needs a lot more machinery. If more entrepreneurs step in this field, the market will grow exponentially."
At present, the raw market is largely targeting the Rakhine people, and some local people are currently using them as their poultry and other animal feed, besides commercial production tried by a few.
Threat to ocean bed
The once-ignored hyazalas' gradual rise in demand has left its natural bed with a counter-productive impact too.
"Continuous collection is damaging the seaweed seed bed. Besides, the acquisition of land in the Nuniarcchara areas for the local airport also challenges the natural bed of seaweed and creates a sort of coating on them," said BARI's Mostafiz.
Mostafiz, however, is hopeful. "This is a comparatively new sector. Currently we are farming seaweed in only around 10 hectare area, which grows approximately 500-600 tonnes per year. Besides, we have only a small window between October/November to March/April.
"We need to reach a position when we have storage of seaweed for the whole year. If the marketability increases, more farmers like Shafi Alam will be encouraged to take seaweed as a fulltime cultivation profession," he said.
Plan for cultivating seaweed throughout the year
If you visit seaweed's natural beds in Teknaf, Saint Martin, Kuakata, Nuniarcchara and Bank Khali in the seasonal months between October/November to March/April, you will see coconut husk ropes tied between bamboo pegs planted in the sand. And then seaweed spores are planted and scattered there.
As seaweeds do not have roots, these algae float with the help of their pneumatocysts and then they anchor to any structure providing attachment to a substrate. The ropes help them to stay in a certain space, yet float.
At least one feet water depth is ensured so that the seaweed gets enough sunlight and at the same time gets submerged in water.
However, now, these beds are empty as the season ended in March/April with the advent of rain.
At present, the BFRI and the BARI in Cox's Bazar are trying to culture these seaweeds and their spores in the laboratory so that they can be produced all year round in hatcheries.
BORI's Sharif is working on the genomic study of seaweed in collaboration with the National Institute of Biotechnology and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Mawlana Bhashani Science and Technology University (MBSTU). "The genome sequence will help us know the genetic diversity of seaweed and that will reveal the possibilities," he said.
"A big market could be created if larger investments arrive. Seaweed cultivation needs no insecticides, fertiliser, or irrigation. It is very easy to grow, harvest and store. So, when fishermen cannot go to the sea to fish, they will still have a source to earn," said BARI's Mostafizur Rahman, kindling hope and prospects of Bangladesh in seaweed farming.