Climate Change in Zanzibar: Eroding Women’s Economic Status

A quarter century ago, in the rural areas of Zanzibar, gender norms and cultural restrictions meant women were largely unable to lead independent, public lives. Then seaweed farming changed everything.

In Europe, China, and the United States, seaweed is used to make many everyday products like toothpaste and shampoo. When commercial opportunities arose to farm the ocean crop near Zanzibar's beaches, men thought the lack of a daily paycheck made harvesting unattractive, so they left the work to the ladies. And demand skyrocketed. The industry became one of the island’s largest, and women earned significant incomes, becoming breadwinners in their families and drivers of the economy. Because of seaweed, rural Zanzibari women gained social and economic status at a remarkable pace.

But today, that status is being threatened by climate change. Warming sea temperatures are causing the more valuable species of seaweed to fail in shallow waters, making it impossible to farm using current methods. Journalist Haley Joelle Ott investigates the effect of climate change on Zanzibar’s seaweed industry, and follows a scientist who is developing an alternative farming technique to save her gender’s newfound place in rural Zanzibari communities.