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Weeding is big business

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By promoting seaweed cultivation, the Gujarat government is empowering fishermen's wives and adding to their income.

In his address to women entrepreneurs at a gathering in New Delhi last Monday, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi referred to successful businesses set up by women like Jasuben Pizza and Induben Khakhrawala & Co, as he spoke of how enterprising women in Gujarat have been.

But miles away from Ahmedabad's Law Garden, where Jasuben's pizzas are lapped up in no time, thousands of poor women on Saurashtra's coast too are gearing up to turn entrepreneurs - by growing seaweed. And if things go according to plan, multinational firms may queue up at their doorstep to buy ingredients essential in making bakery and dairy products, pet food and health drinks.

There now seems to be a serious effort at seaweed cultivation to help make fisherwomen selfreliant. After two decades of research by the Bhavnagar-based Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), a constituent laboratory of the central government's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), four varieties of Kappaphycus, a species of red algae, have been identified as being useful as thickening agents in food products, bio-fertilisers, low-sodium salt and health drinks.

CSMCRI licensed their procedure to the Gujarat Livelihood Promotion Company (GLPC) two months ago. The state-owned company now intends to form self-help groups (SHGs) to empower at least one lakh fishermen's wives over the next three to four years. Moreover, AquaAgri Processing, a joint venture of GLPC and PepsiCo India, has promised to buy back all the seaweed cultivated in Gujarat.

The seaweed was first brought to Gujarat in the 1990s to test the potential for its cultivation, but the weather was found to be more conducive on the Tamil Nadu coast, the only place in India where it is being commercially cultivated. "Earlier, the state forest department had raised concerns about the environmental impact of seaweed cultivation and its invasion into marine life. But recent studies have proved that these fears are exaggerated, " says CSMCRI's director, Dr PK Ghosh. "We have successfully cultivated seaweed in Jafrabad in Amreli district and Madhwad in Junagadh. We are now identifying five potential sites where seaweed can be grown on a larger scale, " he adds.

The cultivation of the seaweed requires no land, irrigation, fertiliser or pesticide. It is grown on rafts and the income from sales accrues swiftly since it can be harvested in just 45 days. According to scientists, a person can earn as much as Rs 600 a day by harvesting one raft, which gives about 200-250 kg of yield. Most of this is sold to companies to extract carrageenan, a popular thickening agent. Says CRK Reddy, senior principal scientist, CSMCRI, "Taking up seaweed cultivation can dramatically change the lives of women in coastal areas. They can earn around Rs 5, 000 a month. "

Anjana Vala, project co-ordinator, says the number of women showing interest in seaweed cultivation is growing. "When the project started a month ago there were just 10-15 women, but now there are nearly 150, " she says.

SEAWEED USAGE
When kappaphycus alvarezii, a specie of red algae, was brought to Gujarat in the early 1990s, its only known extract was carrageenan, which is widely used as a thickening and stabilising agent in frozen desserts, cottage cheese, whipped cream, yogurt, jellies, pet foods and sauces. The export market for carrageenan is pegged at US$ 500 million.

However, CSMCRI scientists also discovered other constituents of this seaweed like sap, which is now a proven low-cost bio-fertiliser. They have also acquired patents for using certain constituents of the seaweed in health drinks that boost immunity. Another important discovery for scientists was using seaweed to make low-sodium vegetable salt.

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