In the tranquil embrace of Zanzibar’s Jambiani coast, Hindu Rajabu gracefully moves through knee-deep waters toward a lagoon. Wearing swimming goggles and a snorkel atop her headscarf, the 31-year-old mother of two carefully navigates the Indian Ocean to tend to her floating sponge farm.
Rajabu is among the pioneering women in Jambiani village who, in 2020, initiated the cultivation of natural sponges. These intriguing organisms, composed of loosely arranged cells surrounding a fibrous skeleton, exhibit a unique pumping mechanism. The microscopic pumps within thousands of tiny chambers draw water into the sponge’s body, serving not only to extract nutrition and oxygen but also to purify the ocean water by removing impurities, including sewage. Valued for their antibacterial and antifungal properties, these sponges find use in bathing and general hygiene.
As the tide gently rises, Rajabu submerges herself to reach the buoys cradling the sponge farm. Inspecting the sponges suspended from thick polyethylene ropes, she carefully removes any fouling organisms, ensuring the sponges are not overwhelmed. These sponge farms consist of multiple ropes, parallel to each other, housing sponges at various developmental stages. Harvested once a week, the mature sponges are collected for sale in the market.
Having lived most of her life in poverty, Rajabu’s journey took a turn when she transitioned from seaweed farming, which was impacted by climate change, to sponge farming. Enrolling with Marine Cultures, a Swiss-based non-profit training women in sponge farming, she quadrupled her income and now earns 250,000 Tanzanian shillings (US $100) per month.
The Zanzibar Sponge Farmers’ Cooperative, comprising Rajabu and 11 other women, oversees the sale of harvested sponges to hotels and tourists. Each sponge fetches between 37,000 and 74,000 Tanzanian shillings ($15-30). With 70% of the earnings going to the farmers, 29% to the shops, and 1% supporting the cooperative, this venture has brought economic stability to Rajabu and her colleagues.
In contrast to seaweed, sponges demonstrate remarkable resilience to climate change, requiring minimal maintenance and commanding premium market prices. Their hermaphroditic nature enables self-propagation effortlessly, contributing to the ease and feasibility of commercial sponge farming. Despite challenges, including the time-intensive nature of sponge farming, the Zanzibar sponge market remains vibrant, with plans to expand operations to empower more women in other regions.
While the global sea sponge market thrives in various regions, including the Federated States of Micronesia and Tunisia, Marine Cultures faces challenges in scaling up operations. Nevertheless, the allure of natural beauty, exceptional softness, and sustainability positions sea sponges as an eco-friendly alternative to their synthetic counterparts, widely used in households worldwide.