Seaweed has become one of Zanzibar's major crops since seaweed farming was introduced on the Tanzanian archipelago in the 1980s.
Exports were valued at $5.2 million for the year ending in May, up from $4.1 million the previous year, according to the Bank of Zanzibar. The aquaculture industry is estimated to employ more than 25,000 people, an overwhelming majority of them women.
"It's one of the hot spots for seaweed production in the world," Robert Jones, global lead for aquaculture at the Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based environmental organization, told ABC News.
Rising sea temperatures and marine pollution pose challenges to the industry globally, especially in Zanzibar, Jones said, making it harder for farmers to maintain their yields sustainably and cost-effectively.
As a result, on Wednesday the Nature Conservancy is launching a pilot program in three villages in the region that will work with farmers to develop sustainable practices and improve the resiliency of the crop.
The Nature Conservancy currently operates similar seaweed farming programs in Belize and Indonesia. In the first year of its new Tanzania program, the environmental organization plans to work with 100 farmers on the islands of Pemba and Unguja to develop best practices to manage their small-scale farms sustainably and increase yields.
"For these folks, seaweed is really a matter of putting food on the table and living day-to-day," Jones said.
The program will also train individuals to help mentor other farmers and offer free financial training for participants, who are often at the whims of the industry's fluctuating prices.
With tourism to the East African region impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the "stakes are even higher in terms of the livelihood and reliance on seaweed," Jones said. "There's a need to sustain the communities through seaweed aquaculture right now."
The government of Zanzibar hopes the program will help "boost local incomes, improve food security and help conserve the health of our marine environments sustainably," Dr. Omar Amir, deputy principle cecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Livestock and Fisheries, said in a statement.
About 80% of seaweed farmers in Zanzibar are women, according to the Nature Conservancy. One of the pilot program's participants, Sada Himidi Selemani, a seaweed farmer in Pemba, said in a statement that "local women seaweed farmers are excited to gain insight into how to improve our seaweed production, so we can earn more for our families but also look after our environment."
Partners in the pilot program include the agribusiness giant Cargill, which processes seaweeds into the extract carrageenan for use in food and personal care products, and its Tanzanian seaweed supplier, C-weed Corporation.
Over the next three years, the Nature Conservancy will look to expand its Zanzibar program to include more than 1,000 farmers. It also plans to track metrics like farmer incomes, and environmental impacts like beach debris.
Tanzania is at least one of 50 countries involved in seaweed farming. Globally, seaweed production doubled between 2005 and 2015, and the booming industry is valued at more than $6 billion, according to a 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In recent years the United Nations University has called for stricter policies to ensure the sustainability of the industry.