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Exploring the Potential of Kelp Farming in the South African Blue Economy

Updated: Apr 30

The South African kelp species, Ecklonia Maxima, is a highly sought-after commodity. A comparison of its value is that one container of it is worth two containers of Chilean kelp. Scientific research has found that it has anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity, and anti-cancerous properties. It is also used as a potent biostimulant, distributed to over 50 countries.

Meet Nadia Scheffer : It all started with a simple walk on the beach in 2015 while on holiday. Nadia Scheffer noticed kelp washed up on the Melkbos Strand beach in Cape Town, and fell in love with the strange material.

Without a biology background, she wasn’t exactly sure what she was dealing with. But this chance

encounter sparked her curiosity and set the stage for a revolutionary path ahead. Nearly a decade later, Nadia’s business journey has meandered in many directions. All the challenges have strengthened her resolve to continue pursuing a dream which has the power to transform the kelp economy of South Africa.

Kelp washed ashore along the promenade, Sea Point (Cape Town)

"The seaweed industry is a rapidly growing market, internationally valued at $15 billion in 2021 and projected to reach $24.92 billion by 2028. This expansion highlights the increasing recognition of seaweed as an incredible natural resource with immense potential."

Nadia also managed to secure her first round of funding in 2023, pushing the business forward. Her journey in the seaweed revolution exemplifies the power of passion, persistence, and resourcefulness. Despite facing physical challenges due to Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), Nadia has persevered and achieved remarkable success in her business endeavors.

Nadia relocated from Pretoria to Cape Town in 2017 and was struck by the abundance of kelp washing up on the city’s beaches. She then discovered that the local municipality dealt with most of it, planting the seeds of an idea to utilize this natural resource creatively.

Driven by her curiosity, she started experimenting with kelp, determined to unlock its hidden potential. Through her tireless efforts, Nadia discovered a technique to transform kelp into a pliable material perfect for weaving, which can be shaped into water-resistant products.

Growing as an Entrepreneur

Nadia’s commitment to learning led her to complete a business school course with Future Females in 2019. This pivotal experience introduced her to Alexis Grosskopf of OceanHub Africa, a connection that would prove crucial in her journey.

Her dedication to the seaweed revolution gained momentum in 2020 as she participated in virtual events like Pecha Kucha and an OceanHub Africa conference. She also joined the Safe Seaweed Coalition as a seaweed ambassador, amplifying her advocacy efforts and expanding her network. Driven by her passion, Nadia delved deeper into the legalities of accessing kelp and connected with concession right holders with commercial access to the resource.

This led to an unexpected detour into food production when she discovered two additional seaweed species, Ulva Capensis (sea lettuce) and Porphyra Capensis (nori). During this time Nadia shipped her first batch of seaweed earrings to Europe, marking her foray into international markets. She also showcased her products at the Ocean Innovation conference,

Nadia’s perseverance faced its share of challenges in 2022. Collaborating with two food product developers, she launched a line of plant-powered food products that received overwhelming positive feedback at the Plant Powered Show.

However, a business partnership fell through due to conflicting visions. Undeterred, Nadia decided to rebrand and consolidate her product range under a unified entity, SeaTree Emporium, to sell both the food and fashion products.

She connected with Steven Hermans (Phyconomy) and embarked on a fruitful business trip, meeting potential partners like Mashebane Thosago, a mussel farmer based in Saldanha Bay (two hours from Cape Town up the West Coast of South Africa). Steven was approached by the World Bank to travel to Africa to explore the potential of the seaweed industry on the continent. He connected Nadia with an exciting project exploring kelp cultivation in Saldanha Bay. The fortuitous

meeting of Mashebane on the business trip gave Nadia the opportunity to explore the potential of setting up aquaculture endeavours on the existing mussel farm.

Securing Her Place in the Seaweed Industry

2023 brought continued growth and recognition for Nadia. She continued to expand her food product offerings and showcased them at events like the monthly Vegan Goods Market and a Seafood Festival. Her expertise and influence in the field were acknowledged when she was invited to present her work at a kelp cultivation workshop. Nadia’s commitment to social impact grew stronger as she collaborated with Chad Cupido and Codi Marais (Groa) on a project in a local informal community. Her dedication to sustainable entrepreneurship culminated in winning the first prize at a Climathon event for her groundbreaking business initiative, with her teammate Anga Mbeyiya. They met at the 2021 Ocean Innovation conference.

A beautifully captured scene of the ecosystem found in the Great African SeaForest.

From a fortuitous beach encounter to becoming a key player in the sustainable business landscape, Nadia’s commitment to harnessing the potential of seaweed has made a lasting impact. She has managed to cultivate a wide ranging network, encompassing all the various sectors within the seaweed industry. The next phase of the business will be to explore all the various applications of seaweed. Currently the main industry focus of the country is to export the raw material, with very little local value-add activities.

The value-add activities that can be explored:

  • Bioplastic

  • Biofibres

  • Food Production

  • Animal Feed

  • Cosmetics

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Social Enterprise

A Unique Business Model

In South Africa there is a unique new business entity called a social enterprise. This form of business combines the best elements of a non-profit and a for-profit business, creating a sustainable framework to do business differently.

Nadia aims to establish a business model that prioritizes sustainable practices, while keeping community upliftment at the forefront of every business decision. By collaborating with the non- profit, science, and for-profit sectors she will be achieving a holistic approach to the challenges of expanding a new industry in the country.

Internationally, seaweed start-ups are facing the hurdle of a lack of financial support, due to the early stage nature of the industry. Luckily with the support of companies such as Hatch Blue, this issue is being addressed. In 2022 they conducted an in-field survey with seaweed farmers and processors across the major seaweed producing regions globally.

This report provides valuable insights into the potential and challenges of this exciting industry. Click here to view. Africa is one of the regions with the most potential for industry growth. Countries such as Tanzania and Kenya already have well established processes in place for their farming activities. Yet the main activity remains exporting of raw material, sending the valuable resource away from the continent. With the help of the right players and investors this does not have to be the case in South Africa.

Nadia aims to use this unusual resource to transform the economy of the country, creating much needed new opportunities for growth. And as a social enterprise the main driving force behind the business will not only be profits, but social and environmental impact.

"There is an endless market for kelp in SA, however there are integrations in the marketplace which would assist the success of innovations:

"I think there might be a unique application for IntelliReefs technology in the aquaculture space. We are exploring kelp cultivation in Saldanha Bay, an area up the West Coast of South Africa, about two hours from Cape Town. My idea is to create a type of bed for the kelp to grow, while lowering it into the deep ocean."

If you would like to support Nadia with her exciting ventures, please contact her:

Nadia also managed to secure her first round of funding in 2023, pushing the business forward. Her journey in the seaweed revolution exemplifies the power of passion, persistence, and resourcefulness. Despite facing physical challenges due to Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), Nadia has persevered and achieved remarkable success in her business endeavors.

For The Earthshot Prize to Revive Our Oceans, the 2023 Finalists are: ABALOBI, South Africa: Using easy-to-scale technology, ABALOBI works with small fishing communities to record their catch data and to ensure a fair and improved livelihood from sustainable fishing

This remarkable growth rate underscores the abundant opportunities that lie within the realm of seaweed cultivation and utilization.

HISTORY HERE: Wild Harvesting Concessions areas need to be better allocated throughout small business areas.

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