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Empowering women seaweed farmers for a more sustainable, circular and vertically-integrated food system

Improve production, change business models, and diversify markets for women seaweed producers and make them more resilient to climate change

Photo of Aaron McNevin
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

World Wildlife Fund-US

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

• WWF-Philippines (5. Large NGO) • Seaweed Industry Association of the Philippines (11. Other—National Industry Association) • Project Hope (5. Large NGO) • Cherish Fisherfolk Association of Seaweed Farmers (primarily women) (1. Farmer Co-op or Farmer Business Org) • Shemberg Marketing Corporation (3. Large Company) • SEAFDEC (7. Research Institution) • Network of Aquaculture Centres Asia Pacific (7. Research and Development Institution) • Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (8. Philippines government) • Palawan State University (7. Research Institution) • Western Philippine University (7. Research Institution)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Washington, DC

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Palawan (14,650 km2)

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Palawan is part of the Coral Triangle, a region of the world with the richest diversity and abundance of marine biodiversity on the planet. Following 10 years of community engagement, in 2018, WWF collaborated with six Northern Palawan municipalities to sign an MOU to establish a marine protected area (MPA) of 1 million hectares (ha). This effort is one of several by WWF working with local communities to promote more sustainable management of fisheries and seaweed in some of the ecologically most important regions of the world. The work proposed in Palawan provides a unique opportunity to elevate and amplify the livelihoods for women seaweed producers while both allowing and helping the MPAs time to rebuild local fisheries. To date, efforts in Palawan to enable equitable trade and better livelihoods for women seaweed producers have largely failed. Most value is captured by those who process or refine extracts (i.e., agar and carrageenan) and control access to global markets. By working with women seaweed producers and their associations, marine research centers, existing corporate partners and investors, WWF has the potential to help women producers and their communities not only improve their livelihoods but also reduce marine impacts, adapt livelihoods to the impacts of climate change and, perhaps most importantly, use seaweed production to mitigate climate impacts. This work is a game changer and can be adapted for coastal communities around the world.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Palawan is a province composed of a long narrow island with some 1,780 smaller islands. It’s 2,000 km coastline is characterized by rocky shorelines and coves as well as calm sandy beaches. Some of the islands are mountainous and reach 2,000 meters. Palawan ranges from 24-33oC with the highest temperatures observed between March and July. Over the past 5 years Palawan has experienced more dramatic shifts in rainfall maximums (26 cm/month) and minimums (0.02 cm/month) coupled with more destructive typhoons, all are attributed to climate change.

Palawan culture originally came from the islands of Cuyo, Agutaya, Cagayancillo and Calamianes;  the Tagbanua are found primarily in the  mainland and the Calamianes; the Batak and Pala’wan spread thinly in the mainland; and the Ken-uy or Ta’ut-bato are found only in the south-western towns of Quezon and Rizal. More than 50 languages and dialects are spoken in the province, with Tagalog spoken by 50% of the people. Palawan has a number of festivals with parades and gatherings to celebrate holidays and community events. Locals take pride in their festivals and culture and create elaborate and colorful costumes for parades. Food reflects a variety of environments from crocodile hot plates to mangrove worm delicacies; but most coastal communities get their protein from fish and seaweed.

Palawan’s population grew between 2.7-3.4% from 1990 to 2010 but has now declined to less than 2%.  Resource competition and a lack of viable livelihoods has resulted in out-migration. The population is equally urban and rural. The male to female ratio in Palawan is roughly 1:1 with males outnumbering females from ages 0-69, but women live longer than males and help provide more stability for immediate and extended families. Children aged 5 to 9 years are the largest age group, making up 12.6% of the population.

Palawan's economy is based on fishing, aquaculture and agriculture. The main agricultural crops are palay, corn and coconut. As one of the largest and most abundant fishing grounds in the world, Palawan is a major supplier of reef fish and pelagic fish to countries around the world. Aquaculture in Palawan is largely based on capture-based reef fish culture and seaweed aquaculture. Seaweed aquaculture is dominated by women while fishing is dominated by men.

 The most prevalent desires for economic growth are from women who farm seaweed, However, coastal communities are seeing lower returns from capture fisheries, and there is a desire to increase medium-scale seaweed farming businesses to create greater connectivity and control in the supply chain. Palawan is seen as an ideal site for increased seaweed production because it is largely protected from typhoons and storm surges. It also has narrow channels between islands with nutrient upwellings that, if accessed, would accelerate the growth rate and quality of seaweeds.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Palawan has the highest malnutrition rate in the region in a country where  67% of families do not receive their nutrient requirements and 33% of children under five are stunted and 25% of pregnant women are nutritionally at risk.

Creating sustainable livelihoods in Palawan is more critical than ever in the face of declining fish harvests. Alternative livelihoods in remote coastal regions are few. Fishers do not have land to produce food or cash crops. Intertidal zones where most seaweed is cultured are shallow and nearshore aquaculture is more difficult because of contamination from run-off as well as cyanide or explosives used for fishing.

The erosion of marine resources is the direct result of human activities as well as from climate change and weather variability resulting from other human activities. In Palawan rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of storms,  coastal water surges, ocean warming and the shift of fisheries, and the degradation of fish habitats have all been observed. These impacts stress species and inhibit the fecundity and fertility of both fisheries and seaweeds. Palawan women seaweed producers are experiencing a 70% decline in the value of their product due to disease and pests.

Palawan is seeing the erosion of productivity and value of seafood and seaweed which has led to the out-migration of people and the increase of poverty, malnutrition and stunting. With more ocean warming and sea level rises, increased acidification and coral bleaching all expected to increase, the resource base will deteriorate without additional human interventions. As resources dwindle, people will do what they can to feed their families even if they know it ultimately undermines their survival.

By 2050, Palawan’s land area will have diminished significantly due to sea-level rise and fisheries will have moved to cooler waters and will be increasingly out of the reach of small-scale fishers and the equipment they use. Seaweed production will move to deeper waters that are more dangerous for producers using traditional production systems and equipment. In short, everyone will be working harder to produce less, and indicators of sustainability and human health will be headed in the wrong direction.

All of Palawan’s islands will lose existing coastlines and access to marine resources that have maintained them for centuries. Governments (provincial and local) will be forced to use triage to address the most urgent issues. There will be little time and even less money to improve Palawan’s economy when it is in crisis.

For these reasons, the time to act is now. Palawan can be an example of what can be done to anticipate the impacts of climate change on livelihoods, nutrition and local economies.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Working with local communities, a number of research institutions, private sector partners, and impact investors,  WWF will work with producer associations to assess the ability of different seaweeds to thrive under stress, e.g. warmer water, more acidic water, and more nutrients from pollution. In the short-term we will work with local communities to determine the range of the species they produce, the structure and value of the markets, and what has worked and what has not both economically as well as in the face of climate change and changing water conditions.

We will then poll our corporate partners to identify the range and size of markets for traditional seaweed products (agar and keratin) and especially new products like proteins where demand is increasing. We will also look at the costs and implications of companies substituting agar for gelatin to address diets shifting away from animal protein as well as companies that are trying to avoid the embedded carbon in their products that beef and gelatin bring vs. agar.

We will also work with seaweed producers to assess their current production practices and systems and to explore the potential positive impact of crop rotation and intercropping systems to reduce stress and increase yields. We will also work with research institutions that have seaweed collections to identify the most promising varieties for tropical areas. And, at the same time, we will begin to work with the Berkeley CRISPR lab to see if there are ways to use gene editing to increase tolerance to stress (e.g. warmer or more nutrient polluted or acidic waters or specific pests as they are identified) as well as the yields of the higher value, more concentrated production of agar, keratin, protein or even carbon as a way to reduce Scope 3 emissions of food companies.

The overarching goal is to convert corporate partner interest into long-term contracts that can be used as an asset locally to leverage investments to modernize the processing plants and infrastructure and as these investments are repaid use preferential access to capital and lower interest rates to vest equity in the downstream value add operations to the women seaweed producers. This would not only be a new asset but a new and more rewarding source of income. In addition, this approach aligns incentives and gives the producers not only better, longer term markets but also access to some of the value that is added to their product as it moves through the value chain. For retailers and brands, this approach reduces their carbon footprint but also gives a great story and purpose for their products that will appeal increasingly not only to consumers in the US and EU but to those in Asia as well.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

State of the art seaweed cultivation and processing infrastructure are in place and in the hands of women farmers in Palawan. Their production systems are storm resistant, submersible and large, allowing for not only medium-scale business development but increased bargaining power both in existing and in new markets. The seaweed production systems are also more climate resilient and better able to address the issues that most affect production—disease, warm oceans and water quality—than ever before. And when issues do arise, the seaweed producers are connected to state-of-the-art research labs.

With these new more productive systems in operation that produce higher value seaweed and build on the traditional skills of local producers, women seaweed farmers have the ability to renegotiate their relationship to markets. Global retailers and brands will also want to use markets to link directly to such producers through long-term contracts for volumes of multiple products. Finance for expanding production, infrastructure and processing will be used to create additional assets by leveraging greater ownership and equity in downstream processing of seaweed. Moreover, with large-scale concurrent projects sponsored by the World Bank and the Grantham Family Trust, chemical analyses will be carried out on all seaweed species in the world to identify new and emerging varieties, products and markets to increase demand for seaweed and garner higher prices which are linked to contracts that support more integrated production and processing systems that add greater value and livelihoods to women, their families and local communities. Evidence has shown that interventions to improve women’s livelihoods through increased income and agency can have positive social and health outcomes.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Research supported and recently published by The World Bank suggests that every kilometer squared of seaweed farming yields 100 tons of protein (for people or animal feed), 33 tons of algal oil (for people or animal feed), 20 tons of nitrogen removal, 10 tons of phosphorous removal, 270 tons of carbon sequestration and removal and 2,500 MWHs of bioenergy potential. 

In addition, to the direct carbon sequestration benefits of algal production, however, seaweed also creates avoided carbon emissions when buyers shift from traditional sources of protein production. The same is true for purchases of fishmeal and oil, nitrogen, phosphorous and bioenergy. The carbon avoided varies tremendously depending on the source of the material that seaweed products are substituted for, but the carbon from any other traditional source of these products is considerably more than the carbon embedded directly in seaweed production.

For example, protein derived from seaweed has significantly less embedded carbon than that of terrestrial eggs, milk, poultry, pork or beef. If the beef or gelatin is produced by deforesting land, than it is an even greater amount of avoided carbon. The same is true for any animals fed soy that is produced from recently deforested areas. But, the protein embedded in seaweed production is also considerably less than that from even vegetable-based proteins produced on land. This avoided and sequestered carbon has markets as food companies, in particular, begin to develop Science Based Targets and strategies to reduce Scope 3 carbon embedded in the food products they buy from producers and other suppliers in their current supply chains.

Perhaps as important as the carbon implications of seaweed production, every kilometer squared of seaweed production will allow two kilometers squared of farm land to be eliminated or at least farmed more sparingly. And the sparing isn’t just for land, it is also for water. Every kilometer squared of seaweed production would reduce freshwater use for terrestrial crops by 0.001 kilometers squared of water. In a water scarce world where extreme weather events are affecting water availability in areas previously without water problems, farming the oceans will increasingly take pressure off those land-based production systems as well as the larger ecosystems of which they are a part.

However, seaweed is not just a global solution to global problems—it is also a local solution to local problems. The key factors negatively impacting the Coral Triangle and water quality of places like Palawan are excess nitrogen, phosphorus and organic carbon (requiring oxygen to  decompose) and inorganic carbon causing ocean acidification. They, in turn, negatively impact fisheries and other marine life by adversely affecting fecundity, fertility and the recruitment of juveniles to the fishery.

 Seaweed production is not just a silver bullet, however. It is not even a “two-fer.” It is most likely a “six-fer.” The work in Palawan will be a “value add” of multiple better markets, and better markets for existing as well as new products. This translates not only to more income and better livelihoods generally, but better livelihoods for women and their families, e.g. those that need it the most. By empowering women to bring larger, more efficient and more profitable farms on line, seaweed production will also support fishing communities by reducing algal blooms that shade reefs, allow for grazers such as abalone and crustaceans to flourish and provide habitat and shelter for juvenile and breeding fish that are often overexploited. In short, Palawan will be a demonstration of how to improve the lives of coastal women and their families by getting them out of poverty through a circular, vibrant blue economy.

Seaweed captures carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus – elements that are now degrading ocean environments globally. But that doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, there are huge opportunities from turning these problems into products through seaweed production.  Additionally, seaweed farming can reduce threats from the expansion of terrestrial farming that has already accounted for 70% of biodiversity loss on the planet. While we need to produce enough food for some 10 billion people by 2050, that food doesn’t all have to be produced on land or even with soil.

When appropriately sited, seaweed farms are a cleansing agent for coastal and offshore ecosystems. But, siting farms further offshore will require significant engagement with the local municipalities of Palawan and the national government to identify feasible locations with upwellings, moderate currents and protection from heavy wind and storm surges as well as to address the issue of tenure and resource rights. The technology for farms and for siting has been advanced to a large degree by the US DOE ARPA-E program. It has modeled globally where seaweed farms would be most productive and protected.

Seaweed production and production technology are not limited to seaweed for human food, carrageenan and agar. Seaweed has the potential to reduce enteric emissions of ruminants (think dairy and beef especially) by 30 to 40% which can contribute to decline in GHGs and increased coastal economic and ecological resiliency[MA2] .

The variety of seaweeds present in Palawan provide high plant protein content food as well as ingredients for many local dishes in the traditional food culture of Palawan. They also represent a revenue generator from their sale into the production systems of other, land-based animal proteins as well as when consumed directly as imported food products.

 The economics of seaweed aquaculture as in current production systems supports only marginal livelihoods. This is due to the focus on only one or two products and the lack of transparency and the moribund nature of the traditional processing plants and the way they market the products. Along with seaweed producer associations in Palawan, WWF, the World Bank, GEF, DOE, and others aim to double the demand for seaweed globally through biopharmaceuticals, bioprospecting, bio-based materials science, etc. such that demand will increase dramatically requiring greater volume and higher unit prices that will benefit the seaweed producers and their communities that can overcome nearshore diseases, the stresses caused by acidification and warming temperatures. The model seaweed farms have been assessed to determine both CAPEX and ROI.

The cultures of the peoples of Palawan are linked to the ocean and its traditional bounty.  They are also festive and rich with ideas for collective action and community support. Many women seaweed farmer associations exist and when aligning markets, technology, economic feasibility and scale, their ambitions will be able to run wild. They will be empowered to unlock potential that had previously been dormant. The goal here of the producers, their communities, and other institutions is not to make incremental gains in prices, margins or productivity. The goal is to be transformational. To create new markets, new businesses and new business models that allow producers and communities to flourish. 

For a decade, WWF has been embedded in these communities and the trust established coupled with the eagerness of the people provides an ideal situation for bringing out the best of Palawan ingenuity. Recently, WWF adopted the GEF safeguards approach for community engagement which requires significant stakeholder consultation regardless of the level of trust already established between WWF and the people of Palawan. Further, supply chain actors in the Philippines will also be leveraged by their buyers to offer better opportunities for primary producers of seaweed.

Finally, for 15 years, WWF has partnered with 70 of the 100 largest food companies globally—retailers, brands, traders—to improve their management of supply chains and to address key environmental and social risks associated with them. WWF is now helping these same companies significantly reduce the carbon embedded in the products they buy and sell.

The challenge of seaweed farming is quite simply scale. We believe that we have the model, we have the partnerships and we have identified the location to begin to do precisely this. With more and more companies motivated to address climate change through their supply chains, we can bring entirely new markets to bare to solve the problems of Palawan—declining resource base and out-migration on the one hand and increased poverty, malnutrition and stunting on the other. Seaweed production by women in the area will not only address these issues, but as important, it will help mitigate the root causes of many of the localized environmental issues that contribute to the economic, social and environmental decline of the region, decline of fisheries, acidification and nutrient pollution.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event


Join the conversation:

Photo of Simone Silotti

Parabéns Madeline por sua iniciativa e por nos colocar a par desta realidade.Eu não sabia disto.

Será que o Sal da Terra (meu projeto, aqui nesta plataforma) poderia ajuda-los de alguma forma? Um forte abraço.

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