A spongy success story from Zanzibar

By Nuri M. Steinmann.

Christian Vaterlaus and Connie Sacchi from Switzerland wanted to start over and begin a new life. They have done so in a quite bizarre way: They became sponge farmers. In Zanzibar they try to battle poverty, provide sustainable jobs and raise awareness for local marine conservation issues by cultivating sponges.

It’s not even midday in Jambiani, Zanzibar, the sun is already burning bright and strong. Christian Vaterlaus and the other farmers are out in the chest-high, turquoise water inspecting their sponges. At this time of the year, when it’s dry season and there are no jellyfish around, sponge farming could easily be amongst one of those dream jobs you never knew existed.

While the weather conditions are truly great, and the water resembles an endless, dreamlike bathtub, sponge farming requires careful attention to detail, and each sponge must be inspected individually. Has the sponge the right shape? Is the sponge overgrown by algae? The sponge farmers must make sure that the sponges are clean and form a rounded shape, so they grow into the desired bath sponges. A nicely formed bath sponge can be sold for up to 30$. A fortune for many people here in Zanzibar.

IMG_1404Copyright by Nuri M. Steinmann

One may think sponge farming is a tradition in Zanzibar and has been done for generations, but no one here even thought of cultivating sponges, until Christian Vaterlaus and Connie Sacchi came to Zanzibar a few years ago and had the remarkable idea to farm sponges. What started in 2009, is now (9 years later) an exceptional success story, which has changed the life of not only Christian and Connie, but of many people in Jambiani, especially women.

Initially, when leaving their lives in Switzerland behind, Cristian and Connie travelled the world to find their paradise and their new purpose in life. They found it on Zanzibar. Inspired by the sponge farmers of Micronesia, they recognized the potential of this activity and built their own farm in Jambiani. But why would someone want to farm sponges? Natural stocks of marine sponges are not capable of satisfying the demands of the cosmetic industry. However, naturally grown bath sponges can achieve not only high prices in the cosmetic industry, there are also interesting for the pharmaceutical industry, where some species are considered to display promising antibiotic and anticancerous properties. Therefore, farming sponges has the potential to ensure the sustainable supply of sponge raw material without depleting natural stocks.

IMG_1410Copyright by Nuri Steinmann

Indeed, with the sponge farming project, Cristian and Connie not only found their own new livelihood but are also trying to challenge the extreme poverty of the local communities by providing sustainable jobs to those who are particularly in need e.g. Single mothers. In the Zanzibar society, women who are left alone with their children are particularly disadvantaged. For many of them, sponge farming has enabled them to take control of their own lives and reach financial stability.

When coming to Marinecultures, each sponge farmer must complete a one-year training, where they learn how to swim, maintain their own sponge farm, and how to sell their product. After one year they are independent and able to run their own business. When their sponges are of good quality, each farmer can make up to 200$ a month. That’s above the average income of most people in Zanzibar.

sponge_product2__LIB8996Copyright by marinecultures.org

For a few years now, Christian is also trying to establish coral farming and restocking, to reintroduce corals into the Jambiani area and to provide jobs for men. While many trials have failed due to massive bleaching events, the restocking project using more resistant coral species is currently taking off again.

Cristian and Connie had the idea of starting a project which helps both the environment and the local communities. With Marinecultures they have created something unique by protecting natural sponge populations and providing hope for those who had none.

Do you want to learn more about sponge farming in Zanzibar and Marinecultures?

Check out the website marinecultures.org!

Featured picture: Copyright by marinecultures.org

 

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