What you need to know:
- It contains a large amount of protein and other nutrients, and has, for a long time, been eaten as a staple food in some communities for centuries
- Food security features prominently among the sustainable development goals, (SDGs) followed closely by health because one cannot speak of development where people are hungry and sick.
- Spirulina has been around for over 3.5 billion years. It blooms naturally in saline-soda lakes found in the tropical region.
- Creating the perfect condition for the algae to grow such as constructing the ponds and putting up a greenhouse cost Sh14 million.
Hippocrates, the Greek physician, famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.”
Indeed, the right kind of food has the ability to promote health and wellness in human beings as well as animals.
Food security features prominently among the sustainable development goals, (SDGs) followed closely by health because one cannot speak of development where people are hungry and sick.
As nations pursue the SDGs, there is a growing need to embrace “superfoods” that are have a dense nutritional value to the human body.
You may be familiar with some of these foods, such as kales, avocadoes and nuts. But do you know spirulina, a blue-green algae, which is laden with potent nutrients including protein?
Luke Harries, a farmer based in a village called Tiwi, about 10 miles from Mombasa town, has tapped into relatively unchartered waters of spirulina farming and processing.
“Starting out was quite challenging because of all the technicality involved. Spirulina grows naturally in the soda lakes, however at the farm, we create a monoculture that forces the algae to fight for its survival harder than it is used to in its natural environment.”
For the algae to flourish, it requires warm climate and arid land, which makes Tiwi ideal. Still, excess heat is harmful, hence the need to create a controlled environment at the farm. Mr Harries grows the algae in eight concrete ponds inside greenhouses on his one-acre farm.
“A lot can go wrong quickly, so you have to be diligent in monitoring the condition of the ponds as well as how the algae is growing. On several occasions, we have been forced to empty the ponds and begin afresh. After it is ready for harvest, we still have to be keen because over-harvesting is another pitfall that can jeopardise our operations.”
Despite the challenges, he says, lucrative yields make the trouble worth it. After harvesting the algae, they dry it and process into powder form packed in capsules.
Currently, they produce about 1,500 packets of capsules per month. The market price for one packet is about Sh630.
“We can make up to 3,500 capsules a day. Local consumption is minimal, so most of the product is sold in Nairobi. However, we have an emerging market on various online platforms.”
Interestingly, spirulina has been around for over 3.5 billion years. It blooms naturally in saline-soda lakes found in the tropical region.
For instance, in Chad, women of the Kanembu tribe harvest the algae from lake Chad, clean and dry it in the sun. The final product, dihé, is used as a soup base served as a staple meal along with corn, millet or sorghum meal.
Despite its long history, Harries notes the algae remains largely unknown to many local farmers.
“I had never heard of it until a friend mentioned it seven years ago. I became very interested in learning more and this lead to establishment of Tiwani Spirulina. Our strain came from Lake Natron in Tanzania. Beginning this project felt like a dive in the deep end. We didn’t have a place to benchmark but thankfully we have learnt along the way. One of our knowledge resources is a doctor who is an expert on the product.”
Venturing into the business idea didn’t come cheap either. Creating the perfect condition for the algae to grow such as constructing the ponds and putting up a greenhouse cost Sh14 million.
“Algae grows in a highly alkaline solution of a pH between 8 and 11. The solution is a mix of specific minerals. Our ponds contain sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, Magnesium Sulphate, Potassium Sulphate, urea for nitrogen and phosphoric acid for phosphorus. We do not use pesticides and herbicides.”
Its delicateness makes the farming labour intensive. During the day when photosynthesis is taking place, the ponds are stirred hourly for the algae to surface and absorb light.
“We usually add urea to increase nitrogen in the ponds, however, this is done with great precision as too much urea could lead to a build-up of ammonia which is toxic to the algae.”
The harvesting part requires attention to detail and uncompromised hygiene standards.
“We harvest on a daily basis and ensure we leave some algae in the ponds so it can reproduce. We transfer about 300 litres of the algal culture to the main harvest tank. Overnight, the spirulina comes up the surface and we harvest it in the morning by simply scooping the top layer.”
A fine cloth is then used to sieve the biomass of spirulina from the liquid culture. The thick green paste is pressed, squeezing out all the excess water. Afterwards, it is dried and taken through the preservation process.
Contrary to the practice in Chad of drying the algae in the sun, Harries prefers avoiding the sun due to its bleaching effect on the product.
The farm has a dark room where the harvest is dried. Here, the temperature is maintained at about 60 degrees C.
The dry paste is then taken to their processing facility and dried further in a household oven. Finally, the dry product is milled into a fine powder that is packed in capsules or powder sachets.”
A lot of potential
Despite the qualities that make algae such an attractive crop especially for arid areas, it is algae value as food that is most remarkable. Harries notes this particular strain has a large amount of protein and other essential nutrients.
“Spirulina is safe for human consumption because it has been around for a long time and has been eaten as a staple food for centuries.”
Fresh Spirulina is very mild in flavour and blends seamlessly into sauces, smoothies, stews and baked goods, however it has a lingering mossy aftertaste that is difficult to mask.
"People get hung up on the algae smell and aftertaste. This is what inspired us to come up with the capsule option.”
He points out that the product is associated with numerous wellness benefits such as healthy skin, healthier heart, boosts immunity and has anti-inflammatory properties.
In addition, there is a lot of potential in spirulina farming locally and in the export market.
“We foresee many farmers coming up over the next decade. We have built simplified systems that can serve as benchmarking platforms for potential out growers. It is my hope that one day, this product will be incorporated into everyday meals for its bountiful health benefits.”
Numerous health benefits
- Spirulina is loaded with various nutrients and antioxidants that are of benefit to your body and brain. It is especially an excellent source of protein, and also contains other nutrients such as Vitamin B1, 2 and 3, as well as iron.
- It is a powerful antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Some evidence suggests that spirulina contains anti-cancer properties.
- Research in animals indicates that it can reduce cancer occurrence and tumour size.
- It may reduce blood pressure, a main trigger of many diseases, such as heart attacks, strokes and chronic kidney disease.