Bringing to light women’s participation in the seaweed industry

By Ms Jee Grace B. Suyo1, Virginie Le Masson2, Louise Shaxson2, Maria Rovilla J. Luhan1, Anicia Q. Hurtado1

Seaweed farming is an important livelihood source for tens of thousands of families particularly in the Southeast Asian region. Two varieties of seaweeds [A] have gained economic importance for their good quality carrageenan which is an important thickening and stabilizing ingredient for a variety of food and non-food products. In the Philippines, seaweed farming is mostly considered a family enterprise in which family members, i.e., parents and children, assume different roles across the stages of production. Women are primarily engaged in pre- and post-farming activities, e.g., seedling preparation, cleaning and segregation, and drying, while men take charge of farm construction, monitoring and harvest. Gender-based segmentation in terms of resource utilization, i.e., allocation of space and division of labour have been documented along with its implications on the socioeconomic condition and political representation of women and men. However, a gap remains between practice and the knowledge from research because the collection of data often does not explore gender-related differences, for example by disaggregating information about seaweed farmers. This becomes a disadvantage for women whose actual contributions are either poorly recorded or overlooked.

In our recent publications on social relations, perceived risks and risk management strategies, we analysed two dimensions that are crucial for the sustainability of the industry. First, we explored farmers’ access to information, services and resources using social network analysis (SNA) as a tool to understand power relations between women and men engaged in seaweed farming (Suyo et al., 2020). Social network analysis is a process of understanding social relationships of a network, e.g., seaweed industry. We found it to be a powerful tool in mapping gender differences in terms of access and control of resources especially when used in the context of value chain analysis. We conducted a series of Focus Group Discussions (FGD) with women and men seaweed farmers to identify individuals or organizations that provide tangible, e.g., farming materials, or intangible, e.g., information, support in seaweed production. We produced four social network maps to demonstrate how women and men seaweed farmers gain access to formal learning opportunities, i.e., training on farming techniques, and financial resources, seedstock and markets – resources and facilities that were considered by farmers as the pillars of the seaweed production industry.

Interview with women seaweed farmers in Zamboanga City, Philippines. Photo: A. Hurtado, 24 July 2018.

The results of the networks analysis revealed some interesting insights about the structure and the relative socioeconomic position of farmers in the industry. We found that seaweed production is sustained by a closed and limited support network. Knowledge about seaweed farming is gained from either family members or other farmers in the community; this is especially true among women because men seaweed farmers were considered as the “primary owners” of seaweed farms. Training or capacity building activities by government agencies and non-government organizations can inadvertently discriminate against women whose actual contributions in seaweed production may be overshadowed by cultural norms and practices that can be biased towards men. This places women at the tail end of communication lines which, consequently, limits their access to information, e.g., prices, product requirements, that is essential for negotiating their position in the market on an equal footing with men.

Women farmers often do not visit the seaweed farms because they are mostly responsible for housework, e.g., food preparation, housekeeping. However, the gender division of labor that limits women’s access to the seaweed farms has become an advantage in terms of obtaining credit from microfinance organizations. Though both women and men farmers rely heavily on their families and communities for financial support, more women seem able to obtain credit from microfinance organizations because they are considered as better “payors” since they are always at home during collection of payments. The amount of time spent by men at the seaweed farms constrains their access to this financing opportunity.

A woman farmer holding a seaweed line in Zamboanga City, Philippines. Photo: A. Hurtado, 25 July 2018.

Building on the evidence we gathered, we explored the gender differences in terms of risk perceptions and risk management strategies of key stakeholder groups in the seaweed industry (Suyo et al., 2021). We collected information at other levels of the value chain by interviewing traders and processors to understand the challenges faced by different stakeholder groups. We used simple diagrams to map out the risks and to illustrate the risk management strategies adopted by farmers, traders and processors. Disease and pest infestations are key issues faced by the industry because these do not only lead to production failure but also result in low supply of raw dried seaweeds (RDS) which, in turn, affects the income of traders and processors. Farmers are disproportionately affected by risks affecting production, e.g., predation, poaching, extreme weather events, pollution, compared to other stakeholder groups because of a combination of lack of supportive policies (zoning), price volatility and unbalanced patron-client relationships.

Risk management strategies have been developed to safeguard social relationships across the industry. Traders and processors help address production issues by giving financial assistance to farmers to strengthen the patron-client bond. For instance, traders or processors may provide materials or give monetary support for farm construction and rehabilitation. This helped sustain the seaweed farming industry while ensuring security of supply of raw materials, i.e., RDS. However, weak governance contributes to uneven distribution of benefits and create barriers for farmers to engage in higher-level marketing. Both women and men sell their harvest primarily to local traders as a form of payment for credit obtained during the course of seaweed production. This arrangement, however, limits farmers’ opportunities in exploring larger markets that can possibly offer better prices for their seaweeds.

Gender differences were also noted in farmers’ perceptions of risks and risks management strategies. Gendered use of space has influenced women and men’s understandings of their situation and their environment. For instance, men had more extensive knowledge of risks than women because they were responsible for farm monitoring and management. Gender differences in perceptions were more prominent in seaweed production because roles were (more) socially-classified based on gender, particularly for activities requiring physical strength such as farm construction and installation of cultivation ropes. However, awareness and knowledge become less gendered up the value chain as women and men tend to assume similar responsibilities.

Gender-related research in fisheries and aquaculture constantly underscores the value of gender disaggregated data to provide more accurate accounts of these sectors and better inform policy-making. It is only by using a gender lens that researchers can provide empirical evidence about gender differences in an industry; what is essential may be invisible for a gender-blind eye. Through our two recently published articles, we were able to demonstrate how to obtain and examine detailed gender-based data using different frameworks of analysis – approaches that can be useful when designing multidisciplinary studies that aim to integrate gender-specific information.

About the GSSTAR

The GlobalSeaweedSTAR (GSSTAR) – Safeguarding the future of the seaweed industry in developing countries, is a four-year multidisciplinary programme funded by UK Research and Innovation-Global Challenges Research Fund (UKRI-GCRF). It aims to improve the research and innovation capacities of for the industry of developing nations engaged in seaweed farming for sustainability of the industry. More details about the programme can be found here:

  1. Institute of Aquaculture, University of the Philippines Visayas, Miagao, Iloilo, 5023 Philippines
  2. Overseas Development Institute, 203 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NJ, United Kingdom

[A] Kappaphycus sp. and Eucheuma spp., collectively called eucheumatoids


Suyo, J. G. B., Le Masson, V., Shaxson, L., Luhan, M. R. J., & Hurtado, A. Q. (2020). A social network analysis of the Philippine seaweed farming industry: Unravelling the web. Marine Policy, 118.

Suyo, J. G. B., Le Masson, V., Shaxson, L., Luhan, M. R. J., & Hurtado, A. Q. (2021). Navigating risks and uncertainties: Risk perceptions and risk management strategies in the Philippine seaweed industry. Marine Policy, 126, 104408.