Belize is blessed with a large area of pristine sub-tropical waters inside the Great Belize Barrier Reef which is fertile for the growing of marine algae.

This food is very low in Saturated Fat and Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin K, Calcium and Copper, and a very good source of Riboflavin, Folate, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Zinc, Selenium and Manganese. Seaweed is also one of the few foods that contain all of the essential amino acids. In other words, seaweed is of very high nutritional, energy and health value. Throughout the Caribbean, it is thought to have aphrodisiac effects and promoted in this light.

Seaweed is truly one of the sea’s best gifts. It has been used as food, medicine, fertilizer and as raw material in production of industrial phycocolloids such as Carrageenan, Agar, and Alginate.

The Philippines is one of the largest producers and exporters of seaweed products….mostly for industrial applications. One company, Marcel Carrageenan, boasts capacity to export 160 full-container-loads per month of various seaweed products suitable for application in producing kappa carrageenan, iota carrageenan, agar and fertilizer/animal feed.

Big H, the leading innovator in the beverage industry in Belize, launched STAMINA seaweed drink for its second annual La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge in 1999. It was the first attempt at commercializing seaweed drink, a product which was well known in Belize, but rarely available. The previous year, it had launched the first commercially available Big H coconut water, which is still the market leader, even though many others have started bottling coconut water since then. At the same time it was developing lemon grass tea, long known in our culture as a general health and mood enhancer. These products were priced at levels that took into account the profitability of the entire production chain, aiming for the higher end of the beverage market, and with an export vision. The value of Big H innovation and creativity to Belize is immeasurable.

It was difficult to find the seaweed material itself. I found Mr Godfrey from Placencia village through references, and he was able to supply us with good quality seaweed material, although on an inconsistent basis at the time.

Since then, several others have followed the Big H lead and started producing and selling/distributing branded seaweed drinks on a commercial basis.

A cooperative in Placencia has also been formed recently, which is focusing on planting and commercialization of seaweed products. Now seaweed raw material is readily available for commercial applications.

Some research and development of the seaweed drinks needs to be done, so that the products are more consistent in characteristics attractive to consumers….color, taste, flavors, palatability, texture, consistency and shelf-life. More marketing is needed to appropriately position the products for the long-term in the high end of the beverage market, so that the nutritional and intrinsic value is reflected in the price consumers are willing and able to pay for the product….and so that a wider range of consumers choose the product as a refreshment on a more consistent basis.

There is no beverage company that is currently offering this product on the world market on a commercial basis….and the entire world is moving towards healthier consumption patterns….thus this presents a market environment ripe for exploiting first-mover advantages. Seaweed drink can be the energy-packed “Ensure” among widely available and consumed beverages.

Belize needs to develop its domestic market for this product much more rapidly….and find ways, through strategic partnerships, to present various flavors and presentations of this product to the world market.

From the start Belize needs to promote the raw seaweed product of Belize as the choice raw material, given the pristine and relatively uncontaminated state of our marine environment.

The farming of edible seaweeds in Belize also has the potential to boost the fish productivity of our seas, given that these algae are a feed source for small fishes to grow and reproduce much more rapidly. The flavoring of the seaweed drinks also demands peanuts and other produce of Belize. Hence, the horizontal effects on demand for compatible ingredients and production is real.

My own very conservative estimate of a developed seaweed drinks market for Belize is around $9 million per year…..if 75,000 consumers purchase one drink per week at $2.50….with the potential to contribute $2 million in taxes (GST and Business Tax) to government. Of course, the products need to be made readily available at the various point-of-sale in attractive presentations. The first-mover in the world market for this unique beverage product will surely harvest abundantly.

It can be presented in ready-to-drink forms, or in raw material powder form for homes to use in preparing their own drinks.

There are other uses for seaweed as well…..including, but not limited to, as a substitute for corn starch as a thickener for gravy and as a texture enhancer and to improve the melting point of ice creams.

The government can assist with this development, by investing some resources ($0.5 million each year for five years) in the product development and marketing aspects of this industry….perhaps through the Fisheries Department and/or the Agriculture Department. If focus is placed only on farming and harvesting….and not on raw materials and finished product processing for optimal shelf-life, storage and ready consumer acceptance….the entire efforts could be derailed, as farmers become frustrated with holding inventory that does not move to market. Value-adding opportunities need to be exploited now….so that the crop goes from the seabed to consumers in the shortest amount of time possible.
Efficiency and effectiveness of the product-market chain is key.

This article was written by Richard Harrison, Belizean investor in production and services businesses in Belize. He holds a Masters in Business Administration degree from Lancaster University.

Patrick Jones