Shrimps and seawater make Eritrean desert bloom
MASSAWA, Eritrea - What makes the desert bloom, lures investment to Africa, and tastes delicious in fried breadcrumbs?
The answer, on Eritrea's Red Sea coast, is the humble shrimp.
U.S. entrepreneurs have set up a sea water farm they say could serve as a model of environmentally-friendly and profitable business in a continent gasping for foreign investment.
"The idea of the farm is to green the desert coasts of the world and give Eritreans a chance," said Peter Woods, general manager. "We've got a wonderful idea. Once we can prove it will work, it will be an easy sell."
The project fuses two resources that Eritrea and many other African countries have in abundance but have done little to exploit - arid land and sea water.
Shrimps are fattened in briny water pumped from the sea, which is then used to nourish rubbery Salicornia plants which can thrive in salty conditions. The plants, one of a type known as halophytes, grow in spiky dark-green rows on the otherwise parched coastal plain.
For African leaders struggling to whip up foreign investment seen as vital to breaking the continent's cycle of poverty, the project could prove that even in a country struggling with hunger and the legacy of war, there is money to be made.
Recycling water laden with shrimp excreta might not sound like the most romantic way of saving the environment, but the farm is literally making the desert bloom.
Sea water gushes into round concrete tanks teeming with finger-sized shrimps, which occasionally make a futile attempt to escape by leaping en masse out of the water only to be tossed back by attendants.
The Salicornia thrives in the salt water pumped into the fields, providing an edible plant which the owners hope to export to Europe and the United States for use in gourmet salads or to make high-class cosmetics.
If left to grow to maturity, Salicornia produces a seed that provides a valuable vegetable oil or high-protein meal.
For Eritrean workers at the farm, the fields have symbolic value, lying bang on the site of a major battle in Eritrea's 30-year liberation struggle against Ethiopia, which led to Eritrean independence in 1993.
"The path that we're taking is constructive, instead of war and destruction," said project coordinator Samuel Negassi, after surveying the wreckage of a Soviet-built tank lying half submerged in one of the fields.
"We have the sea, we have the desert land. The combination of the two can generate wealth, you can't have a more typically Eritrean project than this," he said.
The park founders say the farm has wider environmental significance, contributing in its own small way to combating problems like desertification and global warming by planting Salicornia and mangroves in what was a barren plain.
Flamingos, sacred ibis, pelicans and herons swoop through wetlands created near the farm as a conservation site designed to attract tourists.
Seawater Farms Eritrea stresses its environmental credentials, but its shareholders also have an eye on profit.
The farm says it has already begun exporting shrimps to Europe and the United States using a cargo service provided by the German airline Lufthansa from the Eritrean capital Asmara.
It has not been easy. The project was started in 1998, when Eritrea and Ethiopia began a two year border war that devastated Eritrea's economy, pushing up costs.
Construction at the farm is behind schedule, but workers are aiming to raise production to an annual 300 tonnes of shrimps by the middle of next year, breaking even around the same time.
Managers talk of expanding the project to other sites along the coast - even across the region.
The shrimps, which sell for about $8 to $15 a kilo (2.2lb), could provide a major foreign exchange earner for countries like poverty-stricken Eritrea, whose government is a 50 percent partner.
"We can make a lot of money from this project," said Gherie Sebhatu, 25, an Eritrean student working as a pond manager. "Just like all Eritreans, I want Eritrea to develop," he said, scooping up a net of shrimps flashing silver in the sun.
Perhaps most importantly for the 340 staff - many of whom are students working for the government for nothing - the farm provides experience in a country lagging far behind in technology considered basic in the West.
"I can be a professional," said Yonas Redae, 25, supervising the shrimp hatchery. "If someone asks me what my profession is, I can say 'aquaculturalist'. I'm not embarrassed."
Story by Matthew Green
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE