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Monday, 12 August, 2019

The Sargassum Opportunity

The tons of sargassum drifting ashore in the Caribbean in recent years have created big headaches for the tourism and fishing industries, but some entrepreneurs in the region see opportunity. That was the case with Johanan Dujon, who first noticed—and smelled—the piles of seaweed as he was driving along Saint Lucia’s east coast five years ago, when he was 21. “Why isn’t anybody doing anything?” he kept asking himself. The question eventually drove him to start a business.

The company he founded, Algas Organics, now turns about a million pounds of sargassum per year into agricultural inputs. Its flagship product, Total Plant Tonic, sells in Saint Lucia and five other countries.

Using seaweed as a plant stimulant is nothing new; in fact, Dujon said in a phone interview, people in various parts of the world have been throwing raw seaweed on their farmlands for centuries. What his company did, he said, was to take that basic idea a step further and develop a proprietary process to extract the “bio-stimulant” properties from the sargassum. The result is a liquid, organic fertilizer that he says speeds up plant growth, increases crop yields, and saves farmers money while protecting the environment.

“It’s a really crazy product that we’ve been able to make out of the problem,” he said.

In the beginning, Dujon said, plenty of people thought he was crazy to want to have anything to do with the smelly seaweed that had drifted ashore like a “curse.” But any skepticism he encountered only made him more determined. His father had a pickup truck, so the young man enlisted his help to collect their first load of sargassum.

“That was the beginning of nonstop experimentation,” he said. Dujon doesn’t have a degree in science, but he saw a practical application for the biology and chemistry classes he had taken in high school, and eventually he came up with a product that worked. “Trial and error, I think, is the equivalent of a Ph.D. when you are trying to create something of value,” he said.

Today, Algas Organics has nine employees who handle administrative and processing tasks. It has also partnered with the government to provide training in the collection and handling of sargassum, creating a new source of livelihood for 120 people in some of the communities hit hard by the seaweed invasion.

Dujon has received support from several international organizations along the way, including the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme.

The Saint Lucian entrepreneur has also received widespread recognition. In 2017, the local chamber of commerce named him Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and that same year, he was a presenter at the Smithsonian Institution’s Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C.

In March of this year, Dujon received the 2019 Commonwealth Youth Award, as the winner in the region that includes the Caribbean and Canada. The annual award recognizes outstanding young people ages 15-29 whose initiatives contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

As Dujon views it, sargassum has given the Caribbean an opportunity, and people can decide what to do about it—whether to “continue to suffer or mobilize and take action,” as he put it. “It’s really a choice.”




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