In a lagoon in northern Tunisia, farmers pick red algae that they have planted themselves. Their company is the main one in the Mediterranean and the only one in the country that grows these plants, which have become valuable with the success of plant food thickeners.
After years of research, this is the first time this year that Selt Marine, a food texture manufacturing company, has harvested red algae on an industrial scale.
Faced with the flat water of a lagoon near Bizerte, the women empty the strands of coarse tufts in the large pools, turning from green to dark red, and then take a few pieces.
Farmers then tie these seaweed samples around a cylindrical net that they immerse in the lagoon.
“We recover 10% of the natural biomass, grow it in the lagoon, then wait for nature to do its job, and after 45 days we harvest: these are cuttings,” explains Mounir Bouklout, a native of France. Tunisia, the algae expert and entrepreneur behind the project.
Ten kilograms of aquatic plants are harvested for one kilogram of cultivated algae a month and a half later, he told AFP. Enough to develop local production without depleting natural resources, when other countries like neighboring Morocco or Chile have depleted their red algae reserves by overfishing.
The algae are then dried in the sun on large tables and then transported to the factory where they will become texturizers, gelling agents or food thickening agents such as agar-agar or carrageenans.
– “Decontaminate naturally” –
This type of product is gradually suppressing animal-derived gelatin, which is less popular in the food industry due to health scandals and a growing number of vegetarians. Red algae are also starting to make room for themselves in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical sectors.
If mainly grown in Asia, the world’s leading producer, consumer and exporter of seaweed, red algae benefit from the ideal climate in Tunisia, and their presence promotes the development of the entire ecosystem with the presence of shrimp, small fish, oysters or mussels.
Algae also develop by photosynthesis from elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus, a way of “naturally cleaning the lagoon,” Mr. Bouklout explains.
His company has been processing algae in Ben Arous, on the outskirts of Tunisia, which had been imported from Asia for 25 years.
For his first harvest, Mr. Bouklout hopes to get 500 tons of wet algae, and plans to increase the cultivated area to 40 acres next year for a 3,500-ton harvest, before increasing to 80 acres within two years.
– Vegetarian lumps –
“Tunisia is a pioneer” in the Mediterranean, Houssam Hamza, a Mediterranean aquaculture specialist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), told AFP.
Selt Marine is not only the main company that grows red algae in the region, but has expertise in “converting algae into different products,” allowing them to be priced on the spot, the expert explains.
Whether grown locally or imported, the algae are washed and then cooked at 90 degrees to obtain a gelling liquid which is then pressed, dried and crushed into a fine white powder.
Mixed with other ingredients, it will be used as an additive to dairy products, meat products, confectioneries or industrial pastries, for local companies, but also European, Turkish or Chinese.
Countless other uses are being studied: biodegradable bottles, noodles or even vegetarian pieces of seaweed, but with a meaty taste that will soon be on the market, points out biologist Mariem Mouheddine, head of research and development at Selt Marine.
A boon for the entire region, where the project employs about a hundred people and should allow 500 to work within two years, says Mr Bouklout, who has been waiting more than 20 years for approval to exploit the lagoon. Tunisia.
According to Mr Hamzi, algae represent an “opportunity to be seized”. “Our role is to be next to Tunisia, which is still a country rich in skills and full of talented young people,” he emphasizes.