Harvesting seaweed into fertilizer for farming
Solving the Sargassum problem by turning it into bio-fertilizer for farms
What to do with all the seaweed? Watch our latest interview with Algas Organics, which turns an environmental challenge into a job-creating economic opportunity.
Waves of Sargassum, the brown seaweed that has bloomed in the Atlantic Ocean, have besmirched and despoiled miles and miles of coastline. The heaping, unsightly, and often smelly mounds have threatened beaches in Florida, the Caribbean, and across the Americas, releasing chemicals that can cause a range of human health problems.
Even as the explosion of harmful Sargassum declined over the summer, it’s expected to return.
For Johanan Dujon, however, he sees opportunity in the invasive, odorous brown seaweed. The entrepreneur from St. Lucia, who spends part of the year in Miami, launched Algas Organics in 2014. It’s a startup that turns Sargassum from St. Lucia beaches into fertilizer that he’s selling to farmers from Vermont and Oklahoma to Florida.
“The founding vision of Algas Organics was, how do we create a sustainable, circular economy where we can take this problem, which we saw as an opportunity, and convert it into a win, win, for the environment and the economy,” said Dujon.
Dujon joined us for our latest Opportunity Miami Interview, which you can watch here.
BIG CHALLENGE, GREATER OPPORTUNITY
In the Opportunity Miami newsletter, we talk a lot about Miami’s economy hinging on turning vulnerabilities into strengths. Algas Organics is an early-stage company that aims to turn an environmental challenge into a job-creating economic opportunity. It focuses on a problem that public officials are keen on solving. The recently launched Miami-Dade Innovation Authority, spearheaded by Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and supported by the Miami-Dade County Commission, announced the repurposing of Sargassum for its first public innovation challenge.
For Dujon, the idea for Algas Organics was hatched nearly a decade ago as he witnessed the massive seaweed pile up in his native St. Lucia and on shores across the eastern Caribbean. It decimated coastal communities and put a damper on tourism, which is such an important economic driver. He also watched governments spend millions of dollars to scoop up the Sargassum and dump it into the landfills.
“The next day there was more seaweed on the beach. It just kept coming,” he said, lamenting a cycle filling already-constrained landfills and siphoning away public dollars with no end in sight.
Instead, Dujon came up with the idea of diverting the seaweed by collecting it on beaches, transporting it to a processing facility, and - through a patented process - turning it into fertilizer for agriculture. It’s a process that is labor intensive. Still, Dujon sees that as providing an opportunity too: namely, the chance to offer entry-level jobs for collection and processing that, hopefully, can lead to better jobs down the road.
“A big part of our mission is upward social mobility for impoverished communities,” Dujon said.
The end result is an organic fertilizer that can be sold to farmers for up to 20 percent less than a chemical fertilizer, Dujon said. In sum, the aim is to get the piles of Sargassum off Caribbean beaches and create a product that can be sold into a fertilizer market that in the US is valued at some $26 billion.
With a seemingly endless supply of Sargassum and an end-product that costs less than competitors, Dujon said they are now working to introduce the product to as many farmers as possible.
“You get a lot of pushback,” he said, noting initial skepticism from farmers about the concept of turning seaweed into fertilizer. “And then they try it, and then neighbors see it, and distributors find out about it. It takes a lot of time and you have to really believe in what you are doing and demonstrate value to growers.”
Meanwhile, he’s also exploring the proper revenue model to pursue. In St. Lucia, he’s using a vertically integrated model of collecting the Sargassum off beaches, processing it into fertilizer, and then exporting it to farmers in the US and elsewhere.
Now he’s exploring new places, including Greater Miami, to harvest seaweed and new models to build the business. For instance, he’s exploring working with governments and municipalities already spending money to remove the troublesome seaweed but also wants to stop sending seaweed to landfills.
“Our model is evolving almost to a services model to get material away from the landfill and process it,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, the aim is not only to build a profitable, successful company but one that solves social and environmental challenges too.
“How do we take this problem, create employment for marginalized people but also benefit the environment and the economy by turning it into something that’s useful,” he added.
As always, if you have a company, person, or idea you want to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We invite you to subscribe on YouTube to watch our Interviews and On Site series featuring leaders shaping Miami’s future. If you were forwarded this newsletter, you can subscribe to us on Substack by clicking here. And if you are new to Opportunity Miami, you can learn about our mission and work here.
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