A report by Daphne Ewing-Chow for Forbes.
What can a small-island fertilizer brand teach the world about zero-waste, food security, climate resilience and economic development? Just ask 25-year old Saint Lucian entrepreneur, Johanan Dujon, the founder and managing director of Algas Organics.
Algas Organics’ flagship product, Algas Total Plant Tonic, is a sargassum seaweed-based fertilizer that began retailing in 2015. Dujon developed a proprietary, high efficiency process, which allows for maximum extraction of quality bio-actives and micronutrients from every pound of Sargassum seaweed.
Given the low cost of raw material acquisition (since it literally floats to the shoreline by the tons) the company says that it is able to charge consumers 15 to 20% less than the competition.
“Essentially we are doing two things,” says Dujon. “We are taking sargassum which is a Caribbean problem and converting it into an organic bio-fertilizer which addresses another problem— the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture.”
Since 2011, a sargassum seaweed crisis has devastated the Caribbean: tainting beaches, killing marine life and limiting the livelihoods of fisher folk due to an increase in fuel and maintenance costs, impeded efficiency and reduced catch.
Algas Organics has helped to rid Saint Lucia’s beaches of an estimated 300 tons of wet seaweed over the past three years through a zero-waste manufacturing process. The algae is manually removed from the east coast of St Lucia and taken to the world’s first sargassum seaweed processing facility where it is converted into organic compost for the farming industry.
This business model has great potential— the market for fertilizer is three times larger than that for crop protection or seed individually and given the increase in consumer awareness of the health implications of synthetic chemicals, the organic lawn and garden products market is growing rapidly. In 2017, the organic fertilizers’ market was valued at $6.3 billion with a projected CAGR of 12%.
For a region grappling with a $4.5 billion annual food import bill, Algas Total Plant Tonic enhances the opportunity for food security. According to Dujon, the organic fertilizer produces up to 30% greater root development than leading international brands, thus improving crop performance and yield and promoting crop resilience to climate change.
The product line is also providing micro-level benefits. By working with the Saint Lucia Fisher Folk Co-operative Society and directly with local fisher folk, Dujon is alleviating the destabilizing effects of the sargassum problem and providing supplemental income streams in local fishing communities.
The Algas Organics team is committed to methods that protect the nation’s beaches and remove all traces of heavy metals in their product, thus addressing the two primary concerns surrounding sargassum adaptation techniques.
According to Dujon, Algas Total Plant Tonic stimulates the exact root architecture a crop or plant needs to perform in its unique growing conditions and environment.
“It’s essentially precision agriculture in a bottle and a game changer for crop resilience to climate change, especially given drought and abiotic stress conditions,” says Dujon.
Algas Organics is currently working on producing a wider range of lawn and garden products, including natural pesticide and fungicide formulas utilizing raw materials from Saint Lucia. According to Dujon, the flagship product is currently being used on agricultural land across the region and has hinted of plans to expand the brand into the international market within the next three years.
Since its inception, the brand has secured support from the United Nations Development Project, the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture. It was also showcased during the 2017 Earth Optimism Summit at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.
Says Dujon: “I believe that Caribbean biodiversity and innovation holds critical keys to feeding the projected 9.8 billion people who will inhabit planet earth by 2050. We’ve developed a product that can save farmers up to 20% on fertilizer and boost crop yields, in light of increased challenges posed by climate change.”