Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Appetite for kelp work leads to African adventure

Undergraduate student’s contact with pilot farm leads to environmental monitoring experience in Namibia.

A speculative approach for work inspired by an Instagram post has helped an undergraduate gain skills and insights from four months spent on a coastal farm in Africa.

Eden Zandstra, a Global Agriculture and Food Systems student, spent the season between her second and third years conducting environmental monitoring on a newly established pilot kelp farm in Namibia.

She secured the opportunity after learning about the Kelp Blue farm on social media, and approaching the organisation’s Chief Executive Officer with her CV.

After an interview, Ms Zandstra was offered a summer internship, including travel and accommodation costs and a stipend for expenses.

The student was keen to discover more about kelp farming following her experience of studying marine science in high school, plus an elective on oceanography in her ongoing degree programme.

Nurturing conditions

In her first experience of visiting Africa, she flew into Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek and drove a Land Rover for the eight-hour journey to the desert coastal town of Lüderitz, where Kelp Blue is based, to spend the winter there.

Lüderitz is ideally situated for farming kelp. The intense Namibian sun combines with the cool, nutrient rich Benguela marine current in the South Atlantic ocean, and its accompanying strong winds, to nurture kelp forests grown from anchored ocean scaffolds 5-10km offshore.

In these conditions, giant kelp grows very quickly, with its first blades emerging within weeks. The uppermost blades of a forest may be regularly harvested for at least seven years without replanting. Kelp farms need no fertiliser, and remove carbon from the oceans where they grow, making them a sustainable food.

As part of the Kelp Blue team, Ms Zandstra took part in environmental monitoring of the kelp forests.

She joined colleagues in patrolling the forests to test the water quality and monitor conditions such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen, and assessing the status of sediment and plankton. She also took part in coastal monitoring, gathering data on local species.

Aside from one or two trips each week to monitor the kelp farms, Ms Zandstra also spent time in labs conducting analysis and completing admin. During her time with the organisation, she also had the opportunity to take part in sector conferences.

Kelp Blue’s leadership were very supportive and inspiring to work for, she says.

“They gave me training and lots of responsibility, and that made me want to do well. I liked the organisation and the way the team worked.”

In addition to gaining scientific experience, Ms Zandstra’s time in Namibia enabled her to witness food security issues first-hand. There was little fresh fruit and vegetables available, with the local diet including lots of meat and canned foods, and water is in limited supply, she reports.

Despite this, she loved exploring the area, camping, hiking and snorkelling in the only region in the world where flamingos and penguins live in harmony - a beautiful experience, she says. In addition, people in Lüderitz were very welcoming.

I became a local really quickly, playing soccer on the salt flats. What I enjoyed most was making connections with people with a shared interest, such as walking with a marine biologist along the shoreline and remarking on all the things we saw. It was great to learn from their experience.

Eden ZandstraUndergraduate student, Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Having returned to Edinburgh to resume her studies, Ms Zandstra has a few mementos from Namibia – a playlist of songs from her time there, a width of cloth woven in the region, and a flamingo feather saved from the beach.

“I also have memories of the people who became friends, the wildlife and nature of the Namibian coast,” she says.

Spending time with Kelp Blue has confirmed for Ms Zandstra the direction in which she wants her career to go.

“This was a good decision for me – it cemented my choice to focus on this area and showed me the breadth of opportunities relating to my degree,” she says.