Johanan Dujon — seaweed for sale | The deal

For St Lucian Johanan Dujon, sargassum-covered beaches are’t just a problem — they’re an opportunity. As Erline Andrews learns, Dujon has his eye on a regional market for his Algas Organics line of fertilisers

  • Photo courtesy Johanan Dojon. Sargassum seaweed photo by Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock.com

Back in 2011, sargassum seaweed — a greenish-brown mass of vegetation that usually originates from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic — began piling up on beaches across the Caribbean.

It’s not unusual for the seaweed to appear seasonally, but scientists speculate that because of warmer temperatures due to climate change — plus the effect of man-made fertilisers and sewage contaminating the sea — quantities grew dramatically, becoming a serious challenge for the Caribbean’s tourism and fishing industries, the mainstay of many islands.

In 2014, the seaweed problem reached a peak. Twenty-one-year-old Johanan Dujon was at a friend’s house when the conversation turned — as it likely did at many gatherings in St Lucia — to the sargassum, which was clogging the engines of fishing vessels, killing fish and crabs, and emanating a sickening odour as it rotted on beaches.

“Her mom was mentioning that seaweed can be used as fertiliser, [and asking] why was nobody doing anything about it,” Dujon recalls. “That is where the thought came from. If this material is coming here and we can make something out of it, then we’d be solving two issues. We’d be creating a product that we could make money off of, that [also] kept the beaches clean.”

Dujon, by his account, hadn’t been a brilliant science student. After graduating from the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College — where he studied literature, Spanish, and business — he was a primary school physical education teacher and ran a fishing supplies business. But he had the foresight to see an opportunity in the sargassum influx, and the drive and the family support to carry it out.

“When I first came up with the idea, I couldn’t sleep. It was like a tugging — get up and go try something with the seaweed!” says Dujon. “I finally said to my father, Dad, let’s go and collect some seaweed to experiment. The average person who said that to their parents, their reaction would be, What are you doing? His reaction was — he has a pickup that we still use to move the products around — he says to me, OK, let’s go.

“He would go out with me to collect the seaweed. My mom as well,” Dujon continues. “We would dry the seaweed in the initial instance and try to sell it off in front of supermarkets — and nobody bought one bag. Nobody. But . . . the point is the support was there from the onset. It’s still there now.”

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Today, Dujon is managing director of Algas Organics, which produces a liquid fertiliser — Algas Total Plant Tonic — made from sargassum. Dujon came up with the product after months of experimenting. He, his family, and a small team of part-time employees harvest the sargassum from affected coastlines and manufacture bottles of the fertiliser with support from international and local public agencies.

After operating for several years out of the Dujon home, a processing plant will formally open later this year, and after selling to retailers and corporate clients in St Lucia, Algas has begun exporting to Barbados. Dujon hopes eventually to export to other countries in the region and beyond, and expand manufacturing operations to other parts of the Caribbean affected by sargassum. In January 2017, the St Lucia Chamber of Commerce named him Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

Giles Romulus runs the UNDP’s Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme in St Lucia, which helped fund Algas’s operations after Dujon agreed to share profits with the St Lucia Fisherfolk Cooperative Society, an NGO that represents the fishing community. “He got a lot of support,” Romulus explains, “and the fact that he’s willing to go into partnership with a civil society organisation that can benefit and also give him some guidance — that helped. Johanan realised he couldn’t do it alone.”

Romulus points to Microsoft, Dell, and Facebook. “Many of the biggest companies in the world started in the university bedroom,” he says. “You start small and you look for opportunities for partnerships. [Algas] is an excellent example of a partnership that has brought results in a short period of time.”

Romulus said he hopes the project will grow if another injection of funding is approved. In addition to the manufacturing plant, he’d like to see Algas set up a research lab. “We want expansion beyond sargassum,” he says. “St Lucia has a lot of endemic plants that need to be studied. I believe that there are chemicals in our plants in the Caribbean that are yet untouched.”

Last year, Dujon was a presenter at the Earth Optimism Summit organised by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. The inaugural event was intended to celebrate and share successful ideas in environmental protection. Dujon was selected after responding to an invitation for submissions, and may have been the only representative from the English-speaking Caribbean. “We, in all of the environmental challenges that we’re faced with, have the opportunity to convert them into profitable ventures,” he told the audience.

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He presented test results that show Algas fertiliser performing better than the big American brand Miracle-Gro, and touted its organic nature. “Our product reduces the need for synthetic chemicals, which leach out into our soils and into our waters and increases your yield,” he told the summit. “If you match innovation with funding, mentorship, technical support, and community and environmental conscience, what you’re going to get is a revolutionary solution which can stand out at the global scale,” he concluded.

There’ve been other ideas bandied about for making productive use of sargassum. A team at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus has experimented with turning it into plastic. Barbadian environmental entrepreneur Mark Hill has made it into food and particleboard. But Dujon’s project seems to be the first to really bear fruit.

He’s encountered other people who had the idea to convert the sargassum into salable fertiliser. “They had the idea but they couldn’t do it,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is about risks. I am twenty-something. If I leave my job and this doesn’t work, I can do something else. Being successful as an entrepreneur comes from you having the latitude to fail. If you have a mortgage and children and a wife, it’s not OK to fail. The younger you, are the easier it should be to take risks.”

The region needs more venture capitalists, he says, to put money into risky but potentially lucrative start-up businesses. “Once you have that kind of network, then you would see entrepreneurship really take off.”