Lofoten Seaweed: Future Food from the Ocean
Almost eight billion people currently live on Earth. By 2050, this number will have risen close to ten billion. The challenges for our food supply in the future are enormous. In agriculture, farmland is a finite resource. Land competes for being used for food, livestock, or fuel production. Droughts, floods, cold and heat reduce crop yields worldwide. Soils are no longer sufficient as a base for feeding the growing world population. Food, especially fruit, vegetables and salads must be available and accessible to as many people as possible and – and this is one of the greatest challenges – must also be produced in a climate-friendly way. Yet how can this be done?
In the search for solutions, innovations and high-tech are just as important as old and rediscovered knowledge about healthy food. Algae, seaweed and sea grass are among them. They have been an integral part of the cooking of many coastal dwellers for centuries. The aquatic plants are healthy and rich in vitamins, calcium, iron, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids and proteins. They grow quickly and are relatively uncomplicated to cultivate and harvest. Now they are emerging as a superfood for the food of the future. What makes algae and seaweed so special? Where does the knowledge about quality come from? And how can a company be built around algae?
Angelita Eriksen, co-founder of “Lofoten Seaweed”, has the answers. Together with co-founder Tamara Singer she founded the two-woman startup specializes in hand-harvested seaweed fresh or as salt, in pasta, chocolate, seasonings for salads, soups, sauces, and even in body soap. We visit Angelita in Napp, a small fishing village in the south of the northern Norwegian archipelago of Lofoten Islands. In the world’s only store of “Lofoten Seaweed” with an attached pop-up restaurant, where cooks regularly experiment with ever new recipes made from seaweed, Angelita tells us the story of “Lofoten Seaweed”, which is also a story of entrepreneurship, of cooperation, knowledge transfer and trust.
What about seaweed fascinates you so much, how did you come up with it?
It all started when I started looking at nutrition. I wanted to eat clean, healthier and at the same time climate friendly. Our food systems are a major contributor to the destruction of our planet’s livelihoods. More than a third of all greenhouse gases are due to this. I was looking for alternative foods. While researching, I came across seaweed. It’s familiar to me, I was born here in Napp at Lofoten islands. My father is a fisherman, I worked with him and helped with the fishing. Seaweed is everywhere in Lofoten, I grew up playing with it on the shores, but I didn’t know which power the algae had. Seaweed grows quickly and easily in cold water temperatures and offers the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. It has antiviral and antibacterial effects. In particular, seaweed provides many proteins, vitamin B and iodine, nutrients that are otherwise most likely to be provided by food of animal origin.
The more I researched, the more fascinated I became with seaweed, with its possibilities as food. For me, seaweed was a part of the solution in nutrition that I had been looking for. Then I told Tamara about it. We are both physiotherapists and we became friends when we were doing or master’s program in Australia. She is New Zealander, her mother Japanese, her father American. I was constantly in her ear about all the new things I learned about seaweed. And she was just like, “I know – I’ve been eating seaweed all my life”. And then we started talking about cooking. In Norway at that time nobody spoke about seaweed, in Europe in general the knowledge about it fell into oblivion. But in Asia, and especially in Japan, seaweed is part of everyday cooking.
Did you know right away that you wanted to found the startup “Lofoten Seaweed” around the topic algae?
This was a process. We initially did further research and were wondering why there is relatively little easily accessible information on seaweed. But above all, that hardly any companies are involved with it. Why is no one doing anything about it, what’s the bottle neck, why is no one engaged in this? And only then did we realize: We have to start up ourselves, we cannot not do this. We have to get the knowledge and the motivation and just go out and just do it.
And then Tamara and I founded “Lofoten Seaweed” in 2016, with only little entrepreneurial experience, to show that there is an alternative in food. Just because we saw an opportunity to push a topic that we think has to play a role in the food of the future, because it grows right in front of our eyes. Along the way we have had great support from Innovation Norway and other entrepreneurial programs.
How did you decide that your location would be Lofoten?
The conditions in Lofoten are ideal for seaweed. The water is always in motion and clean, here we have the fourth strongest ocean stream in the world. The seaweed grows wild and can develop the nutrients well under these circumstances. Also, we have truffle seaweed here, which are small brown bunches that actually have that delicious truffle flavor. We offer it fresh or as an ingredient in our seaweed salts.
Did you have any experience from other areas on how to build a business?
No, neither of us had ever done that before. But we had been running our own physiotherapy clinics. So we were used to being self-driven and self-employed. I attended an entrepreneurial school, Tamara kept working on the idea and concept. We then got funding from Innovation Norway, a Norwegian state-owned company for innovation and development of Norwegian companies. Then the ball started rolling: In 2018 we won the female business award in Nordland County and in 2020, we went on to win the Entrepreneur of the year award “Norges Vels Gründerpris” in the domain food industry which had the topic “The proteins of the future for food”. It was amazing to be awarded for the hard work and steep learning curve.
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What was the biggest challenge?
The nature of the market was the most special thing for us. On the one hand, the market is ready for our products; on the other hand, we are just creating it. As entrepreneurs working with algae, we have to build the market we want to get into. Our job is at least twice as hard. But I feel like it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Making a change and helping people open their eyes, thinking in new ways on where our food comes from and how it’s produced is a hot topic.
How did you gain the knowledge about seaweed?
We were lucky to have an expert on seaweed in Tamara’s mother. She is an amazing home cook with a high sense of quality, choosing only the best for her dishes. Seaweed is a fundamental ingredient in Japanese cuisine and Tamara’s mother knows all about it. She came up here to Lofoten from New Zealand and taught us what we needed to know about the different varieties, textures, tastes, smells and recipes. She compared the seaweed from Lofoten with the high standards she knows from Japan and was more than convinced about the quality. We experimented a lot and learned to infer taste from color, and also what sound dried seaweed makes when you break it and what that means for its quality.
Of course, we studied the theory intensively and all the books on the subject, participated in networks and courses, meeting up people who had more experience than us, institutions, ocean research institutes. But especially important for us was the knowledge transfer with experts in different fields.
This is where my experience in Ireland particularly stands out. I went to Ireland to a company called “THE IRISH SEAWEED CONSULTANCY” and asked them to please help me get started and to basically tell me what I need to know. I didn’t want to overlook anything and leave any gaps. We went through the research, different areas, what are the hot topics and what do we not know yet. What research articles and PhD theses are relevant, what research should I read, what is happening in the labs. They took me around to a few wild harvesting companies just to see what they did. They harvest completely sustainably and also by hand.
Is this a competitor who supported you?
Yes, that was a new experience, that this was all about cooperation and trust, without competitive thoughts. I was able to be part of all the processes and got to experience what they do and don’t do and learned how I could replicate that in the future.
Did the knowledge transfer help you?
More than that. After that, I felt really safe and comfortable with what I was doing. I had read everything, we had three professors as mentors we could ask. And that was right at the beginning of “Lofoten Seaweed.” That kicked off everything. We could build on that, we could dock knowledge to that, we knew where to search, and we also got to know more people in the industry as well.
Back to Lofoten: Harvesting is in winter, the water is around 4 degrees then, you stand in the water and harvest by hand. Why?
We started with hand harvesting because we need the direct contact with seaweed, it was the easiest way to gain knowledge on the ecosystem and local characteristics, local knowledge around the harvesting area. Moreover, this method is very efficient. And we want to harvest sustainably and learn about the areas where our seaweed grows.
Do technique and technology play any role in the process?
Yes, absolutely. With support from “Innovation Norway”, we have developed a software system in which we record geodata, weather quality and the amount of algae harvested. The data is regularly compared so that we can detect deviations. Behind this harvest protocol is also the idea that we see ourselves as a thoroughly sustainable company – but we also wanted to know if we are really harvesting sustainably or not. The data shows that we harvest the same amount in the same place every year and could even do more. But we still leave a percentage of the algae at the site.
And, of course, there are different species, such as the Ocean Truffle. It has its own reproduction cycle, different from the other seaweed species. Especially this species is very exciting for restaurants.
Besides expansion, what are your plans?
Not enough is being reported on the importance of macroalgae are for producing oxygen and keeping the oceans clean, and that they are also a big part of the ecosystem – they are the kindergarten for all the species and the small fishes in there and so important for life. A key to algae becoming a part of the future is for people to have access to them. Especially with algae as the food of the future, it is important that people learn that it exists and why and how to use it. Communication is a big part of the job, and we need to partner up with the gamechangers and political organizations to accelerate the process of getting seaweed to the market. It’s still early days, but I believe that if we all work together in the industry, we will make it mainstream here in the western world too.