Rare algae farms grow as harvests drop off

Spirulina has been harvested from Twin Daung lake in Sagaing’s Bu Ta Lin township for over a decade, but climate change and diverted rivers are being blamed for the drop-off in natural production.

“The quality and effect of natural spirulina and artificially-created spirulina might not be exactly the same, but it won’t be much different either,” said U Min Thein, a leading spirulina grower and company official from June Pharmaceutical and Foodstuff Industry.

Spirulina is blue-green algae that is rich in protein and widely used in traditional medicine as well as food and drink. Its supposed health benefits are also touted in “Spirulina Anti-Aging Beer”, which has been sold in Mandalay Region.

U Min Thein said he has been growing spirulina in artificial ponds for 10 years, producing 100 tonnes annually.

Myanmar boasts about 25 acres of spirulina farms, centred on Twin Daung and Yae Khar lakes in Sagaing Region. The uniquely high pH level of the water at the volcanic lakes has enabled the algae to grow in the wild, one of just a handful of natural sites in the world.

“Other countries don’t get spirulina from nature – they have to grow it,” said Daw May Yu Khine, deputy general manager of Sagaing Pharmaceutical Industry.

“It is hard for the business to exist relying solely on nature,” she said.

Building the brick tanks to function as artificial ponds for the algae makes it easier to grow the notorious fickle crop, and also allows more frequent harvests. There are presently 20 large bricks tanks measuring 420 feet (128 metres) long and 55 feet wide, along with 64 smaller tanks at Twin Daung lake.

The artificial ponds near Twin Daung lake were built to combat fears a planned nearby dam could destroy natural algae growth in 2003. Though the dam never materiaised, the ponds have been useful given the large drop in natural growth in the nearby lake – estimated at 75 percent in November 2013 compared year-on-year.

Daw May Yu Khine expects dry spirulina production will hit between 80 and 100 tonnes in 2014, adding there is a large stockpile of 700 tonnes of the product.

U Min Thein said that while there are many who are keen to grow the algae, it is difficult to do so individually.

“Look at mushroom farming for example. It is easier than spirulina farming, but still not everyone can grow mushrooms,” he said.

“If you don’t make it a success, you are going to lose a lot.”

One farmed acre produces about 0.6 tonnes annually in Myanmar, though the largest producers in places like the United States, Thailand, Taiwan and Japan are able to produce up to a tonne per year.


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