The ZEST Project: Fair prices for Zanzibar's farmers

Tourists flock to Zanzibar each year, but the money they spend has little impact on the lives of the majority of the population. A new project run by VSO International is helping an association of farmers to build better links with the thriving tourist sector, and to earn a far higher income from their crops.

UWAMWIMA is an association of smallholder fruit and vegetable farmers in the West of Unguja, and Omar Abdullah was one of its founder members in 2004: "We set up UWAMWIMA, because we didn't have a voice. We needed a voice, and we needed a market."

Each of the 700 or so farmers in the association owns approximately one hectare of land, and all of them combine subsistence farming with growing a limited number of cash-crops. Until recently, however, Omar says it has been difficult for them to make a significant income through selling their crops to the tourist sector. The island's hotels and restaurants are thriving, but most local farmers continue to live beneath the basic needs poverty line.

Accessing the tourist market is difficult for smallholder farmers because they are at the wrong end of a complicated supply chain. Prosperous hotels buy their fruit and vegetables from agents, who source them from Stone Town's markets; the Stone Town market traders in turn buy their stock from regional market auctioneers.

Eighty per cent of vegetables sold in Zanzibar are imported

It's these auctioneers who individual farmers deal with, and the farmers are in a very weak negotiating position. Auctioneers have no shortage of produce to choose from – a staggering 80 per cent of vegetables sold in Zanzibar are imported – and so prices for farmers are reduced. The farmers have little choice but to accept the prices on offer: they have no means of storing their vegetables, so if they don’t make a sale within a day of picking them, the vegetables simply rot.

In other words, if a tourist buys a salad in a Stone Town restaurant, they shouldn't expect many of their shillings to trickle down to hard-working local farmers like Omar.

UWAMWIMA has expanded rapidly since Omar and the other farmers established it in 2004 with almost 700 members. When the members decided that they needed training and funds for new seeds, Omar went from door to door in Stone Town in order to enlist support. Now they receive funding and training from a coalition of local and international NGOs. In particular, they are being assisted by the Zanzibar Enterprise and Sustainable Tourism (ZEST) Project.

ZEST, which is managed by VSO, aims to reduce poverty on Zanzibar by building better links between producers and the tourism sector.

Following a value chain analysis into the fruit and vegetable sub-sector in 2006, ZEST has been training UWAMWIMA's members in business skills and in agronomic techniques – especially in how to grow the cash crops that hotels and restaurants actually want to buy. Importantly, ZEST has also provided UWAMWIMA with a storage site in Stone Town. Farmers will now be able to transport their fruit and vegetables to the site in bulk, where they can be kept in a cold storage facility. From there, the association can sell directly to hotels, restaurants and individual customers.

A local initiative with national plans

For UWAMWIMA's members, the new storage site should make a world of difference. The cold storage facility will increase the shelf life of vegetables from under a day to over a week, and the money that flows through to individual farmers will be far higher because it cuts out the middle-men between the farmers and Stone Town's hotels.

Thanks to promotion by ZEST, UWAMWIMA is building excellent relationships with hotels and restaurants. Quality produce is ensured as Zanzibari famers use only organic pesticides, and local vegetables are picked later than imported ones, which means that they are fresher and contain retain more nutrients. High-end hotels are keen to stock local, naturally grown vegetables.

"The reason we think this is a good project," Daniel Sambai, general manager of Stone Town’s Zanzibar Serena Inn, said, "is that firstly it's creating employment for local farmers, and secondly we're getting fresh organic vegetables. We want to show that the ripple effect of tourism is helping farmers. Our guests are happy because it’s fresh produce. We're proud that it's from Zanzibar."

UWAMWIMA currently gets support from international donors: through ZEST, VSO volunteers provide expertise, while USAID and CORD-AID supply funding and training. Accenture's Making Markets Work for the Poor global programme with VSO has given the initiative direction on Zanzibar. But the association remains very much a local initiative, and when Omar is asked where he hopes it will be in five years time, the first thing he says is: "I hope we will be independent of donors.”

“I want UWAMWIMA to be an umbrella organisation. We want farmers to keep joining us until all the fruit and vegetables consumed on Zanzibar are locally grown,” he added.

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