Almost 90% of isles cultivated land is dedicated to rice, cloves and cassava farming.
But poor wages, sharp competition from markets in some African countries and Asia and the growing popularity of the clove plantation means Zanzibar farmers are looking for alternative cash crops farming. This is vanilla farming.
The Zanzibar Mail went to Mtambwe North in Pemba Island to see how vanilla is farmed and spoke to farmers on the challenges they face.
About 10 percent of the village’s population depends on the spice to earn a living.
Hamad Omar Mwita who owns more than 2000 vanilla plantations, is one such small vanilla grower whose earning is little over $1,500 a year.
“Yes, it is difficult to grow, to tend it day after day. But the good thing is that it is profitable,” he told Zanzibar Mail.
Hamad who has been cultivating vanilla since 2016, said that the crop is changing his life.
“In 2016 I harvested a quarter kilogram of vanilla, in 2019, I got two kilos but this year I hope to get more than 10 kilos. My vanilla is thriving,” he said.
“From the day that I planted to the day that people can use it, the process takes almost eight months to two years. Each tree requires utmost care,” he added.
Hamad said caring for a vanilla tree is not a voluntary task but it is a must to ensure that it thrives and eventually produces and this is a daily task.
“It is a crop that needs fertile and moist soil at all times so you must have enough water,” he noted.
Hamad, who is the village chairperson of organic farmers group, said that the spice has changed the lives of many villagers.
“There are members who own more than 10,000 vanilla trees. In fact, this type of farming has changed their lives. Some have built houses and bought farms to expand vanilla cultivation,” he said.
However, he said they are facing market challenge for the dried vanilla.
“We do not have a reliable market. There are those who pay Sh800,000 per kilo of dried vanilla and sometimes you get up to S1million but there is a trader who has promised to buy it at the world market of Sh1.2million per kilo of quality vanilla,” he said.
Theft of green vanilla in the field is another problem that spice growers is facing.
“We try to protect the spice but we fail because the thieves come at night when we are at homes. One of my members has come to complain of the theft done on his farm,” he said.
“There have been thieves linked to vanilla. Several farmers have tried and failed to get protection from the community,” he said.
“We have to do our best to make sure that thieves are not able to steal from us here,” he said.
Rajab Makame who is also a small grower has since struggled to match demand as it takes a year to three for a new plant to produce vanilla pods.
He said apart from vanilla theft and price fluctuations, there was a problem of importing vanilla from the mainland Tanzania and the Comoro Islands.
“There are some people who buy green vanilla from mainland Tanzania at a price of Sh50,000 per kilo. They dry and sell it at a higher price but we are afraid that the imported vanilla is at the low quality and if no action is taken there is a risk of affecting the quality of Zanzibar vanilla,” he said.
Ramadhani Mussa who is a clove farmer believes that with the increasing prices of vanilla, many farmers will turn growing the crop in groups.
“It is a very productive farming. I believe in a short time many clove growers will turn growing vanilla. Zanzibar can be a major producer of vanilla,” he said.
The vanilla bean was introduced in Zanzibar in the recent years as a result of the government efforts to encourage farmers to grow the spice crop instead of relying solely on cloves.
However, with no local bees found to pollinate the crop each flower must be pollinated by hand in order to produce the prized vanilla beans.
It’s a timely process, which is compounded by the fact that each flower only lasts one day, meaning growers have to inspect and pollinate their plantations every day.
Farmers need to spend 260 days per hectare during the first year and about 460 days during the next four to eight years in order to maintain a vanilla crop.
It’s a huge amount of time compared to a rice harvest which requires an average of 120 man-hours per year.
However, Mussa has high hopes that vanilla farming could be a promising alternative crop for clove that will generate more revenue for the government.
He said the joint venture project being implemented between PDF, Community Forest Pemba (CFP) and the Tanzania Media Women Association (Tamwa-Zanzibar) could bring major changes in the isles spice farming.
The project’s communication office, Muhammed Khamis, said that the project will focus more on organic and vegetable farming, including vanilla.
“Besides supporting more than 20,000 farmers in Unguja and Pemba Islands we will be looking for reliable markets to sell their produce at the high price. This project will bring a change in organic farming in Zanzibar,” he said.
“Through this project farmers will learn what is needed in the market and what the price of their produce is but also we will connect them with local and foreign markets,” he added.
“We will also teach them the best methods of organic farming,” he added.