Almost 90% of Isles cultivated land is dedicated to rice, cloves and cassava farming. However, some farmers have started investing in the more exclusive, luxury crop of Vanilla.
Vanilla is among the most popular flavoring agents in the world. It’s pleasing taste and calming aroma.
The ZanJournal went to Mtambwe, north of the Pemba Island to see how Vanilla is farmed and spoke to farmers on the challenges they face.
Zanzibar’s largest clove industry is feared to be on the verge of collapse as farmers struggle to earn their living.
Zanzibar renowned for its high quality clove,is one of the world’s leading exporters of the spice.
But poor wages, sharp competition from markets in some of African countries and Asia and the growing popularity of the clove plantation means Zanzibar farmers are looking for alternative cash crops farming.
According to the ZanJournal, most Vanilla production is concentrated in the north-west of Pemba Islands, especially in Mtambwe and Gando villages where about 20% of the population depends on the spice to earning a living.
Hamad Omar Mwita a resident of Mtambwe, Pemba North Region, who owns more than 2000 Vanilla plantations is one such small Vanilla farmers and earns little over $1500 a year.
He told the ZanJournal, “Yes, it is difficult to grow, to tend it day after day. But the good thing is that it is profitable.”
Hamad who has been cultivating Vanilla since 2016, said that the crop has started to change 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 yield. My Vanilla is thriving,” he said, adding.
It takes years for Vanilla pods to sprat out on the stem.
“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 required utmost care,” he said.
He said caring for 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,” said Hamad.
Hamad, who is the chairperson of Organic farmers group at his village, 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 the market problem for the dried Vanilla.
“We do not have a reliable market. There are those who pay 800,000/- per kilogram of dried Vanilla and sometimes you get up to 1,000,000/- but there is a trader who has promised to buy it at the world market of 1.2m/-per kilo of quality Vanilla,” he said.
Hamad said another challenge they face is the theft of green Vanilla in the field.
“We try to protect our products but we fail because 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, adding “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 50,000/- per kilo. They dry and sell it at a higher price but we are afraid that the imported Vanilla is at low quality and no action is taken there is a risk of affecting the quality of Zanzibar Vanilla,” he said.
Ramadhan Mussa who is a clove farmer believes that with the increasing prices of Vanilla, many farmers will start growing the crop in groups.
“It is a very productive farming. I believe in a short time many clove growers will start growing Vanilla in large quantities.
Zanzibar can be a major producer of Vanilla,” he said.
The Vanilla been was introduced in Zanzibar in 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 forest 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, Mwita 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 Coordinator, Muhammed Khamis, said that the project will focus more on Organic and vegetable farming, including Vanilla.
“Besides supporting more than 21,000 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 the 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 said and added, “We will also teach them the best methods of organic farming.”
Vanilla are used in food, perfumes, and pharmaceutical products. It’s among the top three expensive spices in world, alongside saffron and cardamom.
Vanilla contains compounds like vanillin and vanillic acid, which have been shown to have antioxidant effects and so many uses.