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Spices: a recovering trade in Zanzibar

Zanzibar used to be known as one of the Spice Islands (© Paul Bordoni)
Zanzibar used to be known as one of the Spice Islands
© Paul Bordoni

Spices, cotton, pig iron and people formed the backbone of trade across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans from the late 16th century to the 19th century. Despite abolition in 1833, slavery continued until 1908, often with British and Arab rulers turning a blind eye, to islands like Zanzibar.

Zanzibar and its sister island Pemba carved out a niche as bastions of the spice trade long before tea and coffee plantations were established in East Africa. The moist, fertile soil, abundance of rain, cheap labour, and a hungry international market ensured that whilst vegetables continued to be grown, spices were prioritised. However, growing spices on large plantations is labour intensive, and thus costly, and high taxes levied on spices from Pemba and Zanzibar by government in Dar es Salaam continued to be a source of conflict until the late 1990s, when taxes were decreased. These factors, combined with increasing competition from other countries, including Indonesia, led to the decline in spice production in Zanzibar until very recently. But four years ago, Mzee Foum Ali Garu, founder of Fledgling Zanzibar Organic Spice Products, decided to return to his spice farm. "I was using it as a normal small agricultural plot, but when my neighbour started doing very well with his spice tours I decided to replant the spices - vanilla, black pepper, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric."

Profit in the eye of the beholder

Ironically, neither Foum nor his neighbours profit from selling the spices: they get their main income from the tourists who come to see spices growing that are exotic and expensive in Europe. "We don't water or irrigate, there's no neat rows, because we're not growing to maximise production," Foum explains. "We're growing to show people how it's done. We do pollination, seed collection, weeding and processing. This is a showcase farm, really. Tourists want to see the spices in their natural habitat, not growing in rows. They are interested in farming and social history."

Foum's organisation promotes awareness of Zanzibar's spice heritage on farm visits (© Bernard Pollack)
Foum's organisation promotes awareness of Zanzibar's spice heritage on farm visits
© Bernard Pollack

Farmers like Foum use little or no fertilisers, partly because they're expensive and partly because the area is well mulched from rotted leaves. "I am very lucky - this plot has established trees which bind the soil and attract birds for pollination. There are a lot of wadudu (insects), which eat up flies and midges that are attracted to the plants, so I don't need to spray with pesticides," Foum says.

Set up specifically to promote organic spice growing using traditional, non-mechanised methods, Foum's organisation promotes awareness of Zanzibar's spice heritage and the agricultural elements of spice farming. "The main challenge farmers' face is a lack of information about the specialised art of spice growing," he explains. "Most Zanzibaris do not know how to grow spices properly, or how to cook them, or how to talk about them to tourists." Foum therefore decided to offer training to spice farmers. "Spice farming is different from vegetable cultivation," he says. "For example, vanilla pods must be pollinated by hand, harvested at a particular time, and then blanched in hot water and cured for two weeks. They need particular drying conditions."

No marketing but good sales

At present there's no co-ordinated marketing of spices, and no mass production: individual farmers take their spices to the local central market and sell them there. The last five years has seen a 500 per cent increase in spices sold annually. This is due to the closure of 'resort' hotels, which used to import spices, and the rise in personal tours by tourists. Spices are also increasingly packaged and sold in smaller quantities, due to the increase in tourist demand. "Tourists favour saffron, vanilla, and fresh cinnamon. They can't get them in their countries," explains market trader Saloum Mohamed. Meanwhile Zanzibaris have reinvigorated their own appetite for spices, using them as medicines, aphrodisiacs, animal cures and flavouring for cooking.

Spices are increasingly packaged and sold in smaller quantities (© Bernard Pollack)
Spices are increasingly packaged and sold in smaller quantities
© Bernard Pollack

Clove soap, which was initially developed in the early 19th century by Zanzibaris, has taken off: demand is increasing as local hotels realise its fragrant potential. The Pemban market has also been reinvigorated and so, because there is only one soap factory on the island with no plans to expand, the soap is largely handmade at home.

The past underwrites the future

Historian Farid Hamid welcomes the comeback of spices: "The new generation is too keen for fast food, like burgers; it's important they know the key role of spices in our history. Here, in our main market you can see them all laid out, and it's not just the tourists who are buying them now, but locals again. We are an example to the world here in Zanzibar with our multicultural lives and our spices! There's clearly a possibility that the spice market will be bought out, but at the moment it's only smallholder farmers, and I hope it stays this way."

Foum is hopeful of the future: "This year business is picking up: with more money I will expand and train more farmers and organic spice growing will improve!" he says, plucking a stray branch as he talks. Johann Van Rensburg, in charge of attracting overseas investors on behalf of the government, agrees: "We've had people showing an interest in developing the spice market; we're in discussion now, and every day the government is looking at ways to make it easier to invest, so it's looking good."

Written by: Thembi Mutch

Date published: July 2011


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