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From shamba to plate
There’s a new building on the grounds of St Monica’s Anglican Church in Stone Town. It’s a simple brick construction that most visitors probably won’t even notice, and inside there’s nothing but a few chairs and a couple of sacks of cucumbers. But this building, which will soon be overflowing with fruit and vegetables, is set to make a huge difference to the lives of Zanzibar’s farmers.
The building is the new storage site and market shop for an important new farmers’ association. I’m here to meet the association’s secretary, Omar Abdullah. The name UWAMWIMA, Omar explains, is a Swahili acronym for Cooperative of Farmers of Fruit and Vegetables in the West District; he was one of its founder members in 2004 and remains its driving force today.
“We set up the association,” Omar tells me, “because we didn’t have a voice. We needed a voice, and we needed a market.”
Finding “a market”, as Omar puts it, is a massive problem for Zanzibar’s farmers. The island’s tourist trade may be thriving, but local farmers don’t see the benefit. Over half of Zanzibar’s rural population live below the basic needs poverty line, and most of them work in agriculture.
The basic problem, I learn, is that farmers 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. It’s these auctioneers 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.
It takes me a while to get my head round this, but the basic message is: if I order a salad from a Stone Town restaurant, I shouldn’t expect my shillings to reach hard-working local farmers.
For the farm association’s members, the new storage site should make a world of difference. Villages will be able to transport vegetables in bulk to the building, where a cold storage facility will increase their shelf life from under a day to over a week. From there, the association can negotiate directly with hotels and restaurants.
Because there will no longer be a complex chain of middle-men, and because the cold storage means that vegetables can be stored until selling conditions are favourable, the money that flows through to individual farmers will be far higher.
“It pains me that farmers are so poor,” says Omar. “This is why I am taking all available opportunities to get them involved in the association.”
Getting the association to where it is today has taken a lot of work. Back in 2004, there were just fourteen committed members. Now there are nearly 700. When the members decided that they needed training, Omar went from door to door in Stone Town, trying to enlist support. Now, thanks to the ZEST (Zanzibar Enterprise and Sustainable Tourism) programme set up by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), the association has developed a strong relationship with nearly all of the organisations working in vegetable farming on the island. VSO itself provides expert volunteers and market linkage, while USAID and CORD-AID supply funding and training. Meanwhile, Accenture's “Making Markets Work for the Poor” global programme with VSO has given the initiative direction on Zanzibar.
But the farmers' association remains very much a local initiative, and when I ask Omar where he hopes the association will be in five years time, the first thing he says is: “I hope we will be independent of donors."
“We are aiming for a thousand members initially”, he continues. “If we get two thousand, there is no problem. I want there to be lots of cooperatives. 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.”
One obvious advantage that local vegetables have is quality: while imported produce is often grown with the aid of chemicals, Zanzibari famers use organic manure and pesticides. Local vegetables are also picked later in their growing cycle, which means that they retain more nutrients. The storage site is less than a minute’s walk from Darajani market, where most of the vegetables are from the mainland, and Omar is relishing the competition:
“We shall not be scared because we are likely to have fresher and better quality fruit and vegetables. In Darajani, they will lump their fruit and vegetables from Zanzibar and the mainland together. Ours will be only local and will be organised by quality.”
The message is certainly getting out. Last year UWAMWIMA sold to eight hotels from the roadside outside the office of ZAFFIDE, another supportive NGO. This year, they are building relationships with many more hotels. The Zanzibar Serena Inn has given their stamp of approval by committing to buy as many of their vegetables from UWAMWIMA as possible.
There are a few setbacks - the market is waiting for electricity to be installed and for permission for a gate to be given that would mean that farmers can access the market more easily with deliveries and hotels can visit. Once this permission is granted, the project can move forward full steam.
During our talk, Omar’s phone often rings. He estimates that he receives over 200 calls per day, from farmers and potential customers, and he jokes that he has developed earache as a result. Omar certainly works hard: he leaves home at six in the morning, and usually isn’t back from the field until eight at night. When I ask him what motivates him, he becomes more serious.
“I was born a farmer,” he tells me, “I have farming in my heart and in my blood. I have green blood. I want to see my people develop.”
As I walk back through Stone Town, past busy hotels and restaurants, I hope that this farmers' association can indeed help Omar’s people develop – and that the island’s hard-working farmers will soon receiver a fairer share of Zanzibar’s potential wealth.