To outsiders, Zanzibar is a posh beach resort destination. However, residents of these islands off Tanzania’s coastline, see their home through a far different lens.
Here on the Zanzibar islands, more than three quarters of the people live by small-scale farming. Most of them grow rice, a food staple. It’s a tough way to earn a living. Despite the fact that there’s enough arable land, Zanzibar imports 80 percent of the rice it needs. Smallholder farmers say they could close that gap if they had access to fertilizers and other modern technology.
Visit a typical farm here in Zanzibar, and you will see families operating on less than one hectare of land. Some of them don’t use improved seed because they can’t afford to buy it. Even those who do manage to get quality seed, complain that the government doesn’t support them enough with technical know-how and the capital they need to improve productivity.
Othman is one of the tens of thousands peasants in Zanzibar who lives in poverty. He and his counterparts say they need action on the ground right now. Government agricultural officials agree that there are dire shortages of resources and capacity to improve rice farming; however, they can’t seem to promise much more than what they already have invested in the crop.
Juma Ali Juma–Depute General Secretary for the Zanzibar’s Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources says the government has done a great job to overcome the problems to improve the agriculture sector.
Smallholder farmers are not accepting the official claims that the government has moved to empower them. Women farmers lead Zanzibar’s food production. They say they are left to limp through life as best they can on their own. Take Sharifa Said: She has five children, who live on the little rice they can grow on their small plot of land.
The upshot is that, both, the government and the small-scale farmers, are frustrated. Their tension spills over to the youth. They feel so discouraged, they are giving up on the farming for their generation.
Research might provide Zanzibar’s solution to food security problems. But scientists in many African countries complain that governments don’t value the research needed to transform agriculture. Other critics of the status quo suggest that researchers lack touch with smallholder farmers.
To give the government and the scientists credit, they have taken steps to boost the rice production on smallholder farms. However, Zanzibar still faces many challenges related to modern farm practices. And the tension between the government and the farmers persists. For example, one project was intended to help farmers who can afford to pay for machinery services. Some farmers, nevertheless, complain that they paid for the service since last season, but the government has not delivered it.
Amid all of this tension, there is one clear reality: the drive to improve rice farming for food security and income generation in Zanzibar, is a dream not yet fulfilled. And meanwhile, those who suffer the most are women who provide 70 percent of the labor in the agriculture sector. They say that their need is urgent, that the government must do more to transform smallholder farming.
Josephat Mwanzi reporting in a project supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington D.C.