Zanzibar sees slight decline in poverty

On eve of 58th anniversary of Zanzibar revolution on Jan. 12, most Zanzibaris still struggling to survive

As the morning breeze brushes against her skin, Natasha Khalfan wades through knee-deep water in the Indian Ocean, her dress flapping in the water as she drags a pile of seaweed seedlings to her farm.

Armed with a dozen of sticks, she meticulously hooks pieces of fresh seaweed and hangs them on a blue polyethylene rope. “It is a tough job for a woman, but what can I do?” she laments.

The 51-year-old mother of five from Pemba is one of many women seaweed farmers in the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago, struggling daily to eke out a living.

Although seaweed farming is an important economic activity in Zanzibar contributing around 17.6 billion Tanzanian shillings ($8 million) to the Zanzibar economy, the majority of these returns do not directly benefit more than 25,000 farmers, many of whom are women.

Myriad challenges

Despite many challenges of growing seaweed, Khalfan, who has been in the business for 20 years, is confident that her efforts will one day help lift her family out of poverty.

“I am working so hard, and if the price goes up my family will definitely benefit,” she said.

Khalfan’s husband, a fisherman who initially did not allow her to grow seaweed, is also hoping for a change in the family fortunes.

“My husband is very happy with what I am doing. … He even helps me drag the weeds from the water,” she added.

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago off the east African coast, saw a modest reduction of 4.5% in its basic needs poverty rate and a 1% decrease in extreme poverty between 2010 and 2015, with its urban Unguja Island, leading the progress, according to the World Bank.

The World Bank assessment of data from the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar’s Household Budget Survey and Integrated Labor Force Survey shows that the basic needs poverty rate stood at 30.4% in 2015, compared to 34.9% in 2010. In Pemba, it shows that the poverty rate increased from 48% to 55% between 2010 and 2015.

The fact that 83% of Pemba’s population lives in rural areas suggests that the underdevelopment of the island’s urban sector was the main cause of the increase.

Local analysts say increased returns to household businesses, improved productivity in the non-farm sector and agriculture, and improvements in the levels of education attained by heads of household and their spouses have all contributed to poverty reduction on the main island of Unguja.

While larger families were a problem, the burden of them appeared to be offset when spouses engaged in non-farm activities for which they got a return, said Prosper Honest Ngowi, a professor of economics at Mzumbe University in Dar es Salaam.

According to Ngowi, unemployment among educated youth in Zanzibar remains extremely high, complicating efforts to fight poverty.

“This problem is related to the quality of education in Zanzibar, which has been declining with the substantial expansion of the education system, similar to trends witnessed on the Tanzanian mainland and elsewhere in most of Sub-Saharan Africa,” he explained.

Despite a slight improvement in household living conditions, he believes that a large portion of the population clustered around the poverty line could easily fall back into poverty.

A boost to economy

In June last year, the World Bank injected Tanzanian shillings 345 billion ($150 million) into Zanzibar, ostensibly to improve the living conditions of 230,000 urban and rural population.

“Our recent poverty assessment for Zanzibar showed that urban development yielded higher returns to economic activities, and together with greater access to basic services and productive assets, contributed to the poverty reduction recently achieved,” said Mara Warwick, the World Bank’s country director.

Zanzibar President Hussein Mwinyi is aware of the isle’s myriad challenges and is working on his government’s blue economy policy with the aim to bring socio-economic development to the people.

Mwinyi said in a virtual dialogue with Zanzibaris in the diaspora that Zanzibar’s position as an island in the world’s major ocean blue economy would support in bringing economic gains.

“You are welcome to advertise the opportunities which Zanzibar is endowed with, and be good ambassadors in attracting investments,” he said.

According to Mwinyi, blue economy policy entails making use of marine resources, partly to increase tourist arrivals from 500,000 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to 1 million.

The Zanzibar economy, which depends on tourism, has been impacted by the pandemic, with GDP growth slowing down to an estimated 1.3% in 2020 due to the decline in tourism activities as the government took measures to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

“We need more opportunities in Pemba to fight poverty,” said Khalfan.

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