Zanzibar enjoys a cool tropical climate favourable for the production of many warm-climate crops but clove trees have largely filled its landscape, particularly on the island of Pemba. For many years, it was the leading producer of cloves in the world but the age of clove trees, diseases, agronomic- and a number of human-related factors have caused a steep decline in the annual production levels. Clove trees thrive best in deep soils on western sides of both islands. Other major cash crops are coconuts, chillies, and recently seaweed. There are also other crops such as black pepper, cinnamon and vanilla but due at the moment, they are not produced in quantities that could warrant export to the outer world.
Farming for food production is also a major activity for the majority of Zanzibaris. Major food crops include rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, plantains, yams and cocoyams. The staple food of Zanzibar is rice and due to high demand, much of it is imported. Like cloves, agricultural production in Zanzibar is concentrated more on the deep soil areas whereas the coral rag is popular for root crops and other drought-tolerant or seasonal crops. Fruits such as mangoes, pineapples, oranges, Dorians, jackfruits, and many more are available but due to seasonal shortages and high demand, they are imported from the mainland. Vegetables are mostly imported from the mainland but a number of green leafy vegetables are produced locally.
Production of livestock products to feed the local market in Zanzibar has increased markedly in recent years. With the exception of beef supplies for the Zanzibar urban market, production of milk, eggs, and poultry meat almost meet the demand. Due to high demand, particularly in Zanzibar town, cattle are imported from the mainland of Tanzania, quarantined and tested for diseases at a government centre of Kisakasaka before being slaughtered for public consumption. Mutton and goat meat are available in local markets but they are less popular and their supplies are not closely monitored. Pemba is almost self-sufficient in livestock products compared to Unguja. Livestock hides and skins are either processed locally into sandals (Makubadhi) or exported.
Much of Zanzibar’s involvement in trade has been presented earlier due to its central role in the history of the archipelago. Briefly, Zanzibar prospered in the past due to maritime trade involving slaves, spices, ivory and gold. These items were the glory of the past and no longer applicable to today’s Zanzibar. Slavery is history and the interior that used to supply ivory and gold is no longer under her control.
The Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar (RGZ) initially closed doors for its citizens wishing to pursue trading opportunities to the external world. It instead championed a move of launching a number of factories producing consumer goods such as shoes, cigarettes, soaps and oils, household items, sugar, perfumery and spirits. None of these survived the economic downturns and the government has to bear the burden of keeping thousands of people who once worked for these factories. It also established two public corporations, BIZANJE for importing consumer commodities into the isles and Zanzibar State Trading Corporation (ZSTC) for marketing cloves and other cash crops to the world markets. BIZANJE is now defunct and during the Ali Hassan Mwinyi’s period as president of Zanzibar, a program of trade liberalization allowed private entrepreneurs to get involved with the business of importing consumer commodities into the country. ZSTC is still operating but recently there were reports that the government is about to yield into pressures to either completely close its business or transform it into a mere facilitating agency.
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Trade liberalization is a welcome policy for Zanzibar businessmen but there is a lot to be done if the trade is to deliver the expected benefits for people of Zanzibar. During the early days of its operation, this policy gave businessmen a big boost in revenue mainly by utilizing the large market in mainland Tanzania. Nevertheless, when the union government also followed suit and liberalized its economy, Zanzibar faced an upward hurdle. It became more serious when Zanzibar was forced to harmonize its tax and tariffs in accordance with those set forth by the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA). Therefore, the relaxation of trade restrictions seems to be having a little impact on the economy of Zanzibar. Furthermore, there are also concerns on the way the whole sector is organized and the chances of trade replacing the clove industry are very slim.
Alongside the policy of trade liberalization, in the late 80s, Zanzibar sought to utilize its historical advantage by attracting visitors to the spice island. For the benefit of our readers, Zanzibar was mostly closed to visitors for the period after the revolution of 1964 until a few years ago. It was equally difficult for a Zanzibari travelling abroad due to strict passport procurement procedures instituted by the Tanzanian government and a security cordon that was meant to protect the country from counter-revolutionary elements. During that dark period of Zanzibar’s history, other countries in East Africa notably Kenya and island states in the Indian Ocean advertised their tourism industry to the Western world bringing in thousands of tourists annually. For example, Mombasa, which shares a similar history as Zanzibar became a popular tourist destination and completely masked the potential of the latter.
Zanzibar’s tourism potential emanates mainly from its rich history, the stone town, and the crystalline sandy beaches that fill its seashores. There are some who contend that these features are not unique to Zanzibar and that our neighbours perhaps have an advantage due to their proximity to rich wildlife. Yet others mention the clove industry and marine resources as being features that keep Zanzibar at par with the potential existing elsewhere in the region. In any case, Zanzibar seems to have found its niche in the tourism industry and at present close to 100 000 tourists visit the archipelago annually. This is largely a result of its decision to open up to foreign investors who have built hotels and resorts all around Zanzibar.
The benefits of tourism to Zanzibar’s economy are difficult to measure. There are conflicting arguments where some mention of a positive link between tourism and other sectors of the economy. Supporters often cite employment opportunities and higher prices for goods and services as a result of the demand created by incoming tourists. Opponents view the tourism industry as being the cause of cultural erosion in Zanzibar and the source of all evils. Prostitution, drugs and crimes have increased tremendously in the last two decades. Above all, opponents are of the opinion that Zanzibar does not directly benefit from tourism because most of the visitors pay directly to foreign agencies in their respective countries before beginning their journey to the spice island. The only visitors who seem to pay directly to local agencies are the so-called “backpack tourists”, whose expenditure while in the country is very minimal.