Jewelry-making empowers women and improves biodiversity in Zanzibar
“At the tradeshow we displayed the sample half- pearls to the Vice President of Tanzania and the Minister of Women and Youth. They have already placed their orders for pearls from the next
harvest!” Safia Hashim of Bweleo village, pearl farming entrepreneur
The room was silent and tense when Ali, a local fisherman opened the first oyster. When two well developed half-pearls were revealed, the room was filled with murmurs of satisfaction accompanied by triumphant smiles! After a year of devotedly experimenting with half-pearl or mabe production—a process that involves implanting plastic nucleus in a live oyster shell and waiting until the animal covers over the foreign object with nacre, creating a luminescent pearl—the participating individuals’ pride was obvious. Of the 28 implanted oysters, they harvested 50 mabes, 28 that were jewelry-quality and valued at around US $800. With the success of this small pilot, enthusiasm is high to replicate pearl farming with other groups and communities.
How did this mabe farming begin? Women on the Fumba Peninsula, Zanzibar, have always depended on oysters and other bivalves for their sustenance. However, uncontrolled harvesting had lead to a decline in stocks. The USAID-funded Sustainable Coastal Communities and Ecosystem (SUCCESS) Program saw this as an opportunity to build on the pioneering efforts of Drs. Narriman Jiddawe and Aviti Mmochi (SUCCESS Program Coordinator) in working with the women gleaners to both improve management of the bivalves by bringing back the stocks to healthy levels, and at the same time provide them with new ways to increase their income.
It started with SUCCESS working with a group of women and men from Bweleo village to produce simple jewelry from seashells. Until now, they had simply discarded the shells once they had removed the bivalve’s flesh for food. SUCCESS, however, trained the group to keep the shells and polish pieces of them to make necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. Over the past year, the most entrepreneurial individuals earned US $40-$50 per month from selling this shell jewelry. One woman, Rahma Mussa, has sold about 60 pieces and says, “I am saving my money to buy my own polishing machine and to build a house for my mother.”
The next step after this basic shell jewelry making was to train the women and men to cultivate mabe—an activity with the potential to increase their income even further, as best quality pearls sell for US$ 40-$50 dollars each. “Mabe farming has the opportunity to improve coastal livelihoods. It is not a full time job, but a high profit undertaking that we can do along with other income generating activities”, said Safia Hashim, a community leader and entrepreneur. Safia sees the jewelry making from shells and from mabe as having helped empower the women. “It is different from former days when only husbands worked to support the family. Today men and women share the responsibility of earning money. My husband even helped pay for my trip to the trade fairs in Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya to sell my jewelry.” Safia, who is now building a house for her husband and six children, adds “Coastal community lives have greatly improved. Now we can afford better housing, education, food, clothing, and other necessities.”
Equally important to empowering women and providing additional income-generating options, these successful livelihood activities have increased villagers’ support of bivalve management. They now have four no-take zones, an associated co-management plan, and village bylaws. Empowered women are taking on local stewardship of the inter-tidal resources through community-based management and are committed to and motivated by the initial response to the jewelry sales and the first harvest of mabe pearls. The group has over one hundred additional oysters in the water, promising even higher future returns.
But, how does this all impact the marine environment? For one thing, evidence shows that small scale pearl farming, which usually relies on collecting wild adults, does not appear to cause any significant decrease in the wild stocks. When done on a larger scale, the move is made to instead collect spat. This has benefits to both the final product quality and to the environment. Why? Younger oysters produce better pearls. Pearl farms provide good cover or protection for the benthic community and fish. And lastly, as pearl farmers become more environmentally aware, they tend to reinforce no-fishing rules around the farms and become strong environmentalists.
Meanwhile, the entrepreneurial Safia, who has decided to start her own farm, has already collected sixteen oysters that she will implant. Perhaps it will be one of Safia’s harvested mabe that is sold to the vice president or minister!