Featured Articles From Poverty to Pearls: The Zanzibar Women’s success story

From Poverty to Pearls: The Zanzibar Women’s success story

Women living in a coastal village on the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean have come across an intriguing and innovative way of raising their incomes and business skills through cultivation of iridescent "half-pearls" from oysters along their shore. These captivating, luminescent gems are harvested by the women, who polish and sell them to local residents and tourists, and professional jewelers, who can then set them in striking silver and gold designs.
Using their new sales and marketing techniques, the women's cooperative sells their Mabe jewelry to local residents, visitors and tourists

As a result of their work with "Mabe," (MAH-bay, as the half-pearls are called), the women of the Fumba Peninsula, on Menai Bay, have developed a profitable supplemental income that is helping them pull out of the poverty faced by many coastal dwellers on Zanzibar. In addition to the extra money that is being realized (the best quality pearls sell for US $40 each), the women have branched out from their traditional work of shellfish gathering, seaweed farming, agriculture and gravel-making to gain new talents in seeding and growing pearl oysters, jewelry making, and marketing. The benefits of this broadened experience to the everyday lives of their families is immeasurable.

The results have been exceptional, both in viewing the finished products and seeing the boost it has given to the women entrepreneurs. In addition, the techniques they used to cultivate the pearl oysters and harvest them have had benefits in how the coastal villagers now manage and use all of their local resources.

This ensures that the Mabe initiative will not just be a one-year wonder on a small peninsula on a faraway island, but a sustaining endeavor that can broaden out to larger and larger audiences, both in the sale of the captivating Mabe, and the new talents and knowledge that others can learn from to better their own existence.

Planting the Seeds
How were the seeds of the Mabe farming project planted on the faraway island of Zanzibar, in the Indian Ocean off the East Africa coast of Tanzania?

The women of the Fumba Peninsula have always depended on oysters and other bivalves for their food and economic sustenance. However, uncontrolled harvesting had led to a decline in stocks. The USAID-funded Sustainable Coastal Communities and Ecosystem (SUCCESS) Program, carried out by the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island, the University of Hawaii-Hilo, the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, and the Institute of Marine Sciences saw an opportunity to work with the women seashell gleaners to improve management of the bivalves by bringing back the stocks to healthy levels, while providing them with new ways to increase their income.

The iridescent Mabe cultivated and polished by the new entreprenuers of Zanzibar lend themselves to beautiful jewelry settings.

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. Since the project began, the most entrepreneurial individuals have earned US $40-$50 per month from selling this shell jewelry. One woman, Rahma Mussa, who has sold about 60 pieces, enthusiastically said, "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 and improve their 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 a community leader and entrepreneur. She sees the jewelry making from shells and from Mabe as having helped empower the women.

Equally important to providing additional income-generating options, these successful livelihood activities have increased villagers' support of bivalve management. They now have four "no-take" marine life zones, an associated co-management plan for the fish and shellfish resource, and new village by-laws governing the area. 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 higher future returns.

Taking the Plunge
For many of the women of Fumba, they literally took a plunge on the Mabe initiative, as the project required them to swim and work underwater to cultivate and harvest the pearls. Despite being coastal people, many did not know how to swim - a contrary concept similar to the many U.S. commercial boat fishermen who do not know how. There was also the consideration, as Muslim women, of respecting their religious edict of covering up in public. Using their ingenuity, they exchanged their brightly colored, full-length kangas for special bathing wraps they designed for wearing in the water.

Women of the half-pearl cooperative take swimming lessons to allow them to harvest the Mabe oysters directly from the offshore beds.

It was a small concession to make for what they gained. Safia Hashim of Bweleo village, a pearl farming entrepreneur who is now harvesting the half-pearls, explained how embracing the Mabe initiative has 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 (a traditional fisherman) even helped pay for my trip to the trade fairs in Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya to sell my jewelry. Coastal community lives have greatly improved. Now we can afford better housing, education, food, clothing, and other necessities."

As a living illustration of raising of the villagers' standard of living, Safia is now building a house for her husband and six children.
The villagers have also learned how to use the tools of the jewelry trade, cutting the Mabe from the shells, and polishing and buffing them to bring out the best of their captivating, rainbow-like sheen. In addition to the Mabe themselves, less expensive jewelry is being fashioned from the ground and buffed shells, and the men of the Fumba Peninsula have become eager participants in the operation, under the guidance of the SUCCESS team.

Growing the Business
The half-pearl story is only half-told, and any future progress must be made in half-steps.

As uplifting and gratifying as is the success of the women of Zanzibar, it opens them up to a new way of life that must be slowly assimilated, much in the way their Mabe are carefully cultivated over time. For villagers whose annual household income averaged US $1,000 per year, newfound wealth must be carefully managed, and not change their world overnight.

The Mabe cultivation, harvest, polishing, setting and sales has started raising the quality of life of the Fumba Peninsula villagers. More importantly, the skills they have learned have been translated into their other daily livelihoods with seashell jewelry, and into their business transactions in agriculture and fish marketing.

Thanks to the involvement of the SUCCESS Program and their university facilitators, new outside investors who discover the allure of the Mabe, such as professional jewelers and designers, will see their money in this growing cottage industry used in a way that will not disrupt the daily rhythms of the Zanzibaris, but be used to further spread their new knowledge and talents to other coastal residents to help them to move up from poverty. The USAID Mabe in East Africa initiative is a direct replication of the University of Hawaii-Hilo's pearl cultivation training provided to islanders in the South Pacific. Now those skills have been successfully transported to and utilized in East Africa.

People interested in helping support the Zanzibar Mabe initiative can become involved by, 1) Providing a cash donation to the initiative; 2) Providing in-kind donations to the initiative; 3) Purchasing unique pieces of Mabe jewelry; or 4) Providing a cash donation to CRC or IMS to replicate this success in other villages.

In spite of the seeming overnight success of the Fumba Peninsula women's organization jewelry enterprise, the group will face the challenges of changing markets and competition in global trade. It is important that progress be steady and sure, and the women maintain and continue to grow the benefits they have achieved through their hard work and careful planning. But the exhilaration and optimism of the women of Zanzibar, and what it has done for their lives and those of their families, friends and neighbors, can be heard in the words of one new Mabe entrepreneur:

"At the trade show, 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!"

And hopefully many more after that.

For more information and to become involved with the Mabe Initiative, contact: Brian Crawford, URI Coastal Resources Center at 401-874-6225 or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ; or Dr. Narriman Jiddawi, Institute of Marine Sciences, 255-24-230741/232128 or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it /tz.


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