Rosa Santilli on managing the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre

Who would have thought 3 months ago that I would be busy chasing butterflies around, whilst frantically trying to organise a UN SEED Initiative Award workshop and honing my celebrity skills for an interview with CNN?  Certainly not me!

I came to Zanzibar to manage the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre (ZBC) – a community based project that merges tourism with poverty alleviation and environmental conservation.   Both my BSc and MSc dissertations focussed on different aspects of community based tourism so it was a great opportunity to put all of that theory into practice.

ZBC started out of a need to protect the remaining forest cover in Zanzibar which is being cut down to provide fire wood for many local communities around the island who rely on charcoal to cook with.  Electricity and gas are extremely expensive so there is little choice.

In 2006 17 charcoal producers from Pete village were trained as butterfly farmers and provided with all the equipment they would need to sustainably produce pupae, which they sell to ZBC, who in turn export this as well as use this for the tropical netted garden, which is the tourist attraction.

ZBC is a fantastic project from the point of view of the forest, the farmer, the visitor and the export client.  The farmers’ reliance on charcoal production as their main source of income has diminished and the farmers are now in complete control of how much money they earn.   One of the best farmers has in the past earned four times what he earned producing charcoal.  Visitors (even those who are a little sceptical about visiting) are in awe of the butterfly lifecycle, particularly the pupae stage, and are enthralled when walking around the garden with hundreds of butterflies floating around.  And farming pupae is sustainable and commercially viable – there is a huge demand for tropical butterfly pupae globally and as tropical butterflies only live for a maximum of 6 weeks, it is unlikely the demand will ever wain.   Despite these facts, as well as the fact that the project has been in operation for 5 years, sustainability is still a challenge.

Visitor admissions alone cannot support the project.  Pupae export is the project’s main source of income yet we have to turn away prospective clients because we are unable to supply the two clients we already have with the amount of pupae they need.   Why?   Because the farmers are unable to consistently supply sufficient numbers of pupae – some months they produce hundreds, others just a handful – and after trying to determine the reason behind this, it is literally down to whether they have the motivation on any given day, despite the fact that they can earn substantial amounts of money and even though this could jeopardise the centre’s future and thus their livelihoods.  They have a saying in Zanzibar – Hakuna Matata, which means no problem, no worries – and that really does sum it all up!!

Regardless of all of this, things are moving forward.   I am working with 50/50 (a microloan organisation based in the US) to take on and train ten new farmers and I am liaising with Care (international NGO) about the possibility of rolling the project out to 7 new villages.   Following on from the work of the previous volunteers I have managed to secure agreements with a number of tour operators and hotels to bring guests to the centre and have been running around the island distributing as many leaflets as possible to draw in the crowds!

ZBCs profile is also being raised – I recently did an interview about the project with CNN and one of ZBC’s Directors, Alfred Massawe, recently won a UN SEED Initiative award.  SEED awards recognise social and environmental entrepreneurs who are making a positive difference to eradicate poverty and protect the environment, while contributing to a greener economy and Alfred has won this award in part because of the fantastic work he has done with the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre –  .

So the future does look a little brighter and I’m happy that I’ve been given the opportunity to play a part in it!

Rosa Santilli completed her MSc in 2008

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