What a difference a few months can make!
Some of you may have read my “notes from the field” when I was living in Zanzibar and managing the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre or you may have come along to the talk I gave at the July “evening with”. For those who haven’t or didn’t – the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre (ZBC) is a community based tourism and alternative livelihoods project, located in the small village of Pete in southern Zanzibar and consisting of a netted tropical garden containing hundreds of free-flying native butterflies. The project’s main aims are to alleviate poverty and conserve the environment by providing local community members with an alternative income – butterfly farming. Farmers are provided with the necessary training and equipment in order for them to rear butterfly pupae in small netted enclosures close to their homes. They sell their butterfly pupae to the centre that in turn uses these for the garden or to export – tourism and pupae export are ZBC’s two main revenue generation streams.
Prior to managing this project, I thought I knew all there was to know about CBT – I had written a rather detailed 45,000 word thesis on it after all! Yet despite being aware of the difficulties in implementing and operating CBT projects, I had an idealistic vision of what CBT would be like on the ground. Primarily that (a) local people would be motivated to get themselves out of poverty and (b) tour operators/visitors would be interested in visiting a community based project. The reality, however, was a little different.
ZBC relies on farmers to produce pupae and because the farmers are ZBC’s suppliers not employees they are able to determine the quantity and frequency of production. When I first arrived, ZBC was not producing sufficient pupae to meet client demand, nor to keep the garden sufficiently stocked with butterflies. At first I doggedly tried to understand why, if the farmers could earn more money from producing more pupae, they chose not to. Local people I spoke with said it was laziness, or blamed people’s religious beliefs. The truth was that whilst the community embraced the project and were keen to take part, money was simply not an incentive. They lived day to day and if they felt they had enough money to sustain themselves and their families, then they were satisfied. When they needed more money, e.g. for a child’s wedding, they would produce more pupae! Enlightened, I took a step back, shook off my western notions and instead of pressurising the farmers to produce more pupae, came to the conclusion that the project simply needed more farmers!
Increasing visitor numbers was also a challenge. Most of ZBC’s visitors are independent travellers who are drawn by the road signs or read about the project in a guide book. However, the majority of visitors to the island come on package holidays or stay in big resorts or plush hotels and it can be difficult to draw them away from the powder white sand and turquoise sea. Easy to understand particularly if you’ve just trekked Kili, been on safari or are on honeymoon! But as soon as I saw the project, I knew it was a great attraction and that visitors, given the opportunity, would love it. Indeed, those tourists that did visit always commented on how wonderful it was – they were particularly enamoured with the community element and enjoyed learning about conservation and the butterfly lifecycle from local people. ZBC is in a great location – en-route to Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park (home to the endemic Red Colobus Monkey), Kizimkazi (take off point for dolphin spotting tours) and the east coast (low key, with stunning beaches) – all on the usual tour operator circuit. Yet the biggest obstacle was trying to get tour operators and the big hotels to include ZBC in their itineraries. No mean feat!
So, were these challenges overcome?
Well, in the 6 months I managed the project, ZBC took on 20 new farmers with the help of a microloan organisation (50/50) and funding from Care (an international NGO). Pupae numbers rocketed and for the first time in the project’s 6 year history it was able to meet and exceed its client’s orders, as well as have enough pupae to keep the garden well stocked.
Marketing efforts were increased and amongst other small steps taken towards drawing in visitors, two large hotels and a tour operator agreed to include the project in their itineraries, staff encouraged visitors to leave reviews on Trip Advisor and it is now ranked as the number 1 (of 34) tourist attraction on Zanzibar and linkages with hotels, restaurants, attractions and craft producers were widened.
Slow, but steady progress.
And what of the future? It is expected that pupae numbers will continue to rise and so finding new export clients to purchase these is high on the agenda. As too is continuing to increase visitor numbers by enticing more tour operators and hotels to include the project in their itineraries. Plans were also afoot to open a café which could be a lucrative revenue stream for the centre, as well as providing further employment opportunities for local people.
Over the last 6 years, ZBC has gone from strength to strength and despite its challenges, it is a fantastic example of a community based tourism and alternative livelihoods project. What differentiates it from some of the other projects I studied is that:
- it was created as a business – not set up by an NGO with finite resources and time;
- it’s not reliant on donor funding – the downfall of many CBT projects;
- it’s self-funded – via tourist admissions & pupae export;
- it’s sustainable – tropical butterflies only live for a maximum of 6 weeks, thus there will always be a demand for pupae (plus Zanzibar’s exoticism and proximity to the Tanzanian mainland is a draw for visitors);
- it’s replicable – butterfly farming has low set up costs and is a proven way to help communities out of poverty;
And most importantly it has one of the overarching success factors that many CBT projects lack – commercial viability.
Rosa Santilli completed her MSc in 2008