Taking the spice out of cloves?

Author:Jiwaji, Aameera
Position:COUNTRYFILE: Tanzania

Cloves were once worth more than gold and the native spice has been a mainstay of Zanzibar's economy for the last 150 years. But frustration is growing among farmers in the island and neighbouring Pemba about a battle between the public and private sector which is reducing their incomes and losing Tanzania its dominant position in the world market. Is government intervention a recipe for disaster, asks Aameera Jiwaji.

There's an anecdote about how Zanzibar's clove farmers prefer to hoard their harvest in their homes, hedging their bets for a time when local market prices will be more attractive.

It illustrates the high asset value of cloves in the local Tanzanian farming community--a narrative mirrored in history when cloves were worth more than gold, and European countries would go to war to ensure access to them--but it also speaks to a deep-seated frustration with government controls of the industry and farmers' reluctance to engage with the state apparatus.

Fortunately for them, dry cloves age well. But their dissatisfaction with the government peaked in the early 2000s, when they stopped protesting silently and instead set their clove trees on fire, sending a strong message about their unwillingness to play any longer.

It has been 14 years since then but the embers from the issue are still smouldering, and the high prices that Zanzibar's cloves secured in the international market at the end of 2014 only served to fan the flames.

Many years of discontent with the state apparatus explain why the black market for cloves flourishes on this East African island with the exotic spice being sold informally, and smuggled across the border to neighbouring Kenya. Such avenues earn farmers nearly double the price offered by the government monopoly, Zanzibar State Trading Corporation (ZSTC).

The situation seemed set to improve in the third quarter of 2014 when high international prices for cloves--which rose from $11,292.7 per tonne in August 2013 to $10,104.6 per tonne in August 2014--propped up Zanzibar's trade balances and saw the country export a record high of 5,600 tonnes of cloves, earning it $63.6m. It was a twofold increase in revenue from the previous year when it exported 2,100 tonnes and earned just $2i.im, as reported by the Bank of Tanzania's Monthly Economic Review for October 2014.

Tanzania's policy makers and technocrats were jubilant. They looked to the spice island with a renewed gleam in their eyes, reminded of its economic...

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