Zanzibar Loses Some of Its Spice

Times Staff Writer

It’s springtime on this green, hilly island, and the pungent, sweet smell of cloves spices the air.

Zaharan Salim’s father, who crossed the turquoise water from Oman to settle here nearly 100 years ago, taught him as a boy that the annual bouquet signaled harvest time. His father planted a small grove of clove trees to support the family, and Salim expanded the plantation into one of Pemba’s largest, with more than 2,000 of the tall evergreens sprouting from the fertile soil.

But it’s unclear whether the family business will last into a third generation. The groves are thinning from neglect. None of his children is interested in taking over. And even Salim, 75, is turning his attention to more lucrative crops. “There’s more profit in coconuts,” the graying patriarch said.


Production of cloves, the last viable spice of the renowned “Spice Island,” is slowly declining on the archipelago that once dominated the world trade.

Cloves are touted as a cure for a variety of ills, including bad breath, premature ejaculation and toothaches. In the United States, where they flavor pumpkin pie and apple cider, they are evocative of autumn.

In Zanzibar and its sister island, Pemba, the little buds are big business. But annual clove sales here have plummeted by 80% since the 1970s. The semi-autonomous islands, which merged with mainland Tanganyika in 1964 to form Tanzania, were once the world’s largest producers of cloves, but now rank a distant third in a market dominated by Indonesia, which supplies 75%, compared with Zanzibar’s 7%.

More worrisome, the groves and forests that once blanketed the islands are disappearing, declining from more than 5 million trees in the 1960s to an estimated 1.6 million today. Many died in droughts or have been torched for charcoal, with little effort made to replace them.

“In years to come, some worry the clove industry could be history,” said Abubakar Mohammed Ali, executive director of the recently formed Zanzibar Clove Producers Organization.

Zanzibar’s clove industry has been crippled by a fast-moving global market, international competition and a hangover from Tanzania’s failed experiment with socialism in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the government controlled clove prices and exports.


Although other crops, such as coconuts, coffee, peppers and seaweed, have benefited from recent free-market changes, the government has kept a tight rein on cloves, Zanzibar’s only cash crop, which accounts for 70% of the island’s foreign exchange earnings.

Most of the island’s exports go to Indonesia, where they are mixed and resold to countries such as India and China. Because of the particularly strong aroma of Zanzibar’s crop, it is a favorite for making clove-flavored cigarettes destined for Asia.

Private farmers own most of the trees, but harvests must be sold to the state-owned Zanzibar State Trading Corp. at a government-set price.

Farmers complain that the price is often so low that they can barely make a profit or cover the costs of harvesting, which is still done by climbing trees and hand-picking the buds.

“The price is not fair,” said Salim Mohammed, 40, sitting on his porch and sorting out stems and leaves from a pile of freshly picked cloves. “I wish I could sell this myself, but the government always has the last word on price.” At the current price of $2.30 per kilo, Mohammed said, he would earn barely enough this season to support his family for the next two months.

Government officials blame a worldwide slump and say they base their offer on market rates, which are about $2.60 to $3 a kilo.


But smugglers, chiefly from neighboring Kenya, have found opportunity in the dissatisfaction with the system. They make furtive nighttime visits to farmers, offering prices that are sometimes twice the government rate. Before sunrise, they quietly sail away in wooden dhows loaded with black-market cloves.

Two years ago, black-market buyers paid $6 per kilo compared with the government-set price of $3.50.

Government police try to crack down on the illegal trade, but farmers say they have no choice but to take the risk. “Selling to the smugglers enables me to feed my family,” said Omar Hamad, 65. This season he hasn’t seen any smugglers, which leads him to assume that the black-market prices have also dropped.

Some political leaders on the island are calling for quick action to privatize the clove industry.

“This system has been very exploitive of farmers,” said Seif Sharif Hamad, leader of the opposition party Civic United Front. “We have to revive the clove industry. It’s a symbol of Zanzibar.”

Despite that reputation, neither Zanzibar’s cloves nor other food crops are native to the island. The first clove trees arrived in 1818 with Arab traders from Mauritius, which got its seedlings from Indonesia. But the industry quickly took off thanks to the rich soil and tropical weather. Next to the booming slave and ivory trades, cloves and other spices were the island’s biggest money-maker in the 19th century, when Zanzibar served as the doorway to exploration for much of East and Central Africa.


A string of Arab sultans who ruled the islands during this period not only encouraged the development of clove plantations, they threatened to confiscate land from anyone who didn’t cultivate the spice.

Most landowners relied on forced African labor until slavery was abolished in 1897. Arab immigrants from Oman continued to dominate the industry, which helped pay for the construction of the elaborate palaces and government buildings in Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town.

After Zanzibar’s 1964 coup, African nationalists turned their anger against Arabs, killing hundreds and forcing thousands to flee to neighboring Pemba, which today has about 80% of the archipelago’s clove trees.

Eager to revitalize the island’s clove trade, government officials have vowed to move toward privatization. But little action has been taken and officials express concern that introducing a free market too quickly might endanger the industry.

“Private business people only look for profits,” said Suleiman Jongo, the state-owned trading company’s marketing manager. “They will abandon cloves if the prices go down. We can’t let that happen. Zanzibar has no other commodity to depend upon.”

Jongo said the government-run system protects farmers by guaranteeing them a buyer for their product, even amid worldwide slumps caused by oversupply. But farmers criticize the state-run company for refusing to disclose its profit, fueling rumors of skimming and kickbacks.


The producers association agrees that the country should move cautiously toward privatization, which Ali said probably would hurt small farmers and lead to market domination by the largest plantation owners.

“Jungle law would prevail,” said Ali, a second-generation farmer whose father died after falling from a tree during harvest.

Instead, the group wants a phased approach that would maintain a government role but permit some farmers to export directly.

“The clove industry is the backbone of Zanzibar,” he said. “We have to make sure it is [saved] for everyone.”



Island spice

Cloves are the unopened flower buds of the evergeen myrtaceous tree; they get their name from the Latin word clavus, meaning nail. More on cloves:

Description: About a half-inch long with a tapered stem and crown-shaped head; pink when fresh, they turn brown after picked


Origin: Native to the North Moluccas, the Spice Islands of Indonesia; now cultivated in several locations including Zanzibar and its companion island, Pemba

In cooking: Used to stud hams and other pork, brighten the flavor of some wild game and in various spice mixes

Medicinal background: Clove oil is a strong antiseptic; has been used to treat nausea, indigestion and as a local anesthetic for toothaches but is little used today

History: There are Chinese references from as early as 400 BC


Sources: Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, UCLA; Encyclopedia of Spices.


Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken