Why growing spices makes sense for Zim

Sifelani Tsiko recently in Zanzibar
A tour to Kizimbani Spice Farm in Ungunja, the main island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago in the Indian Ocean off Tanzania, provides a unique taste of Africa’s spice islands.

Zanzibar spice tours provide an intense, detailed and useful insight into the island’s rich botanical and cultural heritage, as well as its dark history as one of Africa’s main slave-trading ports.

I was lucky to have been one of African journalists who recently attended a two-day media briefing on “Climate Change in Africa: Impacts. Challenges. Opportunities”, that was organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE – India) and the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA – Kenya).

This gathering also offered me an opportunity to tour spice farms and other scenic areas of the island which are a major drawcard for tourists from all over the world.

But what sent my mind racing was the potential of growing spices here at home as a strategy of coping with climatic change as well as a livelihood option for the country’s smallholder farmers who bear the brunt of droughts and flooding.

Zanzibar’s spices, despite challenges, still hold much promise for smallholder farmers in terms of generating earnings for them and foreign currency for Tanzania.

The most important spices produced for the local and export markets on the Ungunja Island include shichimi, cloves, pepper, chillies, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, coriander, vanilla, garlic, lemongrass and red onions. On mainland Tanzania, cloves, pepper, cardamom and cinnamon are mainly produced in the Tanga, Morogoro and Mbeya regions.

The biggest export crop are cloves which are used to yield the highest quality oil, flavour and aroma, despite the fact that its production has slipped to less than 10 percent of the world market over the years.

The Bank of Tanzania’s Monthly Economic Review for October 2014 reported that the country exported a record high of 5 600 tonnes of cloves, earning it $63,6 million.

This was a two-fold increase in revenue from the previous year when it exported 2 100 tonnes and earned just $21,1 million.

Cloves have been a major foreign exchange earner in Zanzibar for the last 150 years and they continue to be the agricultural mainstay of the island. In 2013, cloves were still its single major cash crop with 90 percent produced on the island of Pemba, according to Unesco.

However, production figures have been declining over the years owing largely to poor quality controls, fluctuating international prices, poor support for farmers, smuggling and side marketing of spices.

The figures, even though outdated, demonstrate the crucial role of spices to the Zanzibar island.

Zimbabwe is spending millions of its precious foreign currency on spice imports.

It’s a sector which it can easily harness through the production of a wider variety of spices, which can create jobs, improve farmer livelihoods and generate foreign currency for the country just like tobacco is doing.

Spice production is still low and a neglected area of agriculture in Zimbabwe. The few farmers that do, produce herbs and spices from indigenous plants and exotic plants. Some of the spices grown include ginger, coriander, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne, parsley, thyme, sweet basil, black and white pepper and cumin.

Demand for spices is quite high given the expanding sales to restaurants, supermarkets and the hospitality industry. A big chunk of the spices are imported.

With proper support, training, quality controls, simple technology and investment, Zimbabwe can easily tap into the vast opportunities that exist in the spice industry.

The country can easily move to compete with other countries in Africa given its diverse agronomic conditions and hardworking farmers who aare eager to grow any crop that can enhance their earnings.

At present Zimbabwe only exports small quantities of pungent chillies and coriander to South Africa. Spice exports have largely been constrained by low volumes, deficiencies in quality and the unreliability of producers. The food industry requires large amounts of a wide variety of spices and other ingredients such as Acacia gum and other herbs.

Import substitution strategies are needed as well as a study to find out the opportunities, challenges and the agronomic areas that are suitable for the production of spices.

At present there is a substantial deficit in the production of spices and herbs in Zimbabwe despite the existence of a large market in South Africa.

South Africa still depends heavily on imports from outside the region for its spices and herbs.

Zimbabwe’s exports increased by 40 percent to $3,5 billion between January and November last year compared to $2,5 billion during the comparable period in 2016, according to official trade figures.

The country earned $827,4 million from 166,6 million kilogrammes of tobacco exported mainly to South Africa and China in 2017 while its exports in 2016 topped $933 million.

Sugar exports roughly constitute about 2,1 percent and cotton 0,9 percent of Zimbabwe’s exports.

Diversifying into herbs and spices makes a lot of sense given the volatility of global prices and the growing anti-– sugar and tobacco campaigns which are threatening the future of the country’s export earnings. Spices could easily add some few dollars into our foreign currency coffers.

Across the globe, the demand for organic products, be it food, beverages or even herbs and spices is at an all-time high.

Experts say that the worldwide market for organic spices and herbs will be successful in unleashing its maximum potential in the forthcoming years, one reason why Zimbabwe should move with speed to harness this sector.

Spice and herbs extracts have seen an upward demand in the African market due to continuous developments in the recipes and beverage flavours.

Economists say the African spice and herbs extracts market is expected to be driven by factors such as growing number of innovative product launches and consumers eating out, wide range of applications of spices and herbs extracts and rising preference for botanical flavours among consumers.

Despite positive prospects of the market in future, Zimbabwe and most other countries may have to address constraints such as inefficient processing techniques that lead to low yields and poor quality products, adulteration, lack of awareness in the global market for locally grown herbs and spices and availability of substitute products.

The herb and spice extract has a big growth potential.

According to a February 2018 report published by P&S Market Research, the seasonings and spices market is forecast to reach $30 billion by 2023, growing at an average of 6 percent from 2018-2023.

The researchers say the growth in the market will be driven by the increasing awareness on the health benefits of spices, the rising demand for ethnic cuisines, and the growing popularity of convenience foods.

Nutritionally conscious consumers are increasingly aware of the health benefits of spices and herbs as they seek to reduce the overload of food with sugar or salt, the major culprits for the rise in non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart diseases.

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