SUCCESS STORY: Loans for the future

Posted: 26 March 2004

Author: Peter Denton

Interest-free loans and savings societies are helping the fishers of Mafia Island Marine Park off the coast of Tanzania to become sustainable entrepreneurs, while reducing pressure on the park's natural resources and tackling poverty. Peter Denton reports.

16-year-old Hamidu Kimbao working on his fish farm, Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania. © WWF-Canon/Peter Denton
16-year-old Hamidu Kimbao working on his fish farm, Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania. © WWF-Canon/Peter Denton
16-year-old Hamidu Kimbao working on his fish farm, Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania.© WWF-Canon/Peter Denton

Hamidu Kimbao and his friend Nahoda are 16 years old. They live on the small island of Chole off the coast of Tanzania, and left school not long ago. They used to be like most teenagers on the island - with time on their hands and nothing to do. But a small loan has turned them into a new breed of sustainable entrepreneurs.

Less than a kilometre across, Chole Island is part of Tanzania's world-renowned Mafia Island Marine Park - a group of five islands whose coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangroves host some of the richest life on the east African coast. Marine turtles, humpback and sperm whales, 400 species of fish, a host of corals, sponges, molluscs, starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers, and even the occasional dugong all claim the waters as home. Some 15,000 people also call the islands home. Most people earn their living from harvesting coconuts and fishing the turquoise seas. Life here has an easy pace - where else can you find a tourist lodge called Pole Pole, which translates as "slowly, slowly"?

Protectin marine life

The islanders are well aware of their dependence on the sea's natural resources. Indeed, in the early 1990s they were so worried by illegal dynamite fishing, coral mining, and uncontrolled tourism developments that they asked for help to protect the marine environment. Together with the Tanzanian government, they worked with the conservation organisation, WWF, to create Mafia Island Marine Park, the country's first marine park, in 1995. Dynamite fishing has now been eliminated from the marine park and fish stocks are slowly recovering, however the area is still under tremendous pressure. Many of the islanders rely heavily on fishing for their food and income. With an ever-growing population, sooner or later something has got to give.

Mangroves fringing the tropical coastline of Mafia Island, Tanzania. © WWF-Canon/Edward Parker
Mangroves fringing the tropical coastline of Mafia Island, Tanzania. © WWF-Canon/Edward Parker
Mangroves fringing the tropical coastline of Mafia Island, Tanzania.© WWF-Canon/Edward Parker
"The biggest issue at the moment is probably the use of small-mesh seine nets," says Jason Rubens, who runs WWF's conservation support programme at the marine park. "These nets can have a mesh-size of just a quarter of an inch and they catch a lot of juvenile fish. Also they are weighted and dragged along the seabed, which damages fish habitats like corals and sea grasses. All this undermines the productivity of the fishing grounds." While the islanders agree this is a problem, changes in fishing practises cost money - which they don't have. In response, WWF stepped in, offering interest-free loans to the fishing groups to help them establish more sustainable fishing practices. The loans have already helped five fishing groups switch to more sustainable fishing gear, such as large-mesh nets or line-fishing. Some groups have bought small outboard engines so that they can head further out to sea where fish stocks are less exploited.

Savings and loans

To help the fishermen maintain their new equipment, WWF is also supporting separate village-based savings and loan societies. As a precondition of any loan, borrowers have to show that they can save; then they can borrow twice that amount to repair a boat engine or buy new gear, for example.

"The system is working quite well so far. Most fishers here don't have any experience of owning and maintaining capital assets like fishing gear. The project's aim is to help them develop skills to plan and manage their finances as if they were running a small business - which, of course, they are," Jason explains. "We've established savings societies in 10 villages. Although the sums involved are relatively modest by outside standards, they do the job and many people here are keen to get involved." None more so than Hamidu and Nahoda. The two boys were selected by their elders and neighbours as being sensible, serious, and keen to do well. Through one of the loans, they've set up a trial fish-farm using two simple 4x4m cages. Here they are nurturing 1,000 fish which they feed on a basic diet of marine algae. For now, the boys are paid a nominal daily allowance of 2,000 shillings (US$2) between them to maintain the cages while they wait for their stock to mature. "Then we'll sell the fish outside the island, perhaps to Dar es Salaam," says Hamidu. Dar, Tanzania's biggest city, is just 120km from Mafia, across the water. All being well, the boys' first harvest will weigh around 250kg and could net them about 125,000 shillings (US$125). "That's three or four months income for an average fisherman, and better than young lads like this would normally be able to earn," says Jason. "Bearing in mind that the fish take at least 8 months to mature, it's not yet a living at this small scale, but is enough to demonstrate the possibilities."

Harvesting seaweed

Other people in the marine park are also starting new businesses.

Seaweed harvesting, one of Mafia Island Marine Park's sustainable industries, Tanzania. © WWF-Canon/Peter Denton
Seaweed harvesting, one of Mafia Island Marine Park's sustainable industries, Tanzania. © WWF-Canon/Peter Denton
Seaweed harvesting, one of Mafia Island Marine Park's sustainable industries, Tanzania.© WWF-Canon/Peter Denton
Not far from the boys' cage, a group of women is harvesting seaweed from a "farm" set in the waters just below the low tide. The seaweed is processed in Europe to make a natural thickener called carrageenan, used in a range of products from toothpaste to ice-cream. Half a kilometre further on, Mohammed, Hamisi, and Fadhila are working on their fence traps, the fruits of another WWF-supported loan, where they catch small barracuda and mangrove snapper for the local market. WWF and the marine park are also investigating the feasibility of starting a pearl oyster project, and have already started collecting oyster larvae. "If it works, it could be more lucrative for the locals than fishing," says Jason. "Pearl culture is well established in the western Pacific, and there is a little in India, but no-one else is doing it in the Indian Ocean. The value is in the colour of the pearl. If it's yellow, it's pretty worthless. But the mother-of-pearl inside the shells of some of the black-lip pearl oysters we've found here has a bronze colour. If this can be translated into a string of pearls, they could be very marketable." Although the loans project has got off to a good start, it's still a daunting and long-term task to provide sustainable livelihood options to everyone. "But this is the only way to achieve conservation goals," says Jason. "This wonderful complex of mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass beds, fish, and endangered species will only be protected in the long run by the 15,000 people who live here, not by WWF and not even by the government." However, with goodwill all round, Jason is confident that success will come. "Pole pole, of course..." Peter Denton is Principal Editor at WWF-UK

Source: WWF Features. Reproduced with kind permission.

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