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Butterfly Farming: Giving them Wings

By Rachel MacNeill

How the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre is empowering rural farmers to build their own businesses.

As Federica Busiello maneuvers her battered 4x4 around the deep potholes and errant chickens ubiquitous on Zanzibar's interior roads, she reflects that this was the last place she thought she'd end up.

"I knew I wanted to work in development," she says in her lilting Italian accent. "But I had no clue about butterflies except what they taught us when we were kids."

Busiello, 26, is the project manager for the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre (ZBC), a co-op in the lush forest of the archipelago just off the east coast of Tanzania. On any given day she could be discussing the finer points of planting with Swahili farmers, networking with the island's tourism elite, or designing merchandise for the conservatory's new gift shop.

"Before farming butterflies, Figo's main source of income was chopping down trees and burning them to create charcoal—thankless work that is as bad for the environment as it is for the health of the labourers."

"I always wanted to work in development," says Busiello, who holds a Masters in Human Rights. "But getting jobs in developing countries is difficult if you don't have field experience." After three years of applying for field jobs in development, Busiello packed her bags and left Italy in 2011, determined to volunteer until she could find a paid position.

Finding a long-term position at the butterfly centre, she says, felt like kismet. Since March, Busiello has managed the six staff, one intern and 37 farmers that make up the centre. "It was scary," she remembers. "There are so many things you have to do, and you want to do them all in the first month. I had to learn to adapt to a different rhythm."

As a development initiative, the centre is unique on the island, combining business development, biodiversity conservation and ecotourism. "The end goal is income generation. But this combines conservation, which is really cool," she explains.

Based on the Amani Butterfly Project in northeastern Tanzania, which has been hailed regionally as a model for sustainable income support, the centre was co-founded by Ben Hayes, Alfred Massawe and Abass Mzee, who wanted to create safe, environmentally-friendly source of income for farmers. The process is simple: the centre helps farmers apply for microloans to purchase the eight-foot-high domed net, small catching nets and basic supplies and plants to set up their butterfly breeding cage. Guiding them in setup, the centre helps them determine which plants are suitable for egg-laying for the different breeds of butterflies they catch. When the caterpillars cocoon, the farmers sell the pupae back to the centre, which releases them in their tourist garden, or they are exported to zoos and exhibitions overseas.

Baracka, known as "Figo" (Zanzibaris have an affinity for nicknames), is a 23-year-old farmer whose been supporting his family through butterfly farming for four years. Before the Centre, his main source of income was chopping down trees and burning them to create charcoal—backbreaking, thankless work that is as bad for the environment as it is for the health of the labourers.

Figo is one of the centre's best suppliers, selling 1000 cocoons a month. As he checks the cage standing behind his small thatch hut, he explains that he is happy to have found butterfly farming. Through a translator (most of the centre's farmers speak no English, making them ineligible for most higher paying jobs on the island) he explains that while the proceeds from aren't enough to fully provide for his family, it makes up the bulk of his monthly income and is relatively stable, so he can look for other work on top of it.

For women, who make up less than one-third of the Zanzibar workforce, running butterfly farms can be an invaluable opportunity. Income generation is particularly challenging for women in rural Zanzibar, where there are fewer employment opportunities and traditional gender roles dictate that they're required to stay home and care for children. But since the butterfly farms can be run from home, more than half of ZBC's farmers are women.

However, on an island with vastly different high and low seasons, sustainability can still be quite a challenge. Throughout low season, the Centre had almost no visitors, but in July they had a record high of 500. Even greater is the challenge of operating as a for-profit business with development goals. The Centre isn't eligible for most international development funding and it's easy for potential donors to brush off the project as a tourist centre.

"It's hard to get the message out that the main aim is income generation," says Busiello. On the other hand, there are benefits to running as a business. "Using microloans and getting the farmers to pay them back themselves makes it more about us working together than just us helping them," she says.

While environmentalism is important to farmers like Figo, it is the Centre's quotidian quality of life improvements that really have an impact. One thing the Centre is looking into is improving the water access to the village. The island's rapidly growing tourism industry has diverted tons of water to luxury resorts, leaving interior villages with stagnant wells and a few taps that can go weeks without water.

Busiello is looking into ways to make that happen. Fundraising efforts will contribute to her research and feasibility studies of the project, but because they are not a registered NGO, funding won't be straightforward. A large portion of it may have to come from the Centre itself.

"There are a hundred different things that should all be done," Busiello laments. "But there's barely enough money to cover the costs of running through low season." A newly built traditional banda will be set up as a café in a few months, providing, she hopes, a boost to visitor income. In spite of these challenges, each new day brings some small amount of progress.

As for her future, Busiello hopes to stay with the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre and see it grow as an organization: "It'll be really hard to get a nine-to-five office job after this."

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